September 17, 2009
Humanity is at the very beginning of a long process which will lead one day to the electric car. This is the impression one gathers from the 2009 International Automobile Exhibition in Frankfurt.
At present, no more than a few thousand electric cars are running on the roads or streets in Japan, Europe and the USA. The quasi-totality of the global stock of about one billion vehicles is equipped with the 100 year old proven internal combustion engine, most of them running on gasoline.
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But all automobile producers are eagerly researching for a technological advance towards the electric vehicle, with the research focused on high-powered, low-weight and long-range batteries. The breakthrough will only come when cheaper and lighter lithium-ion batteries will be available. Having relied for too long on the internal combustion engine car manufacturers need to enter into alliances with innovative battery firms. For the first time in the history of the automobile, European manufacturers have lost their technological leadership to innovative Chinese and Japanese companies and are desperately scrambling to make good for the time lost.
All major car producers promise to introduce 100 percent electric vehicles to the market in the next 3-4 years. They have no alternative. But these will be no more than test models manufactured in small series for connoisseurs willing to pay the high price and the inconveniences of an innovative vehicle.
The average citizen will be happy with conventional cars with higher fuel efficiency. The industry has made great strides in this area, with all companies offering models with fuel consumption of less than 5 litres/100 km and C02 emissions of less than 120 g/km. The European car industry seems to have well advanced towards implementing the EU emission target of 130 g C02/km for 2015, which has been the subject of harsh controversy among heads of government when finalising the EU climate package in the autumn of 2008.
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But sooner or later the industry will reach physical limits to further improvement of fuel efficiency. It seems next to impossible to envisage consumption standards of less than three litres per 100 km for the average car.
The electric engine is bound to come for two reasons: it reaches inherently higher energy efficiency and, at some stage in the course of the century, oil will become so scarce and expensive that nobody would like to use it for running automobiles.
But there is no urgency. The transition will take two to three decades during which the two technologies will operate in parallel, including the infrastructure for supplying cars with gasoline, gas or electricity.
It will certainly not be before 2050 that the global stock of automobiles, which might have reached up to five billion vehicles by then, will have been converted to fully electric.
Brussels 16.09. 09 Eberhard RheinAuthor : Eberhard Rhein