Why has it become so popular? What is making people gravitate towards this technology? More importantly, what differentiates electric vehicles from a regular petrol or diesel powered car? The answers to these questions will let us know the exact situation the automotive industry finds itself in today and where it will find itself in a few years.
What is an electric car?
The name itself is quite self-explanatory. Yet, there is a shroud of mystery on exactly how it works. The heart of an electric car is an electric motor and a bank of batteries. The batteries store the energy and provide the power needed to keep the motor turning which in turn makes the car move. Instead of a fuel filler cap the car has a charging port which is connected to the mains to draw electricity and charge the batteries. From a driver’s perspective, they are pretty similar to a gas powered car except that an electric car does not have a gearbox and therefore there are only two pedals. The acceleration is also a lot more responsive and takes some time to get used to.
How does hybrid technology work?
This is the more common application of an electric motor in a car right now. It has a traditional internal combustion engine that is complemented by an electric motor. This motor harvests the energy that would otherwise be wasted in the brakes or while the engine is spinning in neutral. This energy is then used to fill in the gaps between gear shifts making the car more powerful while increasing the fuel economy and efficiency.
Why has it become so popular?
The electric car has been around since the 1880s. They have been mass produced in some form or the other since the 1960s. Yet, it has only been in the last decade that people have actually started accepting and adopting it. Two major factors that brought about this change were government initiatives like reduced taxes and celebrities owning and campaigning for these cars. Then there is the feel-good factor that comes with an electric car. It is quieter and friendlier to the environment while also being cheaper to run in many countries. It has also been adopted by many racing organizers too. FIA which is the highest motor race governing body is already conducting a racing series known as Formula E. MotoGP will also be starting a motorcycle racing series known as Moto E in the year 2019 where electric motorcycles will compete against each other. Everyone has a tendency to imitate idols and people in the public eye. All of this is spreading awareness that such a technology exists and is very much feasible too.
The pros that make electric cars the way of the future:
· Environment friendliness: No matter how many advances are made in internal combustion engine technology, it will always remain an inefficient means of converting energy to work. That means that noise will always remain a by-product. Add to that all the gases that are emitted as part of the combustion process and every car is producing a harmful cocktail of gases that is slowly eroding away our atmosphere and by extension our health. Electric cars do away with the harmful cocktail and produce zero emissions. It is also noiseless, so much so that artificial engine noise has to be generated for pedestrian safety.
· It is much less complicated: The number of moving parts in an internal combustion engine is mind-bogglingly high. To put it into perspective, a typical modern electric car has about 150 moving parts. Even the most conservative car with a traditional internal combustion engine has somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 moving parts. That makes a modern electric car much less susceptible to failure. It also makes servicing and maintenance a lot easier too.
· It enhances your public image: Electric cars also happen to be the latest fad. This means that if you own one you are projecting yourself as someone who is in tune with the times. Almost every major celebrity has an electric car and owning one yourself makes you feel more in tune with someone you idolize.
· It simply is cool: Just a decade back, silent cars that ran without producing any fumes were only seen in sci-fi movies. Today they are a reality and it is a testament to human nature to keep striving forward and making the impossible possible. This has not been an easy journey either as a lot of hard work and convincing was required before this technology was accepted and brought to fruition. With cars such as the McLaren P1 and the LaFerrari, this technology has become even cooler.
The cons that show that there are still some niggling issues:
· It is not as clean as advertised: Even though the car itself runs on clean energy, how clean it actually is, depends upon the source of that energy. In countries like India, the majority of electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. Many times this process produces more toxic fumes than the internal combustion engine of a petrol or diesel powered car. So when the bigger picture is considered an electric car is only as clean and green as the energy source from which the electricity is being generated. Also, a lot of energy is lost during the charging process and storage which further reduces its efficiency. The world still uses fossil fuels to generate more than 80% of its electricity. Electric cars will only be truly green and clean when the electricity is generated from renewable sources. Till then the notion that electric cars are actually good for the environment is nothing but a gimmick and a fallacy.
· The batteries are still very inefficient: The bulk of an electric car’s weight is made up of batteries. Even though we have made great strides in battery technology it is still very much in its infancy. Then there is the actual operational life which is nowhere near to that of an internal combustion engine which means that you will be left with a huge servicing bill a few years into owning an electric car because the batteries have to be replaced. The recycling infrastructure is also in its early stages and isn’t quite ready for the huge quantities of discarded batteries that will come their way in just a few years.
