The rise of electric vehicles (EV) is beginning to look like a slowly developing tsunami.
Just last week, the Nissan Leaf was named the Japanese Car of the Year for 2011-2012 at the prestigious Tokyo Motor Show, a first for EV in the award’s 32-year history.
A quick survey shows dozens of new EV models will enter the market in the next two years not as prototypes or trial vehicles, but actual commercial production models.
Mitsubishi will be delivering its much touted MiEV to the North American market next year, after selling them in Japan for a while. Nissan’s Leaf is already on sale in major markets like the United States and Japan (in fact, the entire year’s production has already been sold, and it is concentrating on deliveries now).
At least 10 EV models have been approved by the British government to qualify for special rebates: the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Peugeot iOn, Citroen C-ZERO, Smart Fortwo electric drive, Nissan Leaf, Tata Vista, Vauxhall Ampera, Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, and Renault Fluence ZE.
Closer to home, the Singapore Government is evaluating the feasibility of EV by test-bedding five Mitsubishi MiEVs and four Daimler smart electric drive vehicles. The trial started in June and will go on well into 2013. Both normal and quick-charging stations have been deployed centrally for convenient access.
“The purpose of the EV test-bed is to gain a better understanding of EV technologies, business models and user preferences which will give us more information to determine the feasibility of using EV in Singapore,” said Chee Hong Tat, chief executive of the Singapore Energy Market Authority, in a media statement.
The drive to go electric is a natural one, given that energy efficiency has been roundly promoted as one of the many solutions to the problem of global warming caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide generated from the combustion of fossil fuels.
The automotive sector naturally attracts attention due to it being a major user of energy. Various parties are pushing for higher fuel economy standards in this sector, and EV fit nicely in the equation.
When measured on a “tank-to-wheels” basis, EV are roughly three times more efficient than cars running on internal combustion engines, and the motors consume no energy when the car is stationary.
However, the picture is not so rosy when looking at the “well-to-wheel” efficiency, While electric and hybrid cars have reduced tailpipe carbon emissions, the energy they consume is sometimes produced by means that have environmental impacts.
For example, the majority of electricity produced in the United States comes from fossil fuels (coal and natural gas), so the use of EV there is far from being carbon-neutral (or even low-carbon). In fact, the efficiency of the latest petrol and diesel engines (like those that are Euro VI-compliant) can match the efficiency of EV in most countries, with roughly comparable CO2 emissions, chiefly because electricity generation is still largely based on burning fossil fuels.
But putting aside the life-cycle analysis perspective, EV do make a difference. They offer virtually noise-free driving (too quiet, in fact, for some people, who argue that EV are dangerous for hearing-impaired pedestrian as they cannot hear one approaching), zero emission at the tailpipe and in some cases, a sense of independence from fossil fuels (if one charges his car using electricity generated from his rooftop solar photovoltaic installation, for example).
Some of the largest obstacles for EV include heavy and expensive batteries, relatively long charging times, and the lack of charging infrastructure. And without massive subsidies, EV are just way too pricey for the masses.
Naturally, proponents of EV technology argue that there is no time to waste, even as matters such as the above are being sorted out.
The British government appears to be one of the most aggressive in rolling out EV, with official sanction for the Plugged-In Places (PIP) programme to install vehicle recharging points across the country.
Under the scheme, the government will match the funding raised by a consortia of businesses and public sector partners to support the installation of EV recharging infrastructure in strategic places.
In Japan, a consortia called Better Place concluded a trial on switchable-battery electric taxis in Tokyo at the end of last year to discern driver behaviour as well as consumer acceptance.
The project focuses on the feasibility of battery switch as means for taxis to have extended range. “There has been very little information about how an EV battery will perform under heavily-used, real-world, taxi conditions.
This programme has provided us with critical insights into the battery performance in a switch model and switch station performance for the toughest customers – taxi drivers,” said Kiyotaka Fujii, President of Better Place Japan, in a press release.
Though Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia registered the first ever EV here this year (a MiEV that is based on its i-MiEV model) for demonstration purposes, the most visible attempt to introduce EV here comes from national car company, Proton, which introduced a fleet of trial vehicles in Putrajaya in September, consisting of three range-extended Exoras (Exora REEV) and five fully-electric Sagas.
The test fