There is a widespread believe that we are currently witnessing the start of an electric driving revolution. Wherever I look, commentators seem to be in agreement that fossil fuels are on their way out. The only point of debate is how quickly this revolution is going to happen, and whether governments should introduce regulations to speed it up.
I, however, have my doubts that this revolution is real. Instead, I feel that this is little more than a hyped fashion, which will soon be calmed down by reality. Looking at the facts, it seems likely that a big proportion of future transportation will continue to be powered by carbon fuels. Electricity has some inherent flaws that can unlikely be overcome by engineering. The whole idea that electricity is the future of transportation is more driven by environmentalist ideology rather than facts. As such, it is not a market revolution, but one ordered from the top.
Why do people have the impression that electricity is the future? Has there been any kind of breakthrough in technology? It does not look like it. Instead, the source for the enthusiasm has a name – Elon Musk. As the CEO of Tesla, he is the mastermind behind the currently biggest electric car manufacturer.
Why is Tesla so successful? Musk does not appear to have done a lot of innovation when it comes to electric cars. His most impressive achievement is actually that he has managed to figure out how to re-use space rockets. But even Musk is powering those with fossil fuels, and we are going to see why that is.
When it comes to electric cars, Musk has done two things. Firstly, he has replaced the tank of his cars with batteries. But not special batteries, just normal batteries. The technology used has essentially been available for decades. Considering this, it might seem strange that none of the established car manufacturers had this idea before Tesla.
Except, of course, they did. Companies like BMW – with headquarters in Germany, the capital of green brain damage – have experimented with electric cars for much longer than Tesla has. But the result was always been the same – no one really was interested in buying them. Not even true greens wanted to drive one. Cars are generally too individualistic for even the modern comrade. Public trains are the politically correct choice of transport.
And non-comrades were certainly not interested in replacing their fuel engines. Electric cars have some real disadvantages. The most obvious one is that batteries will not get you as far as carbon fuels. To get to any kind of usable distance, engineers have to use a significant proportion of the car as a battery storage. But even than, Tesla cars only get to around a third to half the distance of combustion engines. The reason for that is simple – batteries cannot store nearly as much energy within the same space as carbon fuels. That is to say their energy density is a lot lower.
And once the car has run out of juice, it will take a long time to recharge. Not everyone is willing to take a longer break every 200 miles. This is another real disadvantage. Addressing that problem, Tesla, to their credit, has invented a technology that can recharge their batteries in 30 mins to 80%. Musk has created a quite impressive network of these so called super chargers. This makes batteries at least somewhat usable. But still, 30 mins is a compromise to the max 5 mins of refueling with non-electric cars.
As compensation for these disadvantages, one would hope that there would at least be an economic incentive to go electric. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Electric cars are much more expensive than traditional carbon fuel ones. Even though combustion engines are heavily taxed, and electric cars heavily subsidized, the consumer still pays a large premium for the privilege of driving an inferior car.
And that is the reason why consumers have rejected electric cars throughout history. For most people, it does matter whether they spend $20 000 more or less on a car. That premium is real money, even for those who are scared of global warming. And in my experience, when it comes to their own money, everyone is a capitalist, no matter what other ideology people pretend to hold.
Considering this, it was very predictable that consumers would reject an inferior, more expensive product. And they have done so for a very long time. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, when cars were a new technology, many car companies offered electric models. All of them were discontinued very quickly because of their inferiority to combustion engines.
This never changed, until Tesla came along. If there is one thing that Elon Musk did right, it is that he realized that electric cars are an expensive luxury. Therefore, trying to sell them to impoverished environmentalists is not a good strategy. People who do not care about money are a much better audience. We are talking about rich people who can afford to simply buy an electric cars as another one in their collection, and therefore neglect the disadvantages. Rich people, however, do not buy toy cars, if they cannot function as a status symbol.
And so Musk designed his Tesla models as powerful luxury cars. One of the big advantages of electric motors is that, as long as the engineers allocate enough energy to it, they can be much more powerful than combustion motors. The established car manufactures, however, were most concerned with saving energy, because of the low energy density of batteries. Consequently, producing powerful cars, which consume a lot of energy, were not really on their agenda.
Tesla changed that and Bingo! It turns out environmentalist ideology has penetrated society so deeply that rich people do like to be seen driving electric cars, as long as they look cool and are fun to drive. Musk, therefore, discovered where the real market for electric cars was. However, if it is true that the reason for Tesla’s success is to sell, in many ways inferior, but powerful and very expensive, cars to rich people than how will this lead to a revolution in electric cars for everyone? After all, for most people all the disadvantages still apply.
And this is not even the full story. In reality, Tesla cannot even sell luxury electric cars profitably. The company is a creature of cheap central bank credit. Despite the fact that the Tesla’s expensive cars are very popular, and that every single one of these cars is subsidized by the government, Musk has never made a profit, not even close. In fact, Tesla is loosing money on every car it sells, and seems to try to make it up on volume.
