By J. D. Fencer
Media reports in 2017 may have depressed drivers of conventional cars. Many of those reports all but predicted the imminent demise of the internal combustion engine (ICE). The doom and gloom scenario hinged on four independent announcements: in the first half of the year, Tesla announced the launch of the Model 3 electric car, Volvo declared its intention to cease building cars powered solely by ICEs by 2019, and the UK government said it will ban all ICE-powered cars from British roads by 2040. Around the same time, France announced that it too will ban ICE-powered car sales from the same year.
In the case of the UK and France, the bans don’t take effect for 23 years, which is so far in the future to be almost meaningless, not to mention a little cynical. If a week is a long time in politics, 23 years is an eternity, and these announcements suggest that governments are trying to claim true “green” credentials and to be ahead of the curve. Nobody knows how many UK and French administrations will come and go within that period or how often transport and environmental policy will change. Volvo’s announcement will have little impact on car sales, electric or otherwise, because the company is a small player globally. Yes, a relatively large number of electric vehicles have been bought in some Scandinavian countries, but that’s because of generous state subsidies to buyers and significant investment in charging infrastructure, both measures unlikely to be replicated in most other countries anytime soon. The fact remains that in 2017 electric cars accounted for less than 1% of global car sales.
Nevertheless, electric car technology has taken huge strides in the past decade. The latest motors are vastly more efficient and reliable than their predecessors, and battery technology has improved significantly. As important as both those factors are, the onboard computer software is nearly as important. It enables the vehicle to travel much further on a single battery charge by efficiently managing power distribution, traction, and braking.
Scientists in labs all around the world are currently working to improve battery technology. Most experts expect a breakthrough within ten years, maybe sooner. By breakthrough, they mean a car battery that delivers the same range on a full charge as an average ICE-powered car achieves with a full tank of gasoline. In addition, it should not take any longer to charge such a battery than it takes to fill a petrol tank. Finally, that battery should be relatively cheap to manufacture and last as long as the vehicle. Most non-experts believe that as soon as such batteries arrive, widespread adoption of electric cars will follow. It won’t. That’s because, though a major factor, battery technology is not the only one.
Other important factors include resistance from conventional car companies, engine and parts manufacturers, car dealers, and the oil industry. They all want to squeeze as much profit as possible, for as long as possible, out of their huge investments in the current ICE plants and technologies and will delay any phasing out for as long as they can.
The charging infrastructure is another big issue. At first glance, having charging points in every gas station seems like a logical option. Most gas stations, however, won’t want to install a system that directly competes with their existing products, especially since most of the profits from selling the electricity will accrue to the power utility companies. Those power companies may provide charging points nationwide, but that is a big and expensive undertaking. People with freestanding homes will probably have charging points beside their houses, but that doesn’t address the issue of people living in apartments.
All these problems will have to be solved if electric cars are to become commonplace, and the experts have taken them into account when making predictions. Most of those experts agree the ICE’s days are numbered, but that it will still be the main driving force in transportation for at least the next 15 years. In the meantime, governments have to figure out how to make up for the loss of gasoline tax revenue – but that’s another story.