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Why electric cars haven’t made it

14 January 2011

For as long as I remember the electric car has been heralded as the vehicle of the future. Soon we would all look back at the old fossil fuelled cars in horror, shaking our heads in disbelief that we ever used such abominable machines. By the end of the ’90s, only electric cars would be in use, and combustion engines would only be found in museums next to steam engines and biplanes.

The car of the future - really?

The car of the future - really?

Obviously, that didn’t happen, and todays traffic still consists almost exclusively of petrol and diesel cars. In fact, electric cars are such a rare sight that they often attract small crowds where ever they appear. So what went wrong? How come we never saw the expected uptake of electric cars?

Well, firstly, there have been a few technical problems. Electric cars require a huge amount of energy, and storing that energy in batteries have proved challenging. Even though we can keep adding more and more batteries to get the capacity we need, there is a trade-off between stuffing a car full of heavy and bulky batteries, and giving it acceptable range and performance. It’s only in the last few years that compact and powerful batteries have started to become available.

Another issue has been the high cost of manufacturing, leading to high on-the-street prices. An electric car is usually several times more expensive to buy than a fossil fuelled alternative, which obviously works against them becoming popular.

But there is a third issue, one which has acted against the electric car since its invention some 180 years ago, and to illustrate this we need to go back to the birth of the modern automobile.

Automotive carriages have been around since the 1730s in the form of steam engines, but the first cars in a modern sense didn’t appear until the late 1880s. There were both combustion engine and electric variants, and at first it looked like the electric car might be the winner due to its quiet drive and ease of operation.

But in 1888 Bertha Benz, the wife of the inventor of the first car designed to use an internal combustion engine, took the mark 3 model on a trip to visit her mother some 60 miles away. The journey was a success and proved that automobiles were ready to be taken seriously for long distance travel. The secret lay in the fuel supply: when Bertha ran out of fuel, she just stopped at the nearest chemist and bought some more petrol, filled the car up and continued.

Aww.. Have you run out of juice, little friend? Again?

Aww.. Have you run out of juice, little friend? Again?

The importance of this cannot be overstated. By being able to be instantly refueled, the car could take over the role of the horse carriage – something the electric car just couldn’t do. This was the start of decline of the electric car.

And this simple fact is still true today. We are long since accustomed to be able to undertake long journeys without having to stop and recharge for 6-8 hours whenever the juice runs out. Also, humans aren’t known to be the most foresighted of creatures, and will not always have remembered to charge up the car before starting a journey, which would lead to delays of several hours. With a petrol or diesel-powered car, you can start your trip with a 5 minute stop at the nearest petrol station and soon be on your way.

So this is the reason battery-powered electric cars haven’t taken off, and probably never will. It is why they are now only used as short-range commuter vehicles in cities, and even then only in the presence of severe penalty systems applied to use of combustion engined cars.

But there is a ray of hope. Something could still save the electric car, and it’s the simplest and most abundant substance in the universe: hydrogen. By using a hydrogen fuel cell, we can generate all the energy we need to power an electric car, and when we run out of juice all we need to do is to fill up the fuel tank with more hydrogen. This gives us all the benefits of electric cars – no exhausts, quiet drive, ease of operation and simplified maintenance – with the main benefit of the combustion engined cars – instant refuelling. And we already happen to have a worldwide fuel supply network adapted to handle flammable liquids – the humble petrol stations. And what’s more: the first models of these fuel cell cars are already in production.

NOW we're talking! A proper car, indeed!

NOW we're talking! A proper car, indeed!

So it might be that the car of the future is already on the road today. And that in a few years combustion engined cars will indeed be confined to museums and private collections. But next to them will be the odd battery-powered electric car; a remnant of an interesting but essentially futile experiment in vehicle construction – a dead branch on the ever evolving tree of human innovation.

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