Monday, August 20, 2012

The End of Internal Combustion?

I love cars.  I love driving them, and I especially love buying them.  I don't like selling them so I end up with more cars than I need.

As I have written about in this Blog, I bought a 1993 Bentley Continental R last Fall.  When I really analyse my motives for this irrational purchase, it is becoming clear to me that nostalgia is the main one.  Nostalgia for beautiful big hydrocarbon burners.  Cars like my Bentley will never be seen again.  The engine is too big, at 6.75 litres, and the car, at 5300 pounds, is hopelessly excessive.  It is built like a tank, and it is built for a world with endless supplies of oil.
The Magnificent VW Phaeton

My next car may well be a Volkswagen Phaeton.  I can pick up a 12 cylinder example from 2004-2006 with low mileage for under $20,000.  The VW W-12 engine is the same one that Bentley used for the Continental.  Again, this is a car that time has passed by.  VW discovered that North American buyers would not pay $100,000 for a car with the same badge as Hitler's "people's car." The value of 12 cylinder Phaetons have melted like an ice cream cone on a summer day.

But I want to own one, to drive one, while I can.  Before it is too socially unacceptable to drive a gasoline car of any kind, much less one with way too much displacement and way too much mass.

My car after that will almost certainly be a Tesla.

First, though, I want to say something about the internal combustion engine (ICE, as electric vehicle (or EV) fans call it).  After about 125 years of development and the application of many of the best minds, the ICE has been engineered to something close to perfection.  When I think of the cars of my youth and compare them to the cars of today, there is no question that ICE engines today are more powerful, more efficient, cleaner and far more reliable than the engines of the past.  Cars in general also stop and handle far, far better than the cars of the past.

But the ICE is inherently inefficient.  The reciprocating engine involves hundreds of explosions of fuel and air that make pistons go up and down in such a way as to make a crankshaft turn.  But where ICE reciprocating engines operate at about 20% energy conversion efficiency, electric motors can operate at 90%.

The ICE runs, of course, on fossil fuels that are both finite and full of carbon.  Emissions include carbon dioxide, the very gas that is causing climate change.

We have invested enormous time, energy and creativity to improve the ICE and the infrastructure that gets its fuel from underground or underwater and to refineries and to pumps where we consumers access it.  And of course if we take into account the wars that have been fought over the stuff (two wars in Iraq, for example), and the environmental risks of getting at it (the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico for example), the costs of the ICE have been very great indeed, as -- of course -- have been the benefits.

Now, let's look at the EV.  Not only is it mechanically far more efficient, but a well-designed electric motor can run virtually forever with minimal maintenance.  An electric motor is far smaller and lighter than an ICE of equivalent power.

There is the important issue of generating the electricity that will run your EV.  There are dirty ways to generate electricity, such as burning coal or oil, and also ways that involve other risks like operating nuclear power stations in earthquake zones.  Hydroelectric generation is clean but can seriously disrupt land uses that are affected by the manipulation of water levels.  The best bet for the future is solar, and breakthroughs can be expected that will eventually make it the dominant mode of generating electricity.  See for example this article about recent progress by IBM that may erase the cost discrepancy between solar and fossil fuel energy within a decade.

There are also issues of disposing of EV batteries at the end of their useful lives, full of lithium and other exotic materials.  But on balance there is no comparison between the environmental impact of an ICE vehicle and an EV.  And when we really start to use our energy income (solar power) instead of our capital (fossil fuel) the EV becomes an obvious -- and inevitable -- choice.  And once we begin to invest the brainpower in making the EV real and successful, as we have made the inherently flawed ICE so dominant, things can only get better.

There are of course issues with range and with the time to recharge.  We are used to having cars that will run for hundreds of kilometers on a tank, and to finding a place to fill that tank in minutes nearly anywhere.  The EV doesn't offer these advantages, although in time these discrepancies will vanish.

The Tesla Model S can already operate for 480 kilometers on a single charge, not much less than an equivalent ICE car on a full tank of gas.  However, once you have depleted that charge it is a matter of plugging it in overnight.  "Superchargers" are coming that will cut that time dramatically, but they are still some months and maybe years away.   So, yes, range is still an issue.

But let's look at developments in battery technology.  Important breakthroughs are being made.  See for example the website of California Lithium Battery.  The Chief Technology Officer of Tesla Motors estimates that the capacity of lithium-ion batteries is being improved at a rate of 7-8% a year.  This means that in ten years the range of the Model S might well be 1,000 kilometers or more per charge, not 480.  99 per cent of people will, after driving 1,000 kilometers, want to stop for the night.  And 10 years from now we can be confident that there will be a place to charge your car when you do stop.  And then, every morning, you will start the day with the equivalent of a full tank that can keep you going all day with no anxiety whatever.

When you do charge your car it will cost a fraction of the cost of an equivalent tank of gas, even at today's artificially low gas prices.  Yes, today's prices in North America are far too low to reflect the true costs of using fossil fuels, and we can pretty much count on a continuing escalation of gas prices over the foreseeable future, as the cost of extraction in increasingly challenging environments climbs and cartels keep working to exact their profits.  Outside North America, consumers are of course already accustomed to gas prices far higher than ours.

The cost of making electricity, on the other hand, should over time remain relatively stable, or even come down in price as renewable and clean sources of power benefit from technical and manufacturing breakthroughs and then achieve economies of scale.

So, you might wonder, why not wait the ten years and see if this wondrous world of EVs actually does come to pass?

Because, in my opinion, it is just possible that the best car in the world today is actually an EV!

Presenting the Tesla Model S
To be continued.

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