Automobility - desire and reality
Diesel is dead! Long live the e-car? All the euphoria deserves a closer look - and even those who are open to the facts may be sceptical.
Elon Musk, founder of the innovative e-car manufacturer Tesla Inc., has, without a doubt, disrupted the car industry and market. For too long, the automotive industry's incumbents have ignored developing future-oriented, sustainable drive technologies. Unfortunately, the debate over engine types, triggered by the fraudulent diesel scandal of certain manufacturers, is lacking in evidence-based arguments. The debate is more emotional and interest controlled. Furthermore, because of the problem of air quality in many cities, there is an increase in pressure for something to happen quickly. The latest decision by the German Federal Administrative Court, which says diesel cars may be banned in cities, makes the argument even more complex. Moreover, the effect of this decision is hardly isolated to Germany but will be felt across several other EU Member States.
One might immediately jump to the conclusion that we must only drive e-cars in the future. E-mobility is being touted as the miraculous solution for the future, to which the European automotive industry now predominantly relies upon, backed by support from both the media, as well as national governments. However, considering the electric car solution as the ultimate sustainable route is rather short-sighted. In truth, sustainable automobility faces many other challenges that are scarcely being discussed, despite their importance.
Sure, we need to tackle the challenge of climate change and environmental protection as fast as possible. A global approach is necessary. We are pointlessly spending billions to achieve certain local, but globally minimal, effects. On the contrary, we should act wisely and with the most compelling priorities, to ensure that we are not destroying our excellent and solid economic, technological, and social living conditions in Europe in the process. According to BP’s 2020 Energy Outlook, the whole transport sector consumes 21 % of global energy, while the industrial sector consumes 45 %, and the residential and commercial buildings sector consumes 29 %. And the total final energy demand in the transport sector is further broken down as follows: approx. 42 % by trucks, 35 % by passenger vehicles, 8 % by marine transport, 2 % by rail, and 13% by aviation.
We should also keep in mind that about 3 billion people still heat and cook on an open fire in their homes. Solar-powered low-cost heating or cooking devices could dramatically improve the living conditions for such people, yet they cannot afford them.
1912: The year of the first hybrid
Few know that the first electrically powered car was ready for serial production in 1902. The Lohner-Porsche "Semper Vivus" was the first hybrid in the world - with 2.7 hp and a 35 km / h speed limit. Electric cars existed even earlier than that. 40 percent of US cars were powered by electricity at the time. This was due to the annoying cranking required to start an internal combustion engine (ICE) by hand, causing frequent serious injuries when it kicked back. But then in the year 1911, the first ICE Cadillac with an electric self-starter was available on the market. This was the dawn of the triumphant internal combustion engine. Incidentally, petrol was still available at a pharmacy at that time.
Thus, Tesla founder Elon Musk was not the first to bring electromobility closer to feasibility, even though he is credited with being the disrupter that sent the entire car market into a tailspin. And as cool as Tesla's cars may be: Tesla is still writing gigantic losses quarter after quarter. Even glossy marketing will hardly disguise this. He still has to prove that Tesla can make money in the long term. It is obviously not as easy as it seems.
The global trend-setting European car industry would have had plenty of time to develop green and sustainable technologies in full throttle. But for some reason, it did not act. It instead focused on the interests of its shareholders, often being oil producers, maximising shareholder value. This has done them, us and the climate a disservice. The solutions we need so desperately are missing, and they could have possibly existed already and in use today. If that would have happened, we will likely already have lived with such solutions for decades, rather than the compromised solutions being proposed today.
But let's consider objectively speaking about the situation with the development of the propulsion technologies in the near future.
Nitrogen oxides and fine dust: a relative problem
The emissions problem continues to be brought up time and again: carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine dust are the key culprits here. Of course, such emissions do not just stem from the internal combustion engines that our cars emit but also from domestic coal and fuel, manufacturing, aviation and shipping industries which all contribute massively to this pollution.
Moreover, perpetrators of the emissions in road transport also stem from the abrasion coming from tires and brakes - particularly in cities. This particulate matter also exists with e-cars.
If you put an old Mini Cooper, first built in 1959, and the current MINI from the BMW Group next to each other, you have the obvious evidence of the next polluter: our demand for larger and heavier cars, which is becoming more and more obstructive in cities and parking, resulting in stationary traffic, and a general waste of space, known as "space pollution".
