The Electric Vehicle: The Final Nail in the Coffin of the Internal Combustion Engine?

Published: Fri 27 Sep 2013
A blog entry by Louis Rix

Contributed by:

Louis Rix

Louis Rix's Blog

The electric vehicle (EV) is often paraded as the ‘answer’ to the demise of fossil fuels and the future replacement of the internal combustion engine. Many manufacturers promote this view and you would be forgiven for falling into the trap of believing it. But is this really the case? Has the EV produced a form of motoring so revolutionary that it will replace the machine which kick-started the concept of the personal automobile in the first place?

First, a few numbers to give the issue some context. At the end of June 2013, there were just over 29 million cars registered in the UK. 4,132 of them were EVs. Which means that 0.014% of vehicles in the UK are EVs. All of a sudden, the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the EV becomes questionable; the combustion engine still has the bigger army by a considerable distance. In fact, a news article published only days ago revealed that Vauxhall had implemented a £3,000 price cut on its Ampera plug-in hybrid because the state of the EV market is so disappointing. Less than 100 people had invested in an Ampera by the first half of 2013 and Nissan only sold 530 Leafs in the same period. It is suggested that the EV market is working at 30% of the expected level.

So perhaps that’s 1-0 to the combustion engine; its army is certainly a lot bigger than Team EV. So why does the EV always seem to get such good press? Well the benefits, as one would expect, are environmental. If the electricity you put into the EV is produced using low-energy methods, the emissions generated by an EV compared to a conventional engine are much reduced. They also tend to be cheaper to charge than pumping them with petrol or diesel because the price of electricity is cheaper than conventional car fuels. In the cost department, you’ll also find that many governments offer significant incentives for people to go electric.

But, and it is a big ‘but’, I take the view that all of these arguments are far from water-tight and can be dismissed with some very persuasive counter-arguments. EVs having lower emissions relies entirely upon the electricity in the EV being produced responsibly and considering that 85% of the UK’s electricity is still being produced by fossil fuels, the odds are the electricity in your EV is coming from a non-renewable energy source. In countries such as India, because of the way electricity is produced, an EV is no more environmentally friendly than a standard combustion engine.

Then there’s cost. Putting electricity in your car is cheaper than conventional fuels, no contest. But the practicalities almost make the cheap price redundant: full charges can take up to 8 hours and this is one of the key downfalls of the EV. Advertised ‘fast-charge’ points are an improvement but severely impact upon the life of the battery. The battery itself poses another issue: it is the most expensive part of the car but manufacturers are finding ways around this, for example lease agreements on batteries to lower the cost of EV motoring. Government incentives are one of the key parts of the EV programme; it means offering incentives to get old polluters off the road and bring new EV vehicles into circulation. But we’re all more than aware of the current economic climate and as a result, these incentives are in very short supply.

Another key shortcoming of the EV is that we often isolate speak of EVs to the car itself and its outputs. If the programme really is committed to the environment, we need to measure the impact of EVs ‘from the cradle to the grave’ and assess every process along the way to determine the damage. A recent study in Norway suggested that the production processes of EVs had twice the global warming potential of conventional vehicles and the materials required to make the batteries are highly toxic. So despite the operation of the vehicle churning out virtually no emissions, the rest of the processes can be very harmful to the environment. This is why I have long argued that we need a ‘carbon footprint’ figure for all vehicles to measure the real environmental impact.

But the ultimate test comes down to usability. The aim of the EV is to be more environmentally friendly by offering an ‘alternative’ to the combustion engine. The logical continuation of this point means that people should be replacing their combustion cars with EVs. But that is far from the reality. Virtually every professional EV review I have read will note somewhere, ‘a great second-car’. EVs are now recommended as ‘secondary vehicles’. This is simply because the features of a combustion vehicle cannot be replicated by the EV and therefore they cannot be used as a direct replacement. The limited range, impractical charging methods and high battery costs have all made sure that the EV will not be used as a household’s ‘primary car’. Therefore it fails in its aims; it is merely an ‘addition’ to the combustion engine, not an ‘alternative’. And if you follow that line if thinking, a certain irony emerges: in order to justify an EV in the real world, you already need to have a conventional combustion vehicle. Quite the opposite of what manufacturers were hoping for.

So will the EV take over? I’m afraid, personally, I don’t think so. The numbers above demonstrate how thin on the ground EVs really are and how dominant the combustion engine remains. People simply aren’t prepared to invest in something which they cannot use in the same way as their conventional vehicles and if my theory above about EVs being ‘additional’ vehicles is correct, the combustion engine will continue to dominate. The weaknesses and impracticalities of the EV are being realised by the big manufacturers and KPMG have recently noted that research funds are being switched back to the internal combustion engine concentrating on making this less harmful to the environment. In addition, EVs will only ever really work where electricity is produced responsibly and processes to make the cars aren’t harmful to the environment; Europe is getting better at this but it is by no means perfect. Perhaps as a secondary goal, the potential of EVs will encourage more governments to clean up their energy acts, although that remains to be seen.

My predictions then, with a little help from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggest that conventional petrol and diesel powered vehicles will continue to reign with their demise only really beginning in 2025-2030. From that point, the technology for the EV may have improved and we might see an increase in the number of EVs and most certainly an increase in plug-in petrol hybrids. But according to the IEA, a new player will emerge with the recognition it really deserves, the hydrogen fuel cell, a powertrain which I have always believed is the answer to the future of motoring. It’s a long way off and needs more research but hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are genuine alternatives to petrols and diesels and their features mean they can directly replace conventional vehicles.

One manufacturer at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show commented, ‘The public think emissions are a problem, but they think it is a problem for the industry, not for them. They see no reason why they should pay extra to reduce CO2’. This comment rattled me. Agreed, the public think that emissions are a problem but it is the responsibility of car manufacturers to find the solution to the problem, not the consumer. It isn’t that people don’t want to pay extra to reduce CO2; fault lies with car manufacturers for consistently failing to produce a real alternative to the internal combustion engine. And until they do, petrols and diesels will continue to rule the roads.

Feature contributed by Louis Rix, co-founder of car finance broker