Batteries versus Burners

Motorists and car enthusiasts are currently watching the most exciting motoring renaissance in recent memory unfold before them – the development away from classic powertrains to new, alternative drive systems. But are these new alternatives more environmentally friendly? And will we really wave goodbye to the combustion engine?

Photo: Michael Stach

Photo: Michael Stach

Five years have passed since the motoring world celebrated the car’s 125th jubilee in 2011. Experts are in agreement that it was in 1886 that the automobile was born – the year in which Carl Benz’ motorcar first took to the streets. Powered by a water cooled single-cylinder four-stroke engine, its choice of drive seems very familiar, save for the fact that modern mainstream cars now feature a four-cylinder system. For whilst the car has changed fundamentally over the last 130 years, the underlying principles beneath the bonnet have remained remarkably constant. Now, however, this fact may be set to change as we witness the dawning of a new era in mobility. More and more different battery-powered electric models are creeping into manufacturers’ portfolios, with some even offering hydrogen-powered runabouts! All around the world, experts are discussing whether classic petrol and diesel combustion engines will still have a place in the future.

Clean Strategy: By the time of the Olympics in 2020, Tokyo plans to have built a ‘Hydrogen Highway’Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Clean Strategy: By the time of the Olympics in 2020, Tokyo plans to have built a ‘Hydrogen Highway’Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

But first, let’s clear up one common misconception: whilst the electric car is a novelty for the modern consumer, the concept itself is not new at all. As far back as the early 19th century, there was a similar battle of drive concepts, and electric cars even took an early lead. Ultimately, their reliance on big, heavy lead-acid batteries proved their downfall. The drawbacks were the same as those cited of today’s battery powered cars: their limited ranges, coupled with long charging times rendered the cars unfit for seamless day-to-day usage. Naturally, efforts were made to address these shortcomings – battery exchange stations opened in New York, as car historian Gijs Mom points out. The appeal of electric cars in the early 19th century is understandable, as combustion-engined cars of the time rarely featured electric starter motors and therefore required laborious cranking to start. Electric vehicles’ attractiveness was more pronounced in urban areas, where the limited range proved less of an issue.

The same can be said today. The day-to-day shortcomings of most modern electric cars result from the one-two hit of limited battery capacity and long recharging cycles. Even so-called fast charging technology requires the car to be plugged in for at least half an hour. Despite intense research and development efforts, no marketable electricity storage system can yet rival the energy density of chemical fuels.

Strict Regulations

So why is everybody so hyped up about electric vehicles? Well, the reasons are as diverse as they are numerous. The jury is out as to whether our realization of the finite quality of global oil reserves prompted this revival of the electric car. One thing is for certain: it is nigh-on impossible to predict when the end of the ‘oil age’ will come – there are simply too many external factors to consider. Modern mobility technology is constantly improving, yet global demand is increasing too. Consider the Chinese car market, which will continue to grow with vigor for years to come. Despite this, fossil fuels won’t be exhausted any time soon, which goes some way to explain stagnant oil prices.

Localized emissions are another big issue. Whilst Germany is fortunate enough to not have to struggle with smog-polluted megacities, the city of Stuttgart repeatedly demonstrates the issues posed by particulate matter pollution. The Baden-Württemberg capital has announced willingness to consider driving bans as a last resort to bring high pollution levels into check. Nitrogen oxide – produced both by industry and traf- fic – promotes the formation of ozone, which can cause respiratory issues.

Bad Air: Smog presents a daily challenge for residents of Los Angeles. Photo: Mike Abrahams/Alamy Stock Photo

Bad Air: Smog presents a daily challenge for residents of Los Angeles. Photo: Mike Abrahams/Alamy Stock Photo

