Seven Unexpected Reasons Why Electric Cars Are The Future
Sorry, Luddite friends — there’s little doubt at this point that the future of automobiles belongs to the electric motor, but for a lot of reasons you might not have heard before. Internal combustion engines (ICEs) were always a compromise to the economy of cheap and available hydrocarbons, designed to consume them in abundance to produce loads of power in a light, compact and comparatively cheap package. But times have changed since internal combustion took over at the turn of the last century. Gas isn’t as cheap and available as it once was, cars aren’t as light, cheap and compact as they used to be, and electric motor, battery and computer technology has advanced to the point that burning dead stuff for go-power has started making less and less sense.
Of course, there are still obstacles to overcome — we’ll get into those in a different article. But ever since the first hybrids started hitting the mass market a decade ago, electric motors have taken on more and more of the motive duty. It’s only a matter of time before they take over all of those duties. Some (including yours truly) will lament the passing of the days of snarling idles and cylinders screaming against redline explosion. But then again, we’re probably also the same group of people who’d have complained about the absence of "earthy-smelling" horse manure in New York circa 1920.
In this article, we’re going to talk about all the reasons why most of us will live to see electric drivetrains come to dominate the auto industry — going way beyond obvious stuff like better performance, cleaner air and fewer brown polar bears. You probably already know all of that as it is. It’s been written about a million times. But there’s a lot more to the story of why electrics will prevail, and very soon.
But, as a balm to my fellow Luddites: That might be the best thing to ever happen to ICE vehicles. After all, it’s not as though horses disappeared with the rise of ICEs...nor will horsepower disappear with their fall.
Continue Reading for the Seven Reasons
1) They Can Run on Almost Anything
Back in the day, Chrysler made much ballyhoo about its turbine-engine cars, advertising heavily the fact that they could run on anything that burned. Electric cars take that a step further, because they can run on anything that burns, and a whole lot of things that don’t.
One main source of contention against electrics is the fact that they get their power from the plug. That plug, as it stands, gets its power from a power station. So, ultimately, an electric car runs on whatever the power station does. That’s fine if you’re talking about power generated by solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric or any other kind of clean and infinitely renewable resource. But, as of 2010, almost three-quarters of the nation’s energy came from burning fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas. About 8.4 percent came from decaying uranium, and a good chunk of the 8 percent "renewable" energy used came from burning biomass. Burning wood, that is — which, if you’re keeping track, isn’t much environmentally better than burning coal.
That’s a problem really best addressed on a nationwide policy level, in terms of supporting green energy initiatives. Granted, that isn’t likely to happen as long as Chevron, Peabody and Koch keep pouring billions into politicians’ pockets every two years...but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, or that we’re stuck waiting for unicorns made of winning lottery tickets to show up until it does.
End-point or consumer-generated solar may wind up being the straw that breaks Big Coal’s back. Again, the specifics on that are for another article, but there’s no reason at all solar accumulated over the course of a day from cheap home or vehicle-mounted solar cells couldn’t provide a massive chunk of the energy we’d use in electrics. Do the math on even today’s cheap thin-film solar cells, and you’d find that covering the roof of the average station wagon (read: “crossover SUV”) with them would provide enough wattage accumulated over 10 hours of sunlight to move the car 20 to 30 miles. That’s about the length of the average daily commute, running on nothing but free, clean sunlight. And it’s doable, right now, without changing anything about the power grid or our political pocket-lining policies.
2) They’re Inherently Efficient
This kind of goes back to the previous section, answering those status quo pessimists who claim there’s no advantage in running a car on power generated remotely as opposed to power generated onboard with an ICE.
First: Power stations make energy more efficiently than the engine in your car. Unlike auto manufacturers, who only compete with each other, power companies are forever competing with the almighty dollar. They do everything they can to squeeze every watt of energy out of every ounce of fuel, at almost any cost. Auto manufacturers make engines just efficient enough so you’ll buy them vs a competitor’s. So, even if you’ve got an automobile engine and a power plant running on the exact same fuel — say, natural gas — the power plant will do it much more efficiently. Even after you account for power loss through the transmission lines, there’s still a net gain.
In addition, the electric motor and battery combination is, itself, more inherently efficient than an ICE powertrain. ICEs produce tremendous heat, and every bit of that represents waste energy. Electric motors also produce heat, but not nearly as much — partly because they’re only ever consuming as much energy as is needed at the time. Electric motor energy consumption usually goes up with load; gas engines, because they’re expected to provide good throttle response, burn more fuel than they have to so you always have torque on demand.