Of course, engines need power - the more fuel an engine consumes, the higher the resulting emissions. Us consumers are increasingly in demand for more powerful engines, yet have little regard for how engine displacement and power affect emissions. All this despite the complete contradiction that the engine power gets ever larger and the achievable speeds in the day-to-day use are decreasing due to the increasing traffic density and speed limits. In fact, we actually need less and less power.
The diesel will be preserved - thanks to efficiency
How is diesel rated nowadays? First off, it is important to point out that in general, diesel engines are likely to be retained. This is because of the high level of diesel efficiency in trucks and excavators, which will probably not operate on renewable energy or electricity in the near future. Even when it comes to modern diesel technologies which meet the latest ‘Euro-6-d-TEMP’ and ‘Euro 7’ standard specifications, these technologies will probably continue to exist, even more so thanks to the future developments and improved emission control systems that are continuously being optimised. The ‘Euro 7’ emission standard, contrary to what is suggested by German industry and politics, will not lead to the elimination of gasoline and diesel vehicles. A final draft from the European Commission is to be adopted in November 2021. The ‘Euro 7’ will be an achievable additional effort and will probably not be mandatory until 2027. The limit is defined as an overall budget for a defined route. Cars with ‘Euro 7’ standard specifications will only become marginally more expensive. Therefore, diesel has a high probability of remaining in service, especially in larger or heavy passenger cars. Also, a diesel engine consumes 15 % less than petrol, which in turn, benefits the global climate. The performance optimisation of diesel engines instead of consumption and exhaust optimisation seems, in retrospect – although very profitable for carmakers – to be wrong.
And there's another point: diesel engines can now meet the nitrogen oxide limits of petrol engines - albeit costing more. In addition, the highly equipped direct-injection gasoline engines produce significantly more ultrafine dust than its diesel counterpart. After all, the more petrol engines on the road inevitably mean higher carbon monoxide emissions versus the diesel engine counterpart.
Of course, we need alternatives anyway, not just for the sake of the environment, but also for the sake of energy diversity for the transport industry and its dire need to move away from oil-dependency. Diesel itself, at least the most modern versions, should not be demonized. Having said that, it also should not be a credo for diesel, as gasoline, in general, is still better off with regards to emissions. True that there is a serious problem with older diesel engines (Euro 4 and earlier). And retrofits, even for Euro 5 with existing particulate filters, are considered sceptical for several reasons.
However, carmakers like Fiat and Toyota have already announced their departure away from diesel production and sales in the near future. Volvo will undergo a full conversion to electric from 2019.
The entire industry is now focusing on the electric car.
However, it is essential to understand the subtle differences here.
Which e-car, for example, are we talking about? A purely accumulator-based one and therefore only rechargeable at the recharging unit - a "battery only electric vehicle" (BOEV)? A "plug-in hybrid car" (PHEV), which operates in addition to an internal combustion engine also with a rechargeable battery-based electric drive that is rechargeable at the charging station via power supply? A hybrid vehicle that charges their battery partly or totally via the combustion engine? Or cars which also partially recycle and recharge energy via brake energy (recuperation)?
The disadvantages of the electric car
The electric powertrain itself is not the problem. The big question is, where does the current (electric) energy come from? Because even the still very expensive hydrogen fuel cell ultimately generates electrical energy. At first, it sounds quite tempting to believe that there is currently no more efficient propulsion technology than electric. Let’s look at the numbers. To get a mechanical kilowatt-hour into a vehicle, "just" 1.4 kilowatt-hours are needed from for example a photovoltaic power station. A loss of only 30 percent of energy to the wheel is considered to be extremely low.
The problems lie elsewhere:
- Generally speaking, an electric car boom would make electricity more expensive as a result of increased demand.
- To generate nationwide electricity we, unfortunately, will need primarily non-renewable ("dirty") energies for many years or even decades. Therefore, for battery-based e-cars, we are essentially just shifting the exhaust gas pollution from the car exhaust to the fossil power plants chimney. Most citizens wouldn’t realise this. To be fair, there is at least some upside as the emissions at knee level (exhauster) particularly that occurs in cities is reduced, and the chimneys in the power plants have better filters than a car.
- Batteries, or rather its so-called battery-cells, for e-cars, are almost identical to the commercially available ones we use at home but are rechargeable and bundled en masse. This quickly adds up to a weight of up to 750 kilograms. And as we all know, batteries consist of an extremely questionable interior. In the steel casing there is a mix of resources that often need to be mined all over the world through inhumane working conditions and collected under enormous logistical efforts, like lithium from Chilean salt lakes, graphite which is often cleaned under pollutive circumstances, cobalt mining which is often driven by child-labour, amongst many other increasingly scarce resources that make up a battery. And this does not stop here, as the electronics and capacitors also require coltan and tantalum, and copper is needed for the cable. Unfortunately, most of them are anything but sustainable or fairly-produced.
- To produce the battery cells, an immense amount of energy is needed. If, as is usually the case, this energy doesn’t come from ecologically renewable ("dirty") sources then the process to get just one battery-set for an e-car cause as much carbon dioxide as driving seven to eight years with a combustion engine. The use of such sacrilegiously manufactured batteries is disproportionate since the batteries only last for about four years - and over the course of the batteries lifetime, rapidly becoming weaker. Just recall the outcry of Apple‘s iPhone customers as it became clear that the performance of the iPhone predecessor models was deliberately throttled to compensate for the battery degradation. This energy footprint is already much worse than the one of an ICE. And remember, this calculation does not even incorporate the pollutants emitted from the generated electricity that is needed for the ongoing charging of the batteries, so that's not a single mile drive. In short: the energy footprint of the electric car is currently a disaster. But hardly any politician either knows or wants to accept it.
- Strategically, the European car industry needs at least ten manufacturing plants to produce battery cells, and each one requires around three billion euro of investment. Otherwise, our EU car-industry will depend, as per today, on Asian battery producers as it had been dependent on the oil-exporting countries in the past. It would be a disastrous move to leave the technological know-how and the accompanying competitiveness to other continents - The EU has experienced and suffered that already since the fate of European photovoltaic manufacturers. The Asian competition had them outmanoeuvred and swept clean from the global market.
- Once the batteries are at the end of their life cycle, what fate do they face? Likely a complex recycling process or pollutive disposal follows. At best, there could be an intermediate stage, causing a second life as storage batteries with less power such as for photovoltaic systems. A more circular approach is still needed where the precious resources found in these batteries can continuously be cycled and put to work at the near-maximum utility.
- Another challenge for the e-car lies in waiting: the average lifespan of a car with a combustion engine is around 17 years, whereas that of an electric car is probably just half that. This is primarily due to more electronics and the need for faster technology updates. As a result, significantly more new electric vehicles must be produced to sustain the demand. That may make the car industry happy, but it is hardly sustainable: According to BP Energy Outlook 2018, in fact, the number of cars will double by 2040 to around two billion, particularly due to the rising prosperity in developing economies such as China and India; the current number of 84 million new vehicles produced per year will increase to an estimated 100 million by the year 2030.
- Finally, imagine that almost every used e-car has to park several hours at a charging station on a daily basis. Here the question arises of whether our power grids and plants have the capacity to withstand this gigantic increase in energy demand. In Norway, the country with the largest electric cars market share worldwide thanks to government funding, the electricity motorists lobby advised the general public not to purchase e-cars since September 2017, unless one would have a charging station at home. This caused an energy capacity problem.
Increasing the energy capacity evolves at a snail's pace. One can only look at the many challenges of broadband expansion for the fast internet and the same applies to the high-voltage transmission lines in the financially strong country of Germany, considering the power transmission troubles of wind-generated electric power from the north to the south shows that an all-round supply of charging stations is rather illusory.
The Norwegian example shows that the electric car hype is not very thoroughly thought through revolution. In that sense, in the long term, only technology with hydrogen will really solve our problems around clean energy and energy storage sustainably. In light of this, it is understandable why Toyota and Hyundai have offered for quite some time hydrogen vehicles and remain undeterred in their strategy to continue to invest heavily in this technology and its future.
The fallacy of saying that hydrogen is dangerous
It is important to keep in mind though that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. The problem with hydrogen is that an electric vehicle with a fuel cell for hydrogen consumes about twice as much output power as a battery-based electric car. Fuel cells are different from batteries in requiring a continuous source of fuel and oxygen (usually from the ambient air) to sustain the chemical reaction for producing electricity (and some waste heat and forming water).
