Mass-produced electric-powered vehicles are reportedly about to replace the combustion engine at any moment. Is this true? We asked respected motoring writer and commentator Toby Hagon for his thoughts.
1: What is your view of the electric-powered car industry. Will the technology definitely replace fossil fuelled engines, or is it still too early to say?
Short answer, yes. Electric cars are coming and they will slowly make sense to more people.
But we won’t be waking up in a year or two - or even 10 - and suddenly ditching our petrol and diesel cars.
This will be a gradual transition, albeit one that is gaining pace as more consumers – and governments – demand cleaner cars. Car makers, too, are getting on board, realising the demand is increasing and more people are willing to at least consider an electric car.
The biggest thing that will drive the take-up of electric cars will be economics. At the moment they’re too expensive for most people, especially in Australia – so we don’t buy many of them.
Of the 1.2 million cars sold in Australia, fewer than 1000 are cars that can be plugged in and recharged; that’s less than 0.1 percent.
Ultimately, though, it could be government policy that determines when or if we will switch to electricity. In countries like Norway and the Netherlands there are substantial incentives and policies in place that make electric vehicles more appealing, in turn leading to a high take-up rate.
The Australian government has so far shown almost no interest in fast-tracking electric cars, although it is getting more political interest.
However, don’t think petrol and diesel cars are dead. Car makers right now are spending billions developing new SUVs and utes now that will run purely on new generation petrol and diesel engines. That’s because for some applications and some people it still makes plenty of sense.
So, yes, electric cars are coming. And it’s conceivable that by next century there won’t be any petrol or diesel cars for sale. But the switchover will take decades, not just a few years.
2: What are the advantages/disadvantages of electric powered vehicles compared to petrol-powered vehicles?
Clean energy is the big one. While petrol and diesel engines have been getting cleaner and more efficient, the reality is an electric motor can better them, delivering zero harmful emissions if it is running on electricity created from renewable sources such as wind or solar.
At some point, we also need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels because they will eventually run out, now whether it’s in 10 years, 100 years or 1000 years is a matter of which expert or scientist you listen to – and when.
There are also other benefits for countries like Australia, which imports most of its fossil fuels. One of them is energy independence, the ability to control our destiny when it comes to energy supply rather than rely on other countries.
And, of course, if you’re using renewable energy you’ve harvested yourself, then you could be paying a lot less to run your car.
3: How effective will electric vehicles be at towing caravans of up to 2.5 tonnes?
People who tow know it’s torque rather than power that makes the job easier. Fortunately, electric motors produce plenty of torque. And, whereas a turbo-diesel takes a fraction of a second – sometimes longer – to spool up and produce its best, electric motors react almost instantly to throttle inputs. So, an electric motor is very well suited to the job of towing. Anyone who’s been in a Tesla will know there’s no problems getting big performance – petrol-beating performance – out of an electric motor.
The bigger challenge is the batteries. Modern battery technology requires hundreds of kilograms of expensive batteries for even a modest-sized electric vehicle. Once you add the requirements of towing – namely a 500-kilometre-plus driving range and the ability to lug around the vehicle plus another three tonnes – it has the potential to make the size of the battery pack prohibitive.
But help is on the way. All major car makers – as well as various universities and all the big tech companies – are working on battery technology that is way ahead of where we are today. And it’ll start arriving within a few years, constantly improving over the next decade or longer.
Also, keep in mind that petrol and diesel engines have plenty of life left in them yet. Some manufacturers have committed to an entire electrified fleet within only a few years. But there’s some spin-doctoring in the wording: yes, there will be some form of electrification, but in most of the models sold by those brands there will also be a petrol or diesel engine as part of the drivetrain.
They will be so-called plug-in hybrids, which have a small battery pack for driving around town and a regular internal combustion engine for recharging the batteries on longer journeys. For caravanners, then, they’ll work fine for embarking on the big trip. And you’ll be able to sneak out of the camp ground silently once you’ve recharged!
4: There’s concerns the extra weight of caravans will reduce the range these vehicles can cover.
Just like a petrol or diesel car adding the weight of a caravan will reduce how far you can tow it. It’s simple physics: more energy is required to move a bigger load.
But batteries are not the only electrical storage device car makers are considering for the cars we’ll be driving over the next 10 or 20 years.
Another exciting technology is fuel cells. They perform a chemical reaction to turn hydrogen into electricity, electricity that is then used to power an electric motor. So instead of petrol or diesel you would refill your car with hydrogen.
Right now, there are no public hydrogen refuelling stations in Australia, but if the demand is there then it’s the sort of thing we can expect as we head into this brave new fossil-fuel-free world.
Given the size and distances associated with travelling around Australia those fuel cells are something some believe could work for heavy trucking, for example. That being the case, it could easily be utilised for people who want to tow.
But this sort of thing is a long way off – many, many years. So don’t get too excited just yet.
5: People are always looking for efficiency and savings in their travel costs. Will it be that much cheaper to travel?
Theoretically yes, although it depends where you source your electricity. If you’re recharging from home or a friend’s house fitted with a solar system it could be free or close to it, but you need a lot of solar panels to get a car and caravan around Australia.
So, then it will come down to the cost of electricity wherever you are.
Even with clean energy there is infrastructure required to produce, transport and store electricity – they’re costs which will be borne by the people using it.
In some cases, businesses – be they holiday parks or cafes or fast food outlets – might offer free or discounted electricity to attract customers.
These are all the sorts of things that are in the mix as electric vehicles become more popular.
6: What do you see as the challenges facing the industry?
Fast charging infrastructure, particularly in remote areas, is a big one. To make sense for the many Australians who like exploring it needs to be easily accessible and fast to recharge.
Many major car makers believe that within a few years they’ll have electric cars that can travel 500km or more from a 20-minute charge. But to do that there needs to be a big power supply pumping electricity into the batteries.
We also need the cost of electric cars to come down substantially from where it is today.
And batteries, again, are the hold-up there. They need to offer all the benefits of internal combustion engines and more. At the moment petrol and diesel is a cheap and effective way to transport energy. The industry has to match or better that to make the cars appealing.
But that will happen over time. There’s so much research and development being spent on exactly that for major markets around the world.