Electric cars are firmly in the fast lane in the race to dominate personal transport and reach the promised land of global zero CO2 emissions, but don’t write off new technologies currently languishing in the pursuing pack like hydrogen or synthetic fuels, while hybrids might still have a big role despite moves in Europe to ban them.
Meanwhile, the arguments linger about just how green electric cars are. Virtue signalling politicians are racing to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicles. Currently Norway leads the way with a 2025 ban. Britain has brought forward its ban to 2030 from 2035. Germany and France remain at 2040; but for how long?
British expert Nick Molden, chief executive of Emissions Analytics which conducts real-world driving emissions tests, said there are no zero emission vehicles.
“There is no such thing as a zero-emission vehicle, that’s one myth that should be busted,” Molden said in an interview.
Molden said he believes pure battery electric vehicles (BEV) could reduce CO2 by about 50% compared with ICE vehicles but that can vary (of which more later), while gasoline electric hybrids could reach about 30% with more certainty and cheaper than electric, with a little help from improved ICE technology. In the race to cut CO2 emissions, job 1 is to clean-up electricity generation.
There are still conflicting views on exactly how much CO2 can be saved by battery electric vehicles. A widely criticised report late last year, sponsored by luxury sports car maker Aston Martin, asserted that it would take 48,000 miles of use for a BEV to shake off its initial negatives of high energy use in the manufacture of batteries and mining of rare minerals, before it caught up with an ICE car.
Auke Hoekstra, from the Technical University of Eindhoven, Netherlands, and leading flag-waver for the technology, said that figure was more like 16,000 miles. Hoekstra has said electric cars already emit less than half the CO2 of ICE vehicles.
Last year in a debate with Professor Gautam Kalghatgi on the relative merits of BEV vs ICE, hosted by the libertarian think tank Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), Hoekstra compared the Tesla Model 3 (all-electric of course) and a Mercedes C220d (for diesel). According to Hoekstra’s data, the Model 3 would emit 64% less CO2 over a lifetime than the Mercedes C220.
“I don’t want to claim electric vehicles are unproblematic. On the contrary, I have often said that if all humanity had the same level of car ownership as currently seen in developed countries this would be highly problematic. But whether in terms of human toxicity or environmental damage, electric cars are simply less bad,” Hoekstra said.
Kalghatgi, visiting professor at Oxford University, believes the BEV advantage of ICE is much smaller and reversed in cars using big batteries, and banning the sale of new ICE cars is a mistake.
“The policy of relying entirely on battery electric vehicles and banning the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles will not decarbonize transport. Moreover, it will require very large investments in new infrastructure to support BEVs, shut the door on other possible solutions based around ICE vehicles, which could reduce CO2 from transport more quickly with existing infrastructure,” Kalghatgi said.
Refining ICE technology could contribute much to cutting CO2 by using better combustion, control and after-treatment systems, allied with partial electrification in the form of hybridisation and weight reduction. Britain’s 2030 target for banning the sale of new ICE cars would soon lead to abandonment of research and development and big job losses in the industry. A total ban on new ICE cars wouldn’t even eliminate fossil fuels, which would be required for trucks and aviation. The move towards bigger batteries to generate more distance and less range anxiety is leading to more generation of CO2, not less, Kalghatgi said.
Emissions Analytics’ Molden said his estimate of a 50% saving in CO2 compared with ICE cars, is an average, in which there are massive dangers.
“A warm day in France where electricity is generated by nuclear power will give one favorable reading, but the same vehicle in Poland on a cold day where much electricity is generated by coal, could be completely different. An ICE car would do more or less the same whatever the conditions,” Molden said in the interview.
Molden said extrapolation of life-long savings in CO2 depend crucially on cleaning up the electricity generating grid. There are many imponderables. For instance, one buyer of an electric car might make more trips with it and neglect public transport and that would mitigate against CO2 savings.
Molden said if ICE technology was allowed to improve, plus the use of hybrids, the could reach perhaps a 30% cut in CO2.
“If you cleaned up the grid you can probably get a 50% CO2 cut on the road (for electric cars), but if you opted for hybrids you might get 30% cut but it would be more certain, and you’d avoid wasting a lot of money and time,” Molden said.
But better not mention plug-in hybrids within earshot of some environment policy advocates because this is seen as a detrimental copout.
Brussels-based green lobby group Transport and Environment recently described hybrids (like the Toyota Prius with short battery-only range) and especially plug-in ones (PHEVs) as fake electric cars, built for lab tests and tax breaks. Its tests showed that even in optimal conditions, with a full battery, the cars emitted much more CO2 than claimed.
Plug-in hybrids have batteries which can be used independently of ICE power for between 30 and 75 miles and can be powered up from a charger at home, as well as being juiced up on the road with help from the engine and regenerative braking. This would seem to be a solution made in heaven. You have a battery that can run emissions-free for a distance that would be enough for many everyday commutes, especially if you recharge at work. You have a backup ICE which can do at least 200 miles so range anxiety is a thing of the past. You won’t have to spend billions on a massive recharging network. The technology is there so investment on massive batteries which could perform as well as the best ICE cars and SUVs isn’t needed. That would save VW $86 billion over the next 5 years. What’s not to like?
But green organizations have spied what they see as a weakness. Companies which bought PHEVs for fleet use were given tax breaks by some countries. But because company car drivers’ fuel is paid for, they often would never bother to charge up the batteries, so overall CO2 emissions were worse than regular ICE ones. (The additional PHEV technology adds much weight). Given that private buyers would obviously use the battery to save their own money, and a simple incentive scheme would solve the problem for fleet drivers, it seems the height of stupidity to ban them. Tell that to Britain, which has decided to ban new ones by 2035.
Meanwhile European carmakers persist in trying to produce an electric car that will do anything an ICE car can. That’s a big mistake because it takes a hugely expensive and massive CO2-heavy battery to be able to match the ICE car’s high-speed cruising ability. Manufacturers should be more realistic, admit electric cars are great for short ranges and useless on highway cruising at over 70 mph, and make a truly affordable 70 to 100 miles sub $10,000 city car. This would really start the electric revolution and fill the gap as European Union (EU) regulations price people on average wages out of the bottom end of the ICE car market.
Molden said it looks as though electric cars will win the battle to provide the next generation of cars and SUVs, but there is still the possibility of a dark horse winner. He said the fact electric has the inside edge is an accident of history. VW was shamed by the dieselgate scandal and looked at the success of Tesla and thought electric would be the way to go to restore its reputation. Fuel cell technology is still lurking in the background, while synthetic liquid fuels could be a long-term contender. Both require clean electricity generated by wind, the sun, or hydro.
According to global data provider IHS Markit
“One thing needs to be done above all – decarbonize the electricity generating grid as fast as we can. As soon as this is done, we will see more opportunities opening up. Surplus green grid energy opens more user-friendly options. Fuel cells with power from electrolysis. Synthetic fuel would be a bit more expensive but would mean current technology could be retained and we won’t have to change our cars and behaviour,” Molden said.
BEV’s are clearly better CO2 fighters than ICE cars and SUVs, but they are a long way from being zero CO2 vehicles.
As the Technical University’s Hoekstra says, “electric cars are simply less bad”.