You have read lots about electric vehicles, possibly too much. International news is fixated about it, lobbyists and big finance are swirling around the subject like vultures in search of a good meal. Yet a huge change is about to happen, no one knows how and it’s all going ahead anyway.
I would like to explore something that is really going ahead, but few want to publicise in the same way as pure electric drive vehicles.
So 1900 it is!
At the end of the 1800s and early 1900s pure electric vehicles briefly outsold all other forms of propulsion, but the problems remained embedded. Clean power, yes. Quiet, yes. Heavy, yes. Range: Oh dear.
In the early days of gasoline-powered vehicles, before filling stations existed, the petroleum ‘spirit’ was sold in cans by chemist shops. Long trips required advanced planning and purchase of the ‘spirit’ in advance, with stops carefully placed to avoid running out of ‘spirit’ before arrival at the next refuelling stop. Whereas an electric vehicle, close to a major conurbation could get energy on demand, early petroleum powered vehicles struggled.
What changed? Well, the main issues then still apply today, after more than a century of trying to find solutions with rather limited success. One litre of petrol or diesel contains significantly more available energy than one litre of the latest electricity storage device. That’s not a difference expressed in a few percentage points. It was, and still is, a huge gap.
Back in the early 1900s commerce came into play where shipping ‘spirit’ followed demand, and that demand was driven by the better flexibility and greater range offered by the internal combustion engine. Forget conspiracy theories; the electric vehicle died for more than a century because of this reason, apart from very specific industrial applications such as underground mining or warehouses, for example.
Even though a modern petrol or diesel engine will only translate about 30% of the available energy to the crankshaft, the pure electric vehicle has to use all the party tricks to ensure the effective performance parity with the internal combustion engine including:
Low rolling resistance tyres, with a very narrow section which does lead to reduced grip performance
Full underbody shielding, to clean up the airflow.
Selection of exterior shapes that are inherently aerodynamically efficient – which is why so many vehicle manufacturers of pure electric vehicles share similar silhouettes. Selecting more expensive but lighter materials for the body structure, to offset the weight of the electricity storage system.
But, guess what? All of the above can be and are applied to vehicles with internal combustion engines as well as those which use smaller electric power systems (hybrid and PHEV drive). Just where is the disruption? Where is the ‘new age’ of intelligent environmentally responsible transport?
Please, don’t mention it
The problem remains about our collective approach to electrification, but the established vehicle manufacturers have businesses based on selling transportation modules in exchange for cash. That means complying with the wishes of each Government in each destination market, along with ensuring the product is supported if it is damaged or needs servicing. Who then tries to sell time or some other means of using vehicles (Uber, anyone?) does not really matter. Most vehicle manufacturers are up to their armpits in aggressive lobbyists. They are literally sitting ducks.
The result is each vehicle manufacturer is protecting their core business by either partnering or acquiring more adventurous start-ups, based on the theory that each whizz-bang idea will need a steady stream of well-built vehicles which comply with all legislation and customer expectations in each destination market. In terms of electrification we are seeing at least two tracks:
- 1. Build halo vehicles that are either small (but still twice the price of the same size vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine) or rather expensive/large. In either case the objective is to build an electricity storage device that is ginormous in size compared to other applications (phones, computers and so on).
- 2. Build the majority of production vehicles with internal combustion engines – even diesel – which also have much smaller electric power systems to dramatically offset tail pipe emissions during acceleration.
It’s worth remembering right now that internal combustion engines, even with additional electric powertrains, are significantly cheaper in their entirety when compared to a pure electric vehicle energy storage system.
There is a discussion about the type of fuel used by vehicles. Famously not all oil for all oil wells convert to the same type of petrol or diesel. For example, Saudi crude has quite a high sulphur content, whereas the North Sea crude does not. Additional components, such as sulphur, are difficult to extract from crude oil and obviously create additional vehicle tail pipe emission issues.
Wait! There is another solution: Gas!
The argument is that natural gas (which is pure methane) or petroleum gas (which can have fewer hydrocarbon component variations that the liquid form of refined crude oil) produce fewer variations of tail pipe emissions. This is backed up with decades of research around the world, which show either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquified petroleum gas (LPG) give a direct tail pipe emission reduction. Of the two potential sources, CNG gives the best results. This is not elimination of tail pipe emissions, but significant reduction.
Volltanken, bitte! (Fill up, please)
Some markets have understood the economic benefits of using compressed gas. For example, warehousing or mines frequently use gas powered plant which was driven by reduced cost but has significant environmental benefits too. Those markets have distribution systems which already provide CNG or LNG at regular filling stations. That means vehicle manufacturers already build vehicles equipped with the pressure vessels and fuel system to cope with such gas as well as a small tank for petrol to mitigate range anxiety.
The bottom line: LNG or CNG vehicles can refuel in about the same time as conventional petrol or diesel vehicles, and although the rate of consumption is higher the overall environmental benefit is positive. Whereas in the past such fuel systems were manly provided by specialist conversion companies, they are now fully tooled cassettes built into the vehicle, as we can see in this assembly designed by Volkswagen Group. How much space is used for this passenger car application? The spare tyre well – so no spare tyre.
Say it quietly
The future of transportation will pivot around the fuel system we use, which will vary from country to country depending on the scale of infrastructure investment and the price of the system to the end user. Vehicle manufacturing is already configured to cope with multiple powertrain options, so meeting the requirements of each market is very possible right now.
The point is even if pure electric vehicles are the future, they will not be built with giant battery packs. At some point, we hope, there will be a breakthrough in electric energy storage both in terms of cost as well as access (that’s to say, charging in a matter of minutes and lasting for hours). Why not use such things, if they become much more affordable, for vehicles? The cost prohibits use in non-subsidised markets to very specific applications such as buses or an inner-city delivery track.
Further, even if large electric energy storage systems become reality, the main use will be for optimising power generation, so that power stations run at a steady output below peak demand, which allows excess energy to be kept at during periods of low demand for use in peak demand periods. That’s even more important than transportation. That days of hauling around 100 kWh batteries will be seen in the same way as we view the very first mobile phones, and in rather less than 10 years.
For now, in the real world, transport is in a massive transformation phase. CNG or LNG will play a significant part in reducing tail pipe emissions until the day arrives when an electricity system can deliver zero tail pipe emissions for all. Is that my opinion? Well… it’s happening anyway. That means do not go out and buy a three-phase high power electric vehicle charging station (unless you know there is a consumer demand already). That means do consider investment in training staff to handle high voltage systems, but know most of the vehicles you will see in the future will be hybrid or PHEVs with an internal combustion engine. That does not mean thinking about entire collision repair businesses filled only with pure electric vehicles – that might take some time to happen.
Vehicle manufacturers are acting on the CNG/LNG theme because the investment to benefit ratio is better than for pure electric powertrains. It is after all, a matter of survival in business as much as doing the right thing for the planet.
Auto Industry Consulting is an independent provider of technical information to the global collision repair industry via EziMethods, our online collision repair methods system. For more information please visit the website: www. ezimethods.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org