As long as the energy for liquid or gaseous hydrogen fuel production (electrolysis) is not predominantly or only generated from renewable sources such as wind, hydropower or sun, the life cycle assessment for this technology is not consistent. Such renewable energy sources would be almost inexhaustible. The range of hydrogen fuel cell cars is indeed similar to the ranges of gasoline and diesel, and refuelling is also fast; but because hydrogen fuel is still mostly produced by steam reforming of natural gas, causing a loss of approximately 70 percent of energy to the wheel this is still not attractive enough. But in the overall view of today's lifespan of a car of 15-17 years, at least better than an e-car.
If the renewable sources of energy were unlimited in themselves and can be continuously used, with energy still available at night and when there is no wind since stored as hydrogen, then this certainly would be the breakthrough.
By the way: the spectre of horrendous costs for the establishment of an infrastructure for a hydrogen filling station network is completely negligible given the huge irretrievable costs of burned fossil fuels.
Two more persistent legends about hydrogen are also wrong:
- The tanks are not a problem - the pressure tanks are now denser than those of gasoline cars.
- In the bad case, the tank does not explode, but it is followed by a deflagration, meaning a rapid burn.
But batteries are not without danger, just think of media reports on exploded cell phone batteries followed by a ban of certain smartphone models on flights and fires of entire parking garages triggered by e-bikes at the charging station. Added to this is the fact that the batteries in the e-cars are high-voltage batteries with a correspondingly higher risk of the short circuit because of the high amount of energy in a small space. Therefore, also stories of a sudden fire of e-cars while driving ending in total destruction are, in fact, not unheard.
It is generally true that you should always act carefully with high concentration and volumes of energy irrespective of the fuel, as in the worst-case everything could explode.
Lastly, consider the radiation effects of sitting in an e-car (high-voltages battery operation) with a probable health effect in the long run.
Hydrogen for the ICE - internal combustion engine
An interesting interim solution could be what Dr.-Ing. Ulrich Bez Hon DTech, one of the most outstanding managers of the global car industry, demonstrated at the Nurburgring. Dr. Bez was from 2000 to 2014 CEO and Chairman of the British luxury sports car manufacturer Aston Martin, prior to that a C-level top-manager at Porsche, BMW and Daewoo. Dr. Ulrich Bez drove in 2013 an almost standard Aston Martin model Rapide successfully to 2nd in class as a world’s-first hydrogen-powered race car for the Nurburgring 24h race, hence in a recognised race. This hydrogen internal combustion engine (HICE) is a transition technology allowing zero emissions (ZEV) capability with existing technology and helping to drive the development of a hydrogen distribution network. He could always switch to gasoline and even gasoline and hydrogen working in tandem.
With this technological solution, one could for example predominantly drive in cities - where such a hydrogen gas service station network is faster, easier and cheaper to set up - and hereby largely reduce emissions and still use gasoline for a long-range or cross-country trips.
As a welcomed side-effect, the automotive supply industry, one of the key industries in the EU, would not be in such a dire strait, particularly because a car with an internal combustion engine consists of around 2,500 parts, but an e-car is well below 1,000 parts. At the same time, such a model would soon give us more experience when it comes to hydrogen use and the associated infrastructure. This will lead to meaningful propulsion technologies as a whole and for the sustainable future.
Anyway, in the near future and then for a long time we will see a mix of different drive technologies (maybe a 25/25/25/25 mix) on our roads, probably four similar types. The BP Energy Outlook 2018 predicts more than 300 million electric cars in 2040 that corresponds to around 15 % across the globe. Which of propulsion technology ultimately prevails, in the long run, is still written in the stars.
Incidentally, I owe it to my esteemed friend Dr.-Ing. Ulrich Bez, one of the most outstanding and experienced top-executives in the international car-industry, that I have learned so much about this topic. And my thanks extend to my Austrian friend Prof. Dr.-Ing. Manfred Weissenbacher, for his support regarding the fact-checking of this article as he is an expert in the field of energy, particularly batteries from the Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Malta.
I like to hear your comments or questions,
Reinhold M. Karner, FRSA
(March, 2018 - last update May 2021)