Reports of the death of the electric car have surfaced yet again. Why is this, and has the demise of the electric car been greatly exaggerated?

In my last post, UK unplugged as EU leads the charge, I mused upon how the Coalition Government’s attitude to a low carbon mobility infrastructure seemed to contradict that of an EU which had decided to take the ‘chicken-and-egg’ infrastructure conundrum by the scruff of the neck and actually make a decision to facilitate the roll-out of alternatively fuelled vehicles, be they electric or hydrogen (H2). One projection within the EU’s Low Emission Fuels Strategy was that of 1.5 million electric vehicles (EVs) on UK roads by 2020, figures which, judging by the Coalition Government’s attitude to joined-up low carbon automobility, would seem ambitious to say the least.

However, while the Coalition Government has made no comment regarding the 1.5 million EVs posited by the EU, it has this week seen fit to announce the results of a study by a government-industry body called UKH2Mobility, which plans to have 1.6 million hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) on UK roads by 2030. In what appears to be a ‘bad news’ week for EVs, the UKH2Mobility announcement – together with their own experiences – prompted Autocar to suggest that the end is nigh for battery-powered EVs although some, such as former motor industry executive Bob Lutz, disagree. Other reports have also declared the demise of the electric car, including this widely-quoted one on the Reuters website, which denounced EVs as a ‘dead end’, citing high purchase price, limited range and poor infrastructure leading to a lack of sales – hoary old chestnuts all but, at the same time, very real issues for potential EV buyers.

The hydrogen-powered Honda FCX Clarity - car of the future? (Picture source: author's photograph)

The hydrogen-powered Honda FCX Clarity of 2010 – car of the future. Possibly. (Picture source: author’s photograph)

But is it that people just don’t want EVs? Vehicle trials – and my early research – suggest that people who have tried EVs like them, and there are surely reasons why EVs haven’t been a rip-roaring sales success. For example, the state of the economy has meant that this is not a great time to launch an emergent technology, especially in a ‘big-ticket’ item like a car. Not only that but, as mentioned above, the EU has only recently taken steps to standardise and facilitate the roll-out of a recharging infrastructure and, as far as the battery range is concerned, technology belatedly continues apace. I say belatedly, as the Reuters article cited above leads perhaps disingenuously with the suggestion that the electric car still doesn’t pass muster “… after more than 100 years of development…” when surely battery technology as a means to power vehicles has only been pursued with any real vigour more recently, after almost 100 years ‘locked’ into internal-combustion-engine (ICE) technology. I often wonder where battery technology would actually have been ‘after more than 100 years of development’, had it been developed at the same pace as the internal combustion engine.

Another problem that has faced EVs is the way that they’ve been promoted. Mechanically different to ICEs, they offer a different driving experience and, as such, offer a different way of performing automobility. For example, the torque characteristics of their electric motors result in performance that is instantaneous, smooth, more usable and more efficient more of the time; driving an EV can be fun, especially at lower speeds. Battery capacity can diminish over time, true, but how many motorists realise that the power and efficiency of conventional ICEs decreases over time too? Add an inherent lack of noise, and the nature of the driving experience means that there’s more to EVs than hair-shirts and planet-saving, but you’d never guess it from the way they’ve been promoted.

So with cost, range, convenience and image problems, and with UK Government impetus seemingly behind the ‘new’ FCEV kid in town, it would appear – as many are suggesting – that it’s game over EVs. Or is it?

Are EVs like the Renault Fluence conceptually rooted in the 19th century? (Picture source: author's photograph)

Are EVs like the Renault Fluence conceptually rooted in the 19th century? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Reducing emissions from transport will require a suite of technologies, and both EVs and FCEVs have their part to play. However, because EVs such as the Nissan Leaf and the Renault Fluence appear to afford a compromised way of pursuing an established mode or regime of automobility, I’m not sure that the future of EVs lies in ‘conventional’ cars such as those. Instead, it could be that the future of EVs lies in more urban-focussed vehicles offering a new mode of automobility.

On an edition of the BBC’s technology news magazine programme ‘Click’ in 2010, Sir Clive Sinclair noted how the practice of employing battery technology within a conventional automotive architecture was all very 19th century, a mindset redolent of the horseless carriages of the early days of motoring, and suggested that electric vehicles should instead represent an opportunity for revolutionary design and engineering.

Vehicles like the Renault Twizy – and concepts such as the Opel RAKe – are different propositions to more conventional cars. If promoted as vehicles which are different and fun, they’d surely be a more desirable proposition for early EV adopters and younger consumers alike and, while not costing the earth, would perhaps have more than mere utility factored into their purchase price by consumers. In addition, as urban-focussed vehicles, they would be ideally placed to make use of an existing recharging infrastructure which, in turn, may be easier to expand if limited to more urban settings rather than electric ‘superhighways’. After all, how many miles do many ‘second cars’ travel?

The Opel RAKe concept from 2011 - a better battery EV? (Picture source: author's photograph)

The Opel RAKe concept from 2011 – a better battery EV? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Because of both their size and the role that they are intended to fulfil, cars like the Nissan Leaf and the Renault Fluence would perhaps be more suited to hydrogen fuel cell technology than their current (badum tish!) battery technology, at least until battery and/or materials technology improves. However, in the midst of the hydrogen hype, let’s not forget that the challenges facing a hydrogen-powered automobility are similar to those faced by a nascent electrically-powered automobility. As is the case with contemporary EVs, FCEVs will be expensive to buy compared to conventional ICE cars, especially at first. There is no hydrogen refuelling infrastructure in place as yet and, as is the case with recharging EV batteries, the hydrogen used by FCEVs will only be as ‘green’ as the mode of electricity generation that produces it. And, all the while, the efficiency of ICEs has massively improved in the last decade or so, and will no doubt continue to do so.

Despite these caveats, I get the feeling that the Coalition Government appears more than upbeat about FCEVs, as if the many technical hurdles of hydrogen propulsion in cars have been addressed, and are content to speculate as to the number of vehicles and the size of infrastructure. Nevertheless, the announcement of the pursuit of FCEVs at least smacks of certainty, which is more than can be said of other recent Coalition Government announcements regarding low carbon technologies pertaining not only to transport, but energy too, and this can only aid investment.

Adopting battery-electrically powered urban vehicles in tandem with hydrogen fuel cell powered larger vehicles is one of several ways we can pursue a low carbon automobility in the future. Although FCEVs have been ‘five years away’ for some time now, this time they really may only be ‘five years away’. Possibly. Conversely, EV technology and infrastructure is here now and can be developed yet further though, admittedly, it needs to be. However, one thing that is clear is that the electric car, in one form or another, is key to future automobility.

The EV is dead. Long live the EV.