Countries and companies have come out with bold visions – some years into the future a significant minority of road users will be driving electric cars. And let’s not lay that achievement at Tesla’s door. The question will be, are you going to be part of that minority?
The way the electric drive revolution is hitting us, you would think that the whole concept was something that sloughed off Elon Musk’s skin as he was busy thinking up his next game-changing technological offering. Far from it – the concept of using electric motors to drive transportation is as old as the automobile itself and actually predates the internal combustion engine. If it had any real competition in those days it was from steam engines.
So why are we back on the electric bandwagon? You could just as well ask why it took us so long? After all, how difficult is it to conjure up a few motors and a battery pack? If you look at the electric scene today you get two distinct impressions from the products and technology on offer. One is of course of a nascent, technology linked industry that is growing in leaps and bounds as its core needs – the motors and batteries – get ever better with more efficiency, capacity and quicker recharge times. The other view is completely different – of an industry that is unsure of itself, that is still tied to the apron strings of the automotive industry powered by internal combustion engines and by extension linked to the almost primal forces that control the global energy industry.
And the delay cannot be blamed for a lack of ideas. You don’t have to bring in the Jetsons with their flying cars. The world’s science fiction writers have been telling us about everything that was ever going to happen in 2017 from more than a century ago. John Jacob Aster wrote “On reaching the top of a long and steep hill, if we do not wish to coast, we convert the motors into dynamos, while running at full speed, and so change the kinetic energy of the descent into potential in our batteries. This twentieth-century stage-coaching is one of the delights to which we are heirs, though horses are still used by those that prefer them.” Today, every electric and hybrid car uses regenerative braking. The technology is at least as old as his story A Journey in other Worlds circa 1894!
The other argument is of course the commercial angle. Companies will only invest in technologies and processes that they see as rewarding them in the future. French and British companies invested in the Concorde, precisely because they saw it as the transport of the future. It helped that there was a lot of government money involved, otherwise the lack of adoption of supersonic travel by the masses would have been enough for Airbus to never have happened. As times changed, so did the need of the hour – airlines preferred longer range jets, then bigger is better became the credo and now it is back to lower capacity, but ability to fly point to point. In all of this, corporate fortunes are being made and lost.
And an equal measure of how transportation will change is also being governed by top-down impetus provided by authorities. German car manufacturers are scrambling to ditch their diesel line-up because municipalities are bucking federal government diktat and introducing bans on oil-burners in city limits. You can blame this on the long, still kicking tail of the dieselgate scandal, but also blame it on the backlash of public opinion that thinks that governments have been too lax when it comes to industry’s needs.
So we are in the midst of a major shift in circumstances. Governments have announced goals that lead into 2030, 2040 and beyond that either say that the internal combustion engine in its current form will be history OR actually state that electric cars will be the order of the day. And that is not too hard to believe. In a discussion a couple of weeks ago, I told my interlocutor that whether electric or petrol, the first concern of any vehicle owner is never cost. It is availability of the car. And its fuel. It doesn’t matter if petrol is only 10 cents a litre, if you have to drive 400 kilometres to the nearest pump. What then happens is that you either start stockpiling at home or you learn to live without.
The same concern afflicts electric car owners today. Range anxiety is a genuine issue. The next issue will be time anxiety. And of course you will have the cost issue hovering over your head like a scrawny vulture. Until some basic issues are sorted out, every electric car owner will be a pioneer as well as a venture capitalist by the very act of buying into technology that still fluid. If you are really sensible, don’t look at badges, fancy shapes or even the presence of autonomous driven cars to tell you when to buy an electric car. Remember, even robotic cars have been imagined decades ago – Philip K Dick told us about the MacMillan robot taxi in his 1955 book Solar Lottery. In the story MacMillans weren’t capable of fine distinctions. But we are. I would say don’t buy an electric car until you are sure that you won’t suffer from the anxiety over range, charging time, availability and cost (and that includes getting a killer resale price on your 2029 all singing, all dancing electric car).
In the meantime, make your next purchase of a regular internal combustion powered car really count. If you hang on to it like you should – for atleast 6 or 7 years – you may find it takes you into an age where you HAVE TO buy electric. There’s going to be no resale value on the car, so you might as well have something you can keep as a classic. Make it something dramatic or ostentatious if you have to – either that, or do the really sensible bit for our environment and stop junking cars.