Air pollution alone won’t compel the automobile industry to ramp up efforts to sell more electric cars. The strict regulation of CO2 emissions is a major factor and looks set to stay; repealing emissions legislature would unleash too much political backlash. Europe’s 2021 goal of reducing the average emissions of the continent’s car stock down to 95g of CO2 per kilometer merely marks the beginning. Even the USA – a country known for its love affair with throaty V8s – has introduced policies to cap emissions at ‘acceptable’ levels. The year 2025 will see an emissions limit of 90g of CO2 per kilometer enforced. At last year’s UN Climate Conference in Paris, Germany joined the so-called Zero Emission Vehicle Alliance, whose goal is to stop sales of all vehicles with combustion engines by 2050. It’s a noble goal, yet its effectiveness in protecting the environment is questionable. With the current electricity mix, even electric cars would not be regarded as environmentally friendly. According to the World Energy Council, we continue to generate more than two thirds of our electricity from fossil fuels. Should energy be generated from a modern, coal-burning steam power station, which typically boasts an efficiency level of under 50% and churn out masses of CO2, then the fact that electric motors are almost 100% efficient is of little significance. Furthermore, there are dramatic differences in the electricity mix around the globe. Countries such as China and India are actively increasing their reliability on coal, whilst Germany’s goal of abandoning its nuclear energy program will force the country to depend on coal power for many years.

“The car of the future will be electric, and run free of emissions.”

Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. Photo: Daimler

Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. Photo: Daimler

Support for Electric Mobility

Irrespective of this, development continues to progress – after all, there is much to be done to ensure the breakthrough of the electric car. Ranges must be extended considerably, whilst charging times need to be shortened dramatically. According to data from the German Federal Office of Economics and Export Control, there have been around 1,800 applications for the government’s 4,000 € subsidy, provided to those purchasing an electric car up to 60,000 € in value. In 2015, electric cars made up 0.3% of all new cars registered. There is work to be done to realize Germany’s target of having a million electric cars on the road by 2020.

Norway – Europe’s trailblazer in terms of electric car penetration – has had great success with its incentive measures, with almost 20% of the market held by electric cars. The Scandinavian nation taxes conventional cars far more vigorously. This means that the relief afforded by purchasing an electric car is far more pronounced than in Germany. Volkswagen fans in Oslo can save up to 9,000 € by opting for the Electric Golf rather than its combustion-engined brother. There are several other benefits too, such as the right to drive in bus lanes, complimentary usage of public charging stations and free parking. Of course, the hassle-free usage of bus lanes for flitting around the city will only work for as long as electric cars remain in the minority. Otherwise, congestion would begin forming on the special lanes, defeating their very purpose. Approximately 9,000 charging bays service Norway’s population of 5.5 million, whilst Germany’s 81.8 million make do with 15,000. The systemic drawbacks of electric cars naturally present challenges for the Scandinavians too, yet it is worth noting that their energy is 95% hydroelectrically generated.

Free Parking and a Recharge: Norway is the no. 1 country for electric car penetration for a reason. Photo: Ilja C. Hendel/Laif

Free Parking and a Recharge: Norway is the no. 1 country for electric car penetration for a reason. Photo: Ilja C. Hendel/Laif

The battery-powered car isn’t the only electric alternative that engineers are working on. Another popular solution is the hydrogen fuel cell, which sidesteps both the range and charging issues of batteries. Cars can fill up with hydrogen in a matter of minutes, in much the same way we are used to with conventional chemical fuels. However, both the range of models and number of fuel stations stocking hydrogen are limited. As of January 2016, there were less than 40 hydrogen fuel pumps across Germany. Europe as a whole hosts 95, the USA a mere 50. Japan offers just over 100 such stations. The Japanese are very ambitious when it comes to hydrogen. By 2030, they intend to bring that number up to 5,000 stations. According to H2 mobility, 400 hydrogen fuel stations are scheduled to open in Germany by 2023.

The fact of the matter is that battery-powered cars are far less complex in their construction than those powered by hydrogen fuel cell. In addition to the highly complicated fuel cell itself, a tank capable of withstanding high pressures is required. Carbon fiber reinforced plastic is used for this purpose. If scientists were to suddenly discover a battery technology with considerably higher energy density than the current lithium ion affairs, the fuel cell would be in for a difficult time. Who knows what feats batteries of the future will be able to perform – researchers are constantly working on making new technologies a reality. One can already say with a reasonable degree of certainty that the lithium ion batteries currently in use will not be the last battery technology we see. If we take claims by car manufacturers at face value, the effective ranges of electric vehicles could exceed 500 kilometers in the near future.