In total, even a pretty basic electric motor/battery combination is about 70 to 80 percent efficient from plug to wheel. A really efficient gas powertrain: maybe 40 to 50 percent on its best day, or more typically 25 to 35 percent. Diesels may see upward of 60 percent. But even the most-efficient diesel out there would struggle to reach the efficiency of your average electric golf cart.
So between greater efficiency at the power station, and in the vehicle...it almost doesn’t matter what fuel the power station’s burning. It’s still burning less of it per mile traveled, and that’s what counts.
Electric motors produce enough starting torque that they don’t need transmissions. Well, they don’t in theory, anyway. Yours truly happens to think that’s kind of a stupid approach, and that every vehicle needs a transmission to drive right. But regardless, electrics will end up much more reliable than cars of today.
It all has to do with parts count. Any first-year engineer will tell you that elegant simplicity beats complexity in almost every regard, but especially where reliability is concerned. Every moving part in a machine is one more thing to wear out, break and require replacement. Since electric motors have exactly one moving part (not counting the bearings), they’re far more likely to run hundreds of thousands of miles without failure than ICEs are.
“Why does that matter,” you might say. “Cars today routinely hit a hundred thousand miles without failure. Some hit 200K, and have 10-year warranties.” Yes, they do…and that makes them absolute garbage. The average car today costs about $40,000 after financing; that’s not much less than the cost of a typical small house in a rural area, like the house I grew up in. Despite that, after 40 years, that house is still standing and livable. Why do we expect less of automobiles? We spend 50 grand or more on a house, and expect to hand it down to our grandchildren 50 years from now — why do we accept an 8-year warranty on a car costing the same? Why be happy with “as much as” 200K miles? Why not expect a million-mile/50-year warranty for something that costs a year’s salary? Thanks to the simple electric motor, manufacturers may soon end up running out of excuses not to offer exactly that.
4) Modularity – They’ll Reshape Our Entire Concept of Industry and Economics
One of the best things about an electric drivetrain is its modularity. That is, the fact that the stuff that makes it work is scattered throughout the vehicle in discrete components, and most of them are only connected together via wires and cables. It’s like an old-school PC computer, the build-it-yourself, plug-and-play kind. Modularity made those computers famous by allowing end-users to quickly and easily swap out broken pieces, upgrade to better ones as need be, or build an entire unit from scratch without ever having to buy a complete assembly. That made all computers cheaper and better, and extended the life of computers already in service. The PC also, as a side benefit, created an entire generation of computer-savvy garage builders, and a massive cottage-industry aftermarket to serve them.
The same is true of electric cars. By making them modular, the way we used to do PCs, we encourage cottage-industry competition. We create a set of circumstances that allows buyers to simply and easily repair or upgrade their existing cars as need be, using aftermarket parts from aftermarket suppliers. Granted, the same is true today of gas powertrains...but it’s getting less and less true as those powertrains get more and more complicated.
The inherent modularity of electrics will take us back to the day when big corporations actually had to compete with small business, and truly innovate just to convince us to buy new cars instead of simply upgrading our existing ones. Think that distribution of production will have broad-spanning impacts on national and international economics? Oh, you bet it will...in every positive way imaginable. Okay, to be fair...positive for us. You know, the people who don’t own factories in China or have bank accounts in the Caymans. But that’s someone else’s problem.
5) Performance Stuff and Cleaner Air
The miracles of torque vectoring, traction and stability control as part of the standard electric package have been well documented at this point. Especially torque vectoring, or using independent-wheel electric motors to help steer vehicles around corners. Ferdinand Porsche noted that all the way back in 1901, and it’s quite evidently become the secret weapon of choice these days for hypercar manufacturers like Porsche, Mercedes and McLaren. Hard to believe the Bugatti Veyron would end up looking "old school" less than five years later. But that it has and does, thanks mostly to the company that bears the name of the guy who built the world’s first hybrid. If the Porsche 918 wasn’t a game-changer in terms of performance, the McLaren P1 certainly has been. To an almost greater extent, so have the Tesla S, Chevy Volt and Prius hybrids; though in a slightly different way.
That’s stuff you already know — and if you don’t, feel free to read one of our many reviews on those very cars. They’ll make you an electric-motor convert overnight.
As to environmental benefits: If you’re reading this, I reckon there’s about an 80 percent chance you care less about cleaner air than going faster. Still, it’ll be a lot easier to go faster when you’re not dodging brown polar bears on one of the few non-submerged freeways left in America. Or doing it while just trying to escape razor-wire road warriors wielding machetes and machine guns. You know, if you care about that sort of thing. Here’s something you will care about, though.
