Pros and cons of electric cars in global quest for better environment, better life

Maqsudul Hasan Nuri
Notwithstanding challenges and hurdles, the future seems pregnant with possibilities of renewable and clean energies in going electric.
Maqsudul Hasan Nuri

The buzz now is about clean and renewable energies. After witnessing the ill-effects of climate change on weather, environment and health, various countries are rethinking how best to use latest technologies to opt for alternative energy. Electrical vehicles (EVs) are a step in this direction.

While many countries are close to adopting environmental-friendly policies and clean energy, most developing countries are still relying on coal and oil-based sources. However, France, the UK, China and India might end diesel or petrol-based vehicles around 2040.

Like green energy (solar and wind power) China is in the lead as the largest maker and seller of EVs. As a world leader in electric technology it has made impressive technological advances to manufacture electric cars in promoting clean energy and putting them on road.

China has sold as many as 300,000 cars this year — three times more than the US and more than the world combined together. Further, by 2025 it hopes that one in five cars shall be run on alternative fuel. But for this, new rules have to be formulated. It is posited if they want to sell regular cars with internal combustion, one in five cars are to be run on alternative fuel. No wonder it is a common sight that electric cars are plying in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Auto companies such as GM and Volkswagen are interested to shift their operations to China with a view of using Chinese technology.

Backed by the government and a vision of dominant technologies in the next generation, China has clearly taken the lead. It is fortunate that green energy businesses like solar and wind power are supported by the government and availability of cheap labor.

EVs have gone beyond the hybrid Toyota Prius; Ford Motors is taking the step of F-150 pick-up and muscular Mustang as best-selling EVs in the US. Sweden’s Volvo is also following suit and wants to go electric by 2019; France plans to ban the sale of petroleum consuming by 2040.

Volkswagen, the German auto giant, is planning swift expansion in production of EVs and its biggest jump in production will be in China.

Likewise, General Motors, Renault Nissan (French-Japanese) and the Ford Motor companies are all vying to make China the hub of EV production. They are also relying on China for battery charging stations and automobile research.

On its part, China hopes that if foreign countries want to sell combustion engine cars they must sell their latest EV brands. Evidently, this seems to be in the best interest of China to upgrade its technological level.

Due to increasing traffic congestion and density on city roads, EVs are cheap and convenient for short distances whereas fast railways are meant for long distance commutes.

The main advantage is the cost of electricity used, which is one-fifth of the cost of gasoline — although the initial price of an electric car is high, there is no smell of oil and noise from the engine. Besides, it accelerates faster.


Imaginechina

Electric cars are on the fast lanes worldwide despite challenges to improve the efficiency of car batteries. 

Improving performance

A big advantage of EVs over conventional gasoline-powered vehicles is the ability to mold the shape of the power train to the vehicle’s design, improving performance. Batteries can be mounted on the floor of the vehicle, which leads to a few performance advantages inherent to all EVs.

The lower batteries are mounted, the lower the center of gravity of the EV. That’s a big reason Tesla Motors’ Model S has built its batteries into the chassis. The Model S has a center of gravity just 17.5 inches off the ground, similar to the Ford GT, which is built for high performance.

Modifying batteries for performance can also give EVs the ability to distribute weight evenly which increases performance.

Another major advantage of EVs is their acceleration. Electric motors naturally have higher torque than traditional vehicles, which gives quick zero-to-60-mph times.

Tesla’s Model S, for example, can go from zero to 60 in as little as 3.1 seconds, beating BMW’s 2015 M3 time of 3.8 seconds.

EVs aren’t going to beat any top speed records with torque alone, but unless one is on a race track, it’s probably not legal to go over 75 mph anyway.

These design advantages are fundamental to EVs and will be built into vehicles in the future. Yet, as with any newly emerging technologies there are some challenges. Critics say that initially there will be more pollution and transition costs as electricity is mainly derived from coal plants.

Moreover, major investment, building of refuelling infrastructure, long charging time and minimum range of 700km are other limitations.

Others suggested that the world would be better off if vehicles were powered by natural gas, conveniently forgetting to mention that natural gas production causes massive amounts of methane emissions, particularly if fracking is involved; and that methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

There’s no doubt that the extreme high performance of the P85D version of Tesla’s Model S Sedan has opened a lot of eyes. But the performance advantages of battery-electric cars are a bit oversold. Sure, the P85D accelerates really quickly (getting up to about 112 kilometers or 130km per hour, at least) thanks to the instant-on torque from its electric motors and the grip provided by its all-wheel-drive system, and a lot of software wizardry.

Maqsudul Hasan Nuri

Batteries’ disadvantage

The real disadvantage with the battery-electric cars are still the ones that have bedeviled their proponents since the beginning — that batteries are heavy and expensive and take a long time to recharge. But costs are coming down, albeit still high and it still takes a lot of heavy batteries to give good range.

The recharging factor is arguably the biggest disadvantage of batteries, and may end up limiting mass adoption of battery-powered cars. It takes hours to fully recharge an electric car, and nobody has yet found an efficient way to overcome it. That’s why Toyota veered away from battery-electrics and made a huge bet on hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota’s fuel-cell Mirai is still an electric car, but it’s one that can be “recharged” (refueled with hydrogen) in about five minutes.

Yet EVs have a lot of promise and battery-electric technology may yet win out. But the argument for batteries over a modern, efficient internal-combustion engine isn’t yet clear-cut as both have pros and cons. And as long as internal combustion continues to have a massive infrastructure and refueling advantage, as well as a still-significant (but admittedly shrinking) cost advantage, most of us will still be hitting the gas station for a while longer.

All in all, EVs are becoming a global phenomenon and here to stay while their pros and cons are being debated.

But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The budget spent per year on diesel and petrol can be diverted to renewables such as solar, wind and geo-thermal energies.

However, it needs visionary policy direction, employing educated engineering youth in research and development, and faith in embracing new innovative technologies. Notwithstanding challenges and hurdles, the future seems pregnant with possibilities of renewable and clean energies in going electric.

(The writer is Visiting Faculty at Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. The article was first published at Business Recorder, 2017. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.)


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