The nationwide installation of electrolysis plants for the generation of hydrogen would go some way to ‘clean up’ Germany’s energy production. A lack of quickly chargeable batteries means we are currently unable to store excess energy, such as that generated by wind turbines during high winds. Hydrogen could provide an answer, as it can be produced immediately and stored in unlimited amounts. The long and short of it all is that electric cars are only environmentally friendly when the electricity that they use is generated in a sustainable manner.

Bridging Technology

In addition to battery and fuel cell powered vehicles, plug-in hybrids are another alternative in eliminating traffic emissions in urban areas. On balance, they do not perform too well; they are both heavy and complicated to build, requiring the installation of both a combustion engine and electric motor. Over longer distances, they consume petrol or diesel too, just like conventional cars. Most experts view them as nothing more than a bridging technology to aid manufacturers in their compliance with CO2 limit regulations.

Big Plans: Tesla’s Gigafactory, which is to begin production in 2017. Photo: dpa Picture Alliance

Big Plans: Tesla’s Gigafactory, which is to begin production in 2017. Photo: dpa Picture Alliance

There are a great many more hurdles to overcome, but the drive technology revolution is upon us and cannot be stopped. Environmental and economic concerns have led many countries to name the year from which they will stop issuing registrations to vehicles with combustion engines. Megacities, slowly choking on smog, must do something to protect the health of their residents. Manufacturers must therefore develop cars with alternative drivetrains in order to comply with the ever – stricter CO 2 limits of the future. Battery prices will fall further thanks to economies of scale, and the Big Plans Tesla’s Gigafactory, which is to begin production in 2017 construction of new mega -factories for batteries. New players such as Tesla, Google and Apple have sensed the opportunity to supplant established market players by combining alternative drive and autonomous driving technologies. Last but not least, countries such as China intend to lead electric car development, thus winning themselves global market leadership. We are living in a truly remarkable time for the automobile.

Electric Cars for the Museum of the Future

1900: Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus; Drive: Electric, front wheel-hub motors; Speed: 50 km/h; Battery: Lead; Range: 50 km. Photo: Uli Jooss/Porsche 1971: Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV); Drive: Electric; Power: 180 W motor per wheel; Speed: 13 km/h; Battery: 36 V silver oxide & zinc; Range: 92 km. Photo: NASA 1997: Toyota Prius I; Drive: Hybrid; Power: Petrol engine 43 kW/58 HP, electric motor 30 kW (40 HP); Speed: 160 km/h; Battery: Nickel metal hydride. Photo: IFCAR 2009: Smart Fortwo ED; Drive: Electric Power 65 kW (48 HP); Speed: 125 km/h; Battery :Lithium ion with 17.6 kWh; Range: 145 km. Photo: Daimler 2011: Renault Twizy; Drive: Electric; Power: 13 kW (18 HP); Speed: 80 km/h; Battery 6.1 kWh Li-ion; Range: 100 km. Photo: Renault 2012: Tesla Model S; Drive: Electric; Power: 225 kW (306 HP); Speed: 190 km/h; Battery: 60 kWh Li-ion; Range: 390 km. Photo: Tesla 2013: BMW i3; Drive: Electric; Power: 125 kW (170 HP); Speed: 150 km/h; Battery 18.8 kWh Li-ion; Range 190 km. Photo: Uwe Fischer 2013: Mercedes SLS AMG Coupé Electric Drive; Drive: Electric, four synchronized electromotors, all-wheel drive; Power :552 kW (751 HP); Speed: 250 km/h; Range: 250 km. Photo: Daimler 2013: Hyundai ix 35 FCEV; Drive: Hydrogen fuel cell; Power: 100 kW (136 HP); Speed: 160 km/h; Range: 594 km. Photo: Hyundai 2013: VW E-UP; Drive: Electric; Power: 60 kW (82 HP); Speed: 130 km/h; Battery 18.7 kWh Li-ion; Range: 160 km. Photo: VW 2014: Toyota Mirai; Drive: Hydrogen fuel cell; Power: Electric motor: 114 kW (155 HP); Speed: 160 km/h; Range 500 km. Photo: Toyota 2014: Mercedes B Class e-Drive; Drive: Electric; Power: 132 kW (179 HP); Speed: 160 km/h; Battery: 28 kWh Li-ion; Range: 200 km. Photo: Daimler

 

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