In a recent conversation with the engineer Celso Novais, the Brazilian coordinator of “Programa VE” (Electric Vehicle Program), from Itaipu Binacional, he told me something that will remain echoing for a long time in my head. “I don’t know which will be the fuel that will power cars in the future, but I am pretty sure about the propulsion system. It will be electric.” And this is not a matter of preference. It is a matter of efficiency.
Electric engines have the best energy conversion efficiency in the world, as you can see in the image above, taken from a study from PennState University. According to it, an internal combustion engine used in a car converts a maximum of 25% of the chemical energy contained in any fuel into kinetic energy or work, as some prefer to name it. There are cars that claim an even higher efficiency, such as the Hyundai Ioniq, with up to 40% in energy conversion efficiency.
If you see no importance in such numbers, since petrol is cheaper, that’s probably because you did not think about it in the right terms. Imagine this: of all the money you spend filling your fuel tank, only 25% is used. All the rest is lost in heat, friction and others competently named by Consumer Energy Center. If you happen to buy an Ioniq, 40% of it is used. But that still implies you are throwing 60% of your money away. Of US$ 100, you burn US$ 60. Isn’t that painful?
Now check the efficiency of an electric motor. Car electric engines are deemed as large ones. Its energy conversion efficiency rate is of 90%. In other words, of your US$ 100, US$ 90 are being converted into kilometers. Financially speaking, electric engines are the best option. What still prevents them from being widely used is scale and batteries.
Due to the industrial capacity already installed for internal combustion engines, calculated at around 200 million a year, they are extremely cheap to produce. Automotive electric motors would have to be produced in a similar scale in order to become competitive. But the main bottle neck is batteries.
This is why Tesla is building Gigafactory 1 in Nevada. The production cost of Tesla cars and of Powerwall, a house battery pack, would drop around 30%. The Gigafactory 1 would be able to supply 500,000 Tesla vehicles when it is in its full capacity, by 2020. It will have 6,500 employees. And Tesla is already aware it will not be enough to supply demand, especially for the Model 3, which will be presented at the end of this month.
In order for the company to start delivering its entry-level model, the Gigafactory 1 will have to be fully operational, something expected to happen by the end of 2017. But this relates to a BEV (battery electric vehicle). And many others may make use of electric engines.
Alternatives cars with electric motors
BMW, for example, offers the i3 with a small combustion engine, a 2-cylinder with 647 cm³ that can increase its range from 160 km in pure electric mode to 300 km with the ICE engine working as a generator. The advantage is that you do not have to stop to recharge the batteries. In case you want to travel a little further, it is only necessary to refill the 9 l petrol tank that powers the 2-cylinder and keep on driving. It is an option and you can see above the i3 with the range extender, on the left, and without it, on the right. Since the ICE engine only operates at its optimum operation conditions, it tends to be more efficient. But it is still an ICE engine.
Toyota has been the first company to sell a fuel cell car to the public, the Mirai. Why the company chose to make it look like this is a mystery, but that it probably to make it “polarizing”, as the Japanese carmaker has said it wanted the C-HR to be. The problem is having everyone on the “ugly pole”. But there is more on the car to criticize than its looks. Have a look below.
It is easy to see this is a regular car adapted to use fuel cells. Why have such a big “engine compartment” when you could place the engine elsewhere? Why not a front luggage compartment, such as the one offered by the Model S? Simple: because the current carmakers want to adapt, not to change. There is a huge investment in metal stamping in order to make car bodies, so they should be more or less the same. Anyway, fuel cells are a very clean way of delivering energy to electric motors because their only byproduct is water. But there are better ways to use them.
The Riversimple Rasa is a clear example of that. It is a Network Electric Car, powered by a small fuel cell and ultra capacitors. It is much lighter than a conventional car. You can read plenty more about it in our article about Rasa and its propositions.
There are also cars that want to use solar or wind power, such as the SAIC-GM Yez concept, but none has proven feasible so far. Solar cells only convert 15% of the energy of solar rays into electricity. But they may become a reality some day. Never say never, dear reader: it can happen. And we will be following all advances in that direction.