· The charging time and range: In a regular car once the low fuel indicator comes on all you have to do is find the nearest petrol pump and within minutes you can top up the fuel tank and be on the road again. Even the fastest charging electric car needs at least 30 minutes to charge. This can be a major source of a headache during an emergency. All this would not have been a problem if its range was exceptionally good but that is not the case for now either. The charging points are also very rare and far in-between. Even though the electric car has become feasible the infrastructure needed is still not in place. So, the electric car is great as a novelty item but it is far from being the practical everyday commuting solution it needs to be.
· It is still quite expensive: If you want to get a decent electric car you will have to shell out quite a bit of money. For the same money, you could get a premium luxury petrol or diesel powered car. For now, it can only be afforded by people with a considerable income. It is still not feasible for people just starting out in their professional lives or those studying. For it to be widely accepted the electric car has to become more accessible to people from all walks of life.
Who are the major players?
The electric car revolution has been spear headed by Tesla Motors. However, it is not limited to just them. Toyota, Porsche, TATA Motors, Mahindra, Nissan, Honda, Suzuki, Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren, Lamborghini etc., are already manufacturing hybrid cars and promoting them as flagship products. The adoption of this technology by these manufacturers who for long have championed the cause of the internal combustion engine shows the major shift in views in the automobile industry. It is also the early signs that the death of the internal combustion engine is quite near. While the exact details are a tightly guarded secret as to the research currently being carried out by these automobile giants they have given clear indications that electric cars are their primary focus for future projects.
What does the future hold?
Since this technology has been lying dormant for a long time and it has only been recently that major strides have been taken due to the works of Elon Musk and his company Tesla Motors, there is plenty of room for improvements. This means that it hasn’t had the same level of active development as the internal combustion engine. All this points to a bright future for the electric car and the electric engine in general. We should not forget that it is the engine of choice in trains and it is making forays into other modes of transportation such as ATVs, jet skis, boats, etc. It is not very far away when we will even have aircraft that are powered by the same technology. The advantages are many-fold and that will always be the driving force behind finding better and newer ways to implement this technology and the day is not very far when its advantages will outweigh its disadvantages to such a degree that it will become the default technology of choice as far as engines will be concerned.
What to expect from electric cars of the future
These are some predictions regarding cars of the future
Ø Much better range
Ø Much faster-charging options.
Ø Better recycling infrastructure to make sure that all spent batteries are disposed of in time.
Ø Hot-swappable batteries that will allow the car to be charged instantly in case of an emergency.
Does buying an electric car right now make sense?
Form a practical standpoint it is not very wise to buy an electric car right now. It is still in its infancy. The infrastructure such as frequent charging points is still in the development stage. Until then buying an electric car only makes sense if you want to get a taste of this latest fad or if you already own a trusty car with an internal combustion engine and are looking for a second car that will act more like a joy ride. Till then it makes better sense to buy a hybrid car. They are the perfect middle ground between the old and the new. They are as trustworthy and dependable as a traditional car while being greener and cleaner and more efficient. Granted they are a bit more complex than either technology alone but the infrastructure is there to fix any issues you might run into.
What is its impact on the environment?
The emissions from an EV is 53% less than that from a traditional internal combustion engine. This is not a bloated number given by a sales team but based on actual research done by the Union of Concerned Scientists or the USCUSA. So if all vehicles were to be replaced by electric vehicles and the world’s total energy production from fossil fuels were reduced from more than 80% to somewhere in the vicinity of 50%, we can reduce the total emission of harmful gases by a whopping 40%. This will lay the groundwork for a better and healthier future and as the technology is improved and our dependence on fossil fuels as our primary energy source is reduced, in the not so distant future we can attain emission levels that are very eco-friendly and it will be the biggest victory for the go green initiative. This is a step we have to take if we want to save the earth.
Some parting thoughts
Like any new technology, the formative years of the electric car were always going to be tough and people remain sceptical about jumping on the electric car bandwagon. That doesn’t mean that it is a fluke that is going to fade away. If the last decade has taught us anything, it is that electric cars are here to stay and it won’t be long before they become the default choice for commuters. It is also not going to be limited just to cars. Soon mainstream motorcycles, ATVs, boats, recreational vehicles, buses, trucks and even aircraft will be powered by an electric engine. That coupled with adopting green energy as the source of most of our electricity will finally put a major dent in air pollution and the damage we have been causing to the environment over the past couple of centuries.