6) Electrics Are the Only Way Forward
Sad fact is, we’ve reached a point with ICEs that they’re just not getting much better in any single performance metric. That’s not to say that modern engines aren’t better than older ones — they are. There’s no question about that. It’s just that they’re no better in any single way than anything made decades ago.
Today, we stand in amazement of piston-engine vehicles that make 1,000-plus horsepower. But, so what? Super Street drag racers were doing that in the 1960s. And half the engines used in WWII aircraft made twice that much on lower-octane fuel. But they weren’t as efficient as, say, a 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage, which at 44 mpg highway is the most-efficient conventional gas-engine vehicle for sale today. Pretty impressive...except that Geo Metros routinely pulled those numbers 30 years ago. But Geo three-cylinders were thrashy, unrefined things, nowhere near as smooth as modern Honda four-cylinders. Very true...and modern Honda four-cylinders feel like a tractor engines compared to any number of 50-year-old BMW sixes or Ferrari V-12s.
So, what’s so great about modern engines, then?
Modern engineers have gotten very good at combining the best attributes of older designs and eliminating a lot of the compromises in them. Today’s engines can be as powerful as a 60s SS racer, as smooth as a Ferrari V-12 and as efficient as a Geo Metro. They can be and are all those things at the same time. What they aren’t is any better than any of them. At this point, and for almost the last half-century, we’ve been simply refining the better parts of a bad idea into slightly less-bad ideas. ICE development has long hit the wall of design limitation. There is no real future in them. For electrics though...the future is nothing but potential.
7) Electrics Will Save Internal Combustion Vehicles...and Make Them Better
You might have noticed that that horse metaphor from the intro wasn’t entirely original. OK, it wasn’t at all. Car guru Jay Leno made that observation some time back, when he opined that electric motors would save gas engines the same way gas engines saved the horse.
At the turn of the last century, horses weren’t quite as, shall we say "respected" as they are today. Sure, there were some thoroughbreds, some pampered ponies out there. But the majority of horses were miserable, bedraggled instruments of utility. Nobody who needed horses to make a living or for transportation really cared what breed they were, whether they were especially happy or groomed, how clean or well-appointed their stables were, or whether they ever got outside in a field to run around and do horse stuff. And woe be unto the horse who ever made the mistake of getting injured...that fine steed would very quickly find himself in the adhesives industry.
Fast-forward a hundred years — horses are a bit fewer in number, but far happier and better cared for. They’re generally pampered pets, and going lame isn’t necessarily a ticket to the equine recycler’s yard. Partly because these days, every horse is "a breed." There’s aren’t a lot of mutts out there, and they all have intrinsic value as horses. Why? Since the demand for horses as utilitarian devices dropped, nobody bothered breeding the mutts, those without pedigree or distinction. Only the best of the breeds went on to live the lives of today’s pampered steeds.
And so it will be with ICE vehicles.
Think it’s a coincidence that just a few years after the Prius, we have a plethora of thousand-horsepower supercars, cylinder deactivation and flex-fuel engines? Is it coincidental that we have the fastest Corvettes in history after the Tesla S? No, there’s no direct line of cause-and-effect from the Mercedes Electric SL to the McLaren P1, but look at it in a larger frame. The co-evolution of the Chevrolet Volt and Corvette, Audi diesel-electric LeMans car and e-tron systems, and any number of other convergent/divergent iterations thins the herd, culling the mutts and leaving the thoroughbreds.
Hydrocarbon fuel is for all intents never going away. The advent of cellulosic ethanol alone practically guarantees that. Even if we never drill another drop of oil out of the ground, there’ll still be fuel for your old musclecar or niche-market new car. Not that we won’t drill for oil...we still need it for the huge plastics and synthetics industry, and there’s no replacement on the horizon for those applications yet. In that sense, gas will end up going back to what it once was...an almost useless industrial by-product. And the same thing will happen tomorrow as in 1890...it will get very, very cheap.
Hopefully, by then we’ll be committed enough to electrics that cheap gas won’t fling us backward into some ironic "petroleum renaissance." However, while we should never underestimate the power of hipsterism to precipitate bad decision-making (looking at you, anti-vaxxers), the overall trend will take us forward into common sense. Maybe slower than we’d like...but the future is looming, like it or not.
And that future will be flush with a selection of both efficient electrics and screaming internal-combustion thoroughbreds. After all, last century’s technology didn’t kill the world’s horses.
But it did take a lot of crap off the streets.