Central banks are the only reason why Tesla could grow to this size. And they are the only reason why the company is still around. Thanks to easy money policies, there is a lot of cheap speculative investment money available. This money helped Tesla to continue manufacturing, despite the apparent unprofitability. But at this point, it should dawn on even die hard Tesla fans that their darling is unlikely to survive. One wonders, why Musk is not straight with his investors about this reality. His silence, and outright denial, does not make him a very trust worthy fellow.
One wonders, if he is hoping for a miracle. But if so, it is not going to come. Instead, Tesla is sailing with green energy into a perfect storm. It won’t be able to produce cars productively any time soon. In addition to that, credit is drying up, thanks to central banks raising interests rates. As if that was not enough, the established car manufactures, who, unlike Musk are very experienced in producing cars productively, are about to enter the market with their own luxury electric cars.
And outside the luxury car market, electric cars still face all the disadvantages they have already faced since cars were invented. For a general change to happen, we would therefore need to see these disadvantages to shrink very significantly, or ideally to disappear completely.
Firstly, there is the costs of batteries. Currently, batteries are very expensive. That should give us a clew as to how readily available the building materials are. The scarcity of materials is the main reason why Tesla has problems producing enough cars to satisfy demand. Its customers usually have to wait a long time for delivery. This illustrates that current battery technology is not very scalable. And this problem is already apparent when hardly anyone is driving electric cars.
That means that before we can all drive electrically, we need to first find a battery technology that uses more available, and therefore cheaper materials. To my knowledge, this will still have to be invented, and is therefore the first real break in the revolution. Nevertheless, this seems to be an achievable goal, at least in theory.
Next, these cheaper batteries would need to charge more quickly. For a lot of people, 30 mins is already acceptable. But particularly for commercial use, this is still too long to compete. That is particularly true given that we will soon see driverless vehicles. Therefore, drivers won’t need a break to rest anymore. That means, every extra charging time is a net economic loss. If the whole transportation industry were to go electric, this would add up to a huge loss of wealth. And again, this is an unsolved problem at the moment. But just like the cost factor, it seems conceivable that this problem will be fixed in the future.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the energy density of batteries. And it is here where we are facing a really hard problem. A few month ago I came cross a video of the youtuber thunderfoot, in which he argues that we are already at an optimum capacity for batteries. Thunderfoot is a professional chemist, and his reasoning seems very compelling.
The argument is simply this – to increase the capacity of a battery means to increase its energy density. The problem with that is that, while this is in theory possible, it will always come with a huge safety trade off. By increasing the energy density, a battery will inevitably become more dangerous.
A battery, by its very nature, needs to contain all the elements needed to release the energy. Any such compact system is at risk of releasing that energy in an uncontrolled way. By now, we are very aware of what can happen, if a battery goes into malfunction. The reaction resulting from an uncontrolled energy release is already quite violent. That, for example, is the reason why certain batteries are banned from flights.
To make matters worse, once ignited, it is very difficult to stop the reaction. That is precisely because the system does not need any external elements, like oxygen, to continue. Once a battery in an electric car starts to burn, it is difficult to extinguish it.
And that is already a problem with the current energy density of batteries. But imagine we increase that density even further. The more we increase the energy density, the less safe the system becomes. Currently, batteries have about an energy density which is 1/10 that of TNT. That means, if we were to increase the energy density of batteries by 10 fold, we would end up with a bomb in our cars, equivalent to the same weight of TNT. That does not sound like such a good idea.
But here is the thing – gasoline has about 10 times the energy density of TNT. So in order to get the energy density of batteries to match that of gasoline, we would need to create an energy system that, if anything goes wrong, would be 10 times as explosive as TNT. It seems quite crazy to put that into a car.
The reason why gasoline is so save is because it can be stored away from the element that is needed to release the energy, which is oxygen. Since oxygen is everywhere in the atmosphere, we can just use that oxygen spontaneously wherever we are. This, btw. also saves us a lot of storage space, making it even more efficient. And if anything goes wrong, we can easily extinguish an accidental fire by cutting it off from oxygen. This makes it an incredibly save system with a very high energy density. It does not look like we can get better than that, even in theory. In other words, gasoline is an optimal energy storage. That is why Musk is using it to move his rockets.
If this argument is correct, then that means we cannot hope for future battery technologies to become anywhere near as energy dense as the fossil fuels we use at the moment. The laws of thermodynamics, which are hard physics, seem to be in the way of achieving that goal. And if that is true, then obviously the idea of electricity being the future of transportation is fundamentally misguided. At least if that electric energy will come from batteries.
It very much looks like burning gas on the go is the best source of mobile energy we can hope for. That means, that anyone who needs a lot of mobile energy, like big ships, planes and even lorries will likely continue to use it, maybe forever. If this is true, then the only question remaining is where will the fuels come from? Will it be fossil fuels, or self made fuels?
It is certainly possible to indirectly use electricity as a mobile energy source. The electricity will then produce the fuel that is used for mobile energy. For that to be profitable, however, electricity would need to be significantly cheaper as it is right now, as the majority of the energy is lost in the fuel production. Nevertheless, in that scenario the vehicles would still continue to burn these fuels while they are driving. And it does not look like that this is going to change anytime soon, if ever. So I am sorry, but the electric vehicle revolution is largely an illusion.