Insistence Electric Cars Must Win Risks Wasting Valuable ICE Technology.
“In other words, the future is eclectic”
Governments declaring they know best and nominating electric cars alone to lead the race to be green are in danger of wasting valuable and proven resources provided by internal combustion engines (ICE) linked to batteries, and hybrid technology is the fastest way to reduce global carbon dioxide (CO2).
Claims that battery cars are emission-free are false, and although when partnered with renewable energy they have a clear advantage over hybrids, the overall win often isn’t that great.
That’s some of the conclusions of the book “Racing Toward Zero – The Untold Story of Driving Green” written by engineers Kelly Senecal of the U.S. and Felix Leach of the U.K., published by SAE International.
Hybrids, which use small batteries (compared with the huge electric-only car batteries) avoid the risk of consuming huge quantities of scarce and likely ever more expensive commodities like lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper and can offer an affordable option. If battery-only electric cars, thanks to artificial demand from government subsidies, come to dominate the market, this is likely to price average earners out of their cars and on to the bus.
As the UN’s Climate Change Conference, COP 26, continues in Glasgow, Scotland, the message from politicians, environmental groups and the media seems to be an almost hysterical desire to “do something” in general and kill the ICE car in particular. Britain has already decreed the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars must end by 2030. The EU is planning something similar by 2035 although no decision has been taken yet. Germany, with its government currently in after-election limbo as political parties negotiate for power, might well find itself in the same position as the U.K. The U.S. has called for 50% of its auto market to be powered by BEVs, plug-in hybrids or fuel cells by 2030.
Given the fact gasoline and diesel engines in current cars and SUVs are anything but dirty, Senecal and Leach say it would be foolish to end their role prematurely. These vehicles don’t emit much in the way of noxious gases and CO2 is impossible to avoid but claims that electric cars are “zero emission” are way off the mark.
Not ready for prime time
Electric cars aren’t ready for prime time, yet. Fully electric and hybrid electric make sense in many scenarios but concentrating only on battery electric vehicles risks squandering a valuable asset that has been around for more than 100 years and isn’t ready for the scrap heap.
“The electric vehicle is not ready. And it can’t and shouldn’t have to fight this battle alone. In fact, one of the most immediate ways to go green is by improving the ICE,” the authors say.
“And my message isn’t pro-ICE per se; its pro-diversity. Eclectic. I’m a firm believer we must explore all technologies, not one or the other, not “us versus them”,” Senecal said.
Co-author Leach puts it this way.
“I believe that we must quickly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and we have a variety of tools and technologies at our disposal to do so. If we wait for an all-hydrogen or all battery future with 100% renewable electricity, I fear we will be too late,” Leach said.
ICE engines still have plenty of scope for improvement in efficiency. And there are carbon-neutral fuels, biofuels and synthetic fuels.
“A move away from tailpipe CO2 emissions legislation and towards life-cycle analysis will be key for carbon-neutral fuels. On a tailpipe basis, they still emit a lot of CO2; on a lifecycle basis they have the potential to be CO2 neutral and sustainable. Unfortunately, the ICE isn’t getting a fair shake. With regulations focused on exhaust emissions only, it can’t compete with alternative technologies that don’t have tailpipes.”
The authors call for more Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) which would include emissions associated with the generation of electricity that powers BEVs. Current rules fail to acknowledge that a substantial proportion of emissions is generated during production. There are also particulates generated by braking and the generally much heavier BEVs induce more tire-wear. The adoption of LCA would allow a more intelligent technology neutral approach allowing different choices to trade-off advantages and disadvantages, without compromising on climate protection contributions.
“In other words, the future is eclectic,” Senecal says.
After using a range of LCA methods, the authors find BEVs on average emit around 20 to 50% less CO2 on a life-cycle basis than today’s conventional ICE vehicles using an average electricity mix.
No average BEV
“However, there is no such thing as an average person, and there’s also no such thing as an average BEV – the disparities in CO2 emissions depending on use and location are vast. It’s also important to note that all of these studies show that BEVs are simply not zero emission vehicles. The average CO2 savings of BEVs also does not take into account future advances to propulsion technology. Finally, the studies tend to agree that hybrids offer many of the same benefits as BEVs at lower cost, and in some markets, even produce lower emissions than BEVs, on both counts due to their smaller batteries,” the authors say.
“Any policy or government intervention that dictates one particular solution is unlikely to result in the lowest CO2 emissions or the least harm to humans overall. As such, we strongly advocate for using different vehicle technologies for different applications and locations,” they said.
“Hybrids are the fastest way to decarbonization given the likely limited supply of batteries over the next decade, the rapid developments in hybrid technology, and the ICE improvements that are already entering production,” they said.
In areas that rely largely on coal and natural gas for electricity production, hybrids may be the best overall choice. (Germany, for example, uses coal to generate more than 20% of its electricity). In a highly renewables-based electrical grid, BEVs may be the best solution, at least from a climate standpoint. Despite these nuanced findings, governments have already chosen BEVs as the winner. This might be the right call long-term, but not necessarily.
Current electric vehicles perform well in short-range, average urban roles, but fall down on longer journeys.
“For the average journey it’s ideal, but for that one-off long journey it needs a huge battery-pack, with all the associated embedded CO2, which is than carried around on all of the short journeys as well. This not only makes the vehicle more expensive, but also heavier, less energy efficient, and a greater offender of emitting non-exhaust particulate matter. A PHEV might theoretically be the best solution, but this too depends heavily on consumer behaviour,” they said.
(Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) can be charged independently and have an electric-only range of around 30 miles, although latest iterations can offer 50 independent miles or more. Overall range can be at least 400 miles. Self-charging hybrids use batteries which liaise with the ICE engine to maximize its efficiency. Electric-only range is probably less than 1 mile).
The authors make a powerful case that it is premature to write-off the benefits of ICE engineering in favor of an unnecessary and perhaps counter-productive search for perfection. French philosopher Voltaire almost said “don’t let the search for perfection stand in the way of a terrific solution”. The authors support for plug-in hybrids and self-charging ones is ridiculed by green advocates like Brussels-based Transport & Environment who can’t get past the idea that some company car drivers of PHEVs might abuse the system and fail to use the technology properly because they don’t pay for the fuel and have no incentive to economize. But that means a perfectly acceptable interim solution will be trashed unnecessarily.
My own preference reckons European manufacturers are heading down a cul-de-sac with their failed quest to make electric cars as good as current ICE ones. This takes monster batteries accounting for masses of CO2 which surely undermines the point of the exercise in the first place. The manufacturers need to lower their technical ambitions and embrace utility. The sub €10,000 little city car, with 100 miles of range and a top speed of 60 mph, would be ideal for commuting, the school run and shopping and would really accomplish maybe 90% of the needed capacity. Think of a golf-cart on steroids. Instead of unaffordable electric would-be ICE cars which only sell with massive tax-payer funded subsidies this theoretical little car would be embraced by buyers on average salaries. You can always rent a plug-in hybrid for the summer race to the sun. Or keep one locked in the garage for 11 months of the year.