Is the internal combustion engine facing electrocution?
The emergence of electric cars, such as the upmarket Tesla Model S and the more modest Nissan Leaf, have many pundits asking whether the days of the internal combustion engine are inevitably numbered.
Electric cars are nothing new, as we revealed in the September 2015 edition of Fleettorque. Indeed, at the beginning of the motoring era electric vehicles dominated the market.
Today there’s resurgence in electric vehicles, albeit a fairly modest one so far. While Tesla remains the only electric-only carmaker of any note, Volvo, Toyota, Renault-Nissan, VW and Porsche are just some of the carmakers introducing all-electric vehicles to the market.
On the upside, electric cars promise low, or zero, emission motoring, with reduced running costs, excellent performance and unparalleled quiet and smoothness – though that might deter those addicted to the rumble of a V8.
But the downsides at the moment are considerable, including range, cost, recharging speed and a shortage of charging stations. They’re enough to make owning an electric vehicle, perhaps other than a Tesla, a choice for the committed.
The problem is the expensive Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries at the heart of electric cars, but here’s where it really gets interesting. Like the price of solar panels, the price of Li-Ion batteries has been coming down rapidly - far faster than expectations in fact. In 2007 they were averaging US$1,000 per kWh, but by 2014 they were down to just US$450 per kWh, with the cost of batteries produced by market leading firms as low as US$300 per kWh.
The world’s best-selling electric car, the Nissan Leaf, currently has a range of up to 170km. That’s fine for many city drivers, but severely limits the Leaf’s usefulness for longer trips, especially when combined with the limited number of recharging options on the long haul.
For the well-heeled Tesla driver range anxiety is already a thing of the past, with the Tesla model S claiming an astonishing 528 km range.
But the rapid development of battery technology may soon see range anxiety disappearing for all future electric car owners. The next generation of the relatively affordable Nissan Leaf is promising a range of 400km or more on a full charge, suiting the needs of most drivers. The Nissan Leaf 2 is due for release in 2018.
Nissan isn’t alone. General Motors, for one, has its Aussie-designed Chevrolet Bolt waiting in the wings. It’s a relatively affordable compact electric car with a reassuring range of 320km.
Slow recharging speeds are another thing holding back the adoption of electric cars. Even Tesla’s fast chargers take about 20 minutes to recharge the car, and much longer on a conventional charger. The Nissan Leaf can also reach 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes with a DC fast charging option.
Tesla has been the pacesetter in electric car technology and it’s worked hard to reduce those recharging times. Its chief technology officer, JB Straubel, is confident of slashing them further.
“It’s not going to happen in a year from now. It’s going to be hard. But I think we can get down to five to 10 minutes,” he told MIT Technology Review.
If Tesla and others can achieve such dramatic reductions then recharging times will become comparable to refuelling your car today, overcoming another major hurdle to electric car ownership.
Limited recharging stations are another barrier to owning an electric car. While recharging stations are currently few and far between in Australia they are being progressively rolled out. Australia’s first electric highway network linking the South West of WA was recently opened.
It’s worth keeping those limited recharging stations in perspective, however. A total lack of petrol stations in the early days of motoring didn’t stop the emergence of those new fangled petrol driven cars of the early 1900s. Much of the infrastructure for rolling out a vast network of roadside recharging stations already exists in the form of petrol stations.
However one barrier that doesn’t look like being overcome anytime soon is the lack of standardised recharging technology across the range of electric car models.
The prospect of increased range and more recharging stations may tempt many of us to buy an electric car for their next vehicle. It’s an even more compelling case for those with solar power on the roof at home holding out the promise of free “fuel”. But the one final sticking point is price.
Electric cars aren’t cheap. Nissan may have dropped the price on the Nissan Leaf from $51,500 to $39,990 but it’s still quite a premium over its Pulsar Hatch which currently starts from $22,659.
“It is commonly understood that the cost of battery packs needs to fall to below US$150 per kWh in order for battery electric vehicles to become cost-competitive on par with internal combustion vehicles,” according to battery researchers Björn Nykvist and Måns Nilsson.
“It is impossible to assess when such a low level of USD $150/kWh will be reached as it is too far into the future, but the trajectory is very positive, and if the current momentum lasts for a couple of years... a cost level somewhere around 200-250 USD/kWh before 2020 is quite likely.” Nykvist told online technology magazine ars technica.
It’s not just technology that’s pushing the rise of the electric car. China is the world’s biggest vehicle market and a country with a huge urban air pollution problem and a worrying dependence on oil imports. On bad days the only thing you can see through the choking haze of Beijing’s appalling smog is the inevitable demise of the internal combustion engine in China.
The government is heavily promoting the development of electric cars and wants China to become a leader in the technology. It aims to have millions of hybrids and electric cars on the road by 2020 and has invested strongly in their development.
"Green vehicles are key for the development of China's auto industry as auto exhaust emissions already account for 70% of the country's air pollution in major Chinese cities," according to Wan Gang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology.
Chinese company BYD Co Ltd is a leader in rechargeable battery technology that’s moving into electric vehicles. In 2008 the world’s biggest investor, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., took a 10 per cent stake in the company – a sure sign of confidence in the future of China’s electric car industry.
The end of internal combustion engines?
When electric cars do become price competitive with conventional internal combustion engines they’ll pose a significant challenge to their market dominance and even threaten the future of the global oil industry.
Tesla has amply demonstrated the massive potential of electric cars. They offer superior performance and driveability, lower running costs, potentially free “fuel” from solar power and significantly lower environmental impact. With all that going for them it’s getting hard to make a case for the long-term future of the internal combustion engine.
But the technology of internal combustion engines is also moving ahead rapidly, and the future may not be quite so clear-cut. We’ll be taking a look at what lies ahead for conventional engines in future editions of Fleettorque.
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