Jonathan Wilkins investigates what happened to the electric car and why the technology has not proven as successful as expected
This may surprise you, but did you know the electric car is n'ot a recent development? The idea has been around for over a century and has an interesting history of development. The early electric vehicles (EVs), such as Wood's Phaeton, were little more than electrified horseless carriages. The Phaeton itself had a range of 18 miles and a top speed of 14 miles per hour.
The sale of electric cars was set to skyrocket in 2008, with UK Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown suggesting that by 2020 all new cars sold in the UK would be electric or hybrid vehicles. With four years to go before the deadline, it's unlikely that Brown's prediction will come true. So, what went wrong with the electric vehicles market?
A recent study by scientists found that in some circumstances, electric cars can have a greater impact on global warming than conventional vehicles. The study looked at the global warming impact of the production and operation of electric cars, driven for 150,000km, compared with the production and operation of conventional cars. One of the findings was that the energy intensive manufacturing of electric cars meant some vehicles had almost double the impact on global warming as conventional cars, because of the amount of raw materials and energy needed to build the lithium-ion batteries.
The size of the environmental footprint of electric cars also depends on which power sources are used to fuel the electric vehicle. In geographical locations that have higher levels of renewable energy powering the grid, charging an electric vehicle is less harmful. However, if the electricity is made from burning fossil fuels, emissions are still being released, but at the point of electricity generation. So really, without significantly increasing the amount of renewable energy that goes into the grid, the prospect of a wider use of electric cars isn’t as eco-friendly as it may seem at first.
One of the assumptions made when purchasing a vehicle is that it can take us almost anywhere we want to go. With a conventional car, all you need is a petrol station every 300 to 400 miles and a few minutes to fill up the tank. With an electric vehicle, the battery needs to be charged after as little as 100 miles and the recharging process takes much longer.
Traditionally, battery charging takes hours, although Tesla is currently working on much faster charging solutions. Another possible alternative is battery exchanging. This would allow drivers to drop off an empty battery and replace it with a full one in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, programmes such as this could only exist through government funding; therefore it would take a long time to propagate. Until an alternative is put in place, motorists that regularly drive long distances will probably avoid buying an electric vehicle.
Another setback for electric vehicles is the weight of the battery. Because EV batteries need to be more powerful than conventional car batteries, they need to be linked together into arrays, or battery packs, to provide additional power. As an example, the lithium-ion battery pack in a Tesla Roadster weighs around 450 kilograms, which greatly reduces the car's distance range.
Lightening the vehicle structure by using lightweight fabrics and plastics versus leather and metal trim can counteract the battery weight, but it may reduce the quality of the car and its structural rigidity.
Despite these setbacks, the number of electric cars on the roads has been doubling or tripling for the past five years. As it stands, electric cars represent just one per cent of the automobile market, but the growth trend is similar to that of other disruptive technologies such as laptops, smartphones and digital cameras. As technology evolves, long charging time, low range and battery weight are certainly becoming less of an issue for the electric vehicles market. Perhaps with a few more years of research and development, this technology will take off as expected.
Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director of obsolete components supplier, EU Automation.