It’s amazing how companies can change when prodded by market conditions, regulation, or a combination of both.
Take the big Aussie sedan, the Ford Falcon. You can now buy it with a turbocharged, 2.0 litre engine. And even the boofheads at Wheels think it’s a better car; the slight loss in performance (it’s still almost as quick in a straight line as a GTHO muscle car from the 1970s) more than compensated by the improved handling due to the lighter weight. And it uses somewhere between 10 and 20% less fuel than its six-cylinder equivalent.
The bogans who booed the Nissan GT-Rs at Bathurst 20 years ago might be disappointed, but the Falcon is just one exemplar of a much wider trend. big six and eight-cylinder car engines are going the way of the dodo. In the short term, they are being replaced by smaller, turbocharged engines both petrol and diesel, with smarter engine management systems and burn more efficiently without blowing themselves to bits, or, more prosaically, releasing excessive amounts of nitrogen oxides and various other toxic pollutants.
Prius-style hybrid technology is becoming more widespread, too. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have added it as an option for their E-Class diesel in Europe. The diesel is already exceptionally economical with an official fuel consumption figure of around 5.1 l/100km. The hybrid option drops it to about 4.4 l/100km, with the greatest gains coming in stop-start urban driving conditions.
At this point, parallel hybrid technology is a relatively mature technology, if still amenable to cost improvements from more production and cheaper batteries. Frankly, it doesn’t make strict financial sense at current fuel prices. But if oil prices go back up, or carbon pricing gets serious, the parallel hybrid will become ubiquitous.
In the long term, none of these technologies obviously cut it for the complete decarbonization of transport that will ultimately be required. The Nissan Leaf, by contrast, is a rolling demonstrator for one technology path that can. I’m pretty sure the examples floating around the People’s Republic of Moreland are part of the Victorian Government’s electric vehicle trial, which attempts to assess the effect of pure electric cars on the electricity grid.
While I haven’t had the chance to drive one yet, having a Leaf go by on a quiet suburban street is striking. While not completely silent (it even emits a warning noise to alert pedestrians at low speed), it’s far quieter than a standard car. Personally, I look forward to cities where traffic noise is less prominent!
Silent as it is, the Leaf is hardly an attractive purchase, as a car, at this point. Even allowing for the very cheap refuelling and likely reduced service costs, $51,000 and a 160 kilometre range (and even that requires fairly ginger driving, apparently) is not really an attractive proposition. A better, cheaper source of electricity is going to be required if full electric vehicles are to become more widely used. It’s also the case for the Holden Volt – though it’s frankly hard to see how a plug-in hybrid like the Volt could ever be cost-competitive, given the need for a substantial battery pack, powerful electric motor and a full conventional drivetrain.
The good news is that better, cheaper batteries are on the way. Nissan has claimed that the Leaf’s battery pack costs about 375 USD per kilowatt-hour to produce, has a capacity of about 24 kilowatt-hours, and weighs about 200kg, with an energy density of about 140 watt-hour per kilogram.
Envia Systems has demonstrated a prototype lithium-ion battery which has an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram, and is targeting a production cost of $180/kg by 2014. While startups have a habit of overpromising and under-delivering, most of the discussion surrounding them suggests their claims are reasonably credible; the technology apparently originally came from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Labs.
Other companies and researchers such as Sion Power and Oxis Energy are working on an alternative and theoretically superior battery chemistry altogether – lithium-sulphur. Sion Power has been quiet recently, except to announce a large investment by chemical company BASF. Oxis Energy have a little bit more detail on their website; they claim to have demonstrated “220-300 w/hour per kg” with “460 wh/kg as a target”.
While it’s unlikely that all of these battery technologies will live up to their promise, it doesn’t seem out of the realms of plausibility for battery performance to double, and costs to halve, within the next five years or so. But batteries will need to improve more to be cost-competitive with internal combustion engines – particularly the even more fuel-efficient ICUs in the current development pipeline – even if petrol prices remain high and carbon pricing begins to be applied to petrol.
But – even leaving aside the question of autonomous vehicles and what they will do to the economics of electric cars – there are at least two longer-term prospects for emission-free driving free of range limitations.
The first has been teasing us for a couple of decades, now. Fuel cells – the “reverse electrolysis” devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water – have long been touted as the basis of the “hydrogen economy”. Both our cars, and our homes, are supposed to be powered this way. But, despite lots of government and oil company money thrown at them, they remain the stuff of tiny demonstration fleets.
But there’s evidence that this might be changing. Mercedes-Benz has introduced a new generation of fuel cell vehicle prototypes, and is claiming they will have a production version by 2014, and is targeting the price of a “diesel hybrid”. Honda also has a trial fuel-cell vehicle circulating throughout California, though their plans for production are sketchier.
To get a sense of how this is happening, the US Department of Energy’s hydrogen program plan is helpful. While it took longer and was less dramatic than the optimistic predictions of a decade or two ago, fuel cells are getting much cheaper to produce; the DOE currently estimates that a 100 kilowatt fuel cell would cost around $5000 to produce in quantity. While they may still be optimistic in their projections, it’s interesting to note that they predict that by 2015 the cost might be down to $3000.
There are still big questions as to where we get the hydrogen sustainably (nuk-u-lar…), but it seems like the BEV faces some serious competition as the long-term replacement for the internal combustion engine.
For completeness, there’s one truly amazing blue-sky project underway at, of all places, IBM, to build the battery to end all batteries. The lithium-air battery project is one of several early-stage research efforts to build the world’s ultimate battery. They believe that a practical lithium-air battery, with ten times the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries would come close to the (useful) energy density of petrol. If they could pull that off at reasonable cost, not only would electric cars become a no-brainer, you could build practical all-electric aircraft.
The technology is still a “2020” prospect, which really means “we’ve got no friggin’ idea at this stage”.
Regardless, it seems that the world is making serious progress towards clean, petroleum-free private transport. If only we’d started serious work on it sooner.