Just 128 years and the jig is up. Say goodbye to the internal combustion engine and get used to the idea of our highways and byways free from its noise, stinks, smoke and what Kenneth Graham's anti-hero Mr Toad described as a "glorious, stirring sight. The poetry of motion! The only way to travel! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my!"
The recent Government announcement that it will put an end to Poop-Poop petrol and diesel automobiles by 2040 means that Karl Benz's 1896 Patent-Motorwagen and its descendents will have enjoyed a largely uninterrupted 154-year life. Some of the estimated 1.25 billion cars around the world will enjoy a few more years of trundling noisily around after that, but basically one of the most influential technologies of the 20th century will be over in the early years of the 21st.
Replacing the suck, squeeze, bang and blow of the Otto cycle will be the sinister synchronicity of the AC electric motor, not silent exactly, but whirring, clicking and wheezing. Can you conceive of that racket in the introduction to Roxy Music's Love Is The Drug?
It's been something of a big week for battery cars, with BMW's announcement that it will build the new electric Mini where it builds pretty much every other Mini, in Cowley. Business secretary Greg Clarke claimed this as an endorsement of the Government's industrial strategy, which must have puzzled Mini owner BMW, which neither sought nor received Government commitments.
Only last week, Matthias Wissmann of the German automobile industry association told the BBC that German car makers needed more clarity from Brexit talks or future investments could be damaged. That followed another announcement by Clark about Government plans to invest £246 million in encouraging people to make and store their own electrical energy and even sell it back to the grid.
Not to be outdone (is he ever?), environment secretary, Michael Gove announced today's ban on petrol and diesel. Listen carefully to the sound of an issue being punted into the long grass here – Gove will be 72 years old by the time this comes into force and may your God help you if he is still in charge of anything more complicated than a Zimmer frame by then. This announcement is not much more than a statement of intent by the UK Government, pushing the industry in a direction it was already taking.
So what does it all mean? Certainly it gives us an idea of how far sighted some of the Japanese car makers are with fuel cell cars and their smart houses and their home energy hydrogen systems. The UK Government's concentration on battery-electric vehicles just shows how narrow is its vision, ignoring primarily hydrogen fuel cells, but also other technologies such as compressed air power, or liquid air in meeting some of our future transport needs.
Gove might waffle on about the UK being "technological leaders" (we aren't) and "surgical intervention", but he's ignoring his own department's research. The Department of Environment and Climate Change funded study, the AEA's Pathways to 2050, suggests that energy demand in the transport sector will fall by as much as a third by 2050. Road haulage will mainly use biodiesel, and the report's estimate of the UK's 650 billion vehicle kilometres (up from 400 billion kms in 2010) will be largely and equally fuelled by hydrogen and battery electric.
And what if Gove's soothsaying does come to pass? Is there enough electricity? Probably not at the moment. Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) represented almost two per cent of the new-car market last year and likely over two per cent this year. So that's an additional 200,000 EVs in 2017 to join the estimated existing 800,000 EVs already on UK roads. Just to give you an idea here, if you have one million electric cars plugged into 50kW chargers that's a demand for 50,000 mega watts (MW) of electricity. To put that in perspective, the installed capacity of Hinkley Point B nuclear power station is 1,310MW and the London Array, which is the world's largest offshore wind turbine farm, is 630MW.
Even if we can make electricity, how will we charge all the cars? EV users frequently complain of overcrowded charging points, not to mention blatant profit taking by some charge-point providers. Infrastructure needs to be governed and invested in, without ripping people off and stopping us all driving around using electricity to find more electricity. The TRL laboratory recently came up with a plan to have an induction electric vehicle charging lane on the M25, but that would cost £3.9 million a mile and the replacement of the entire carriageway on the 117-mile motorway, costing almost half a billion pounds in total, not to mention the resulting congestion.
So what about Clark's plan for us all to have battery-storage facilities in our homes? Spoiler alert here, this is going to cost you money. All the projections are for the costs of lithium-ion battery storage to fall at a similar rate to that of solar photovoltaic generation, but right now 5kWh of Li-ion storage is going to cost you in the region of £3,000 and that's in a big cardboard box at your front door. Fitting it, and buying and fitting the solar panels and smart electricity meters is going to be several factors of that.
Government grants? Hum, the Government's own renewable energy commitment turned out to be anything but. Besides, it's not really us that need to store electricity. Several papers on the subject assert that it's large-scale utility level energy storage that provides one of the most cost-effective investments in energy, not you with a couple of ex-submarine batteries mouldering in your garden.
Lithium-ion technology is falling in price, but new battery-electric vehicles are about 30 per cent more expensive than their petrol or diesel counterparts and the technology is moving so fast that as Glass's Guide predicted last year, electric vehicles bought today could be obsolete before the end of their normal life. If you want to see how quickly the high tech world dispenses with their old customers take a look how many Apple users the company recently forced into obsolescence when it decided not to maintain security updates for not-so very old machines.
And lithium-ion might not be the answer. Toyota has long harboured this suspicion, which is why it has invested a minimum amount in the technology while pushing the boundaries researching lithium air cells.
So your car will cost you more, you'll use it less and it'll be cheaper but more tricky and a lot more time consuming to fill up. What about the Treasury? Motoring taxes including fuel duties netted the Government over £38 billion in 2011/2012, which is about seven per cent of all UK taxation. Electricity doesn't attract road-fuel taxation and battery cars are zero VED rated, so how to square the circle?
The Smeed report posited road pricing back in the early Sixties, since taken up by professor David Begg and former chancellor Alistair Darling, but these taxes are regressive, frighten people off the road, create rat runs and anomalies in traffic conditions. Besides, they also mean that someone, somewhere knows exactly where you are and where you are going, how fast you got there and how long you stayed. Do we trust Governments with this sort of information? Or Michael Gove? I know I don't.
None of this is to say that EVs won't be interesting to drive, in cases fun, but they won't be an environmental free lunch. Using its NEDC energy consumption figures, and the UK's average generation emission figure of 470g/kW, Volkswagen's popular battery electric e-Golf's CO2 emissions equate to about 56g/km.
So if up to now you've been enjoying virtually free volt-powered motoring in a cheap publically-subsidized electric vehicle, I've got news for you. The future will be far more complicated, expensive and difficult than you can imagine even if we don't actually know what it will be exactly. It almost makes you want to buy a self driving car doesn't it? Don't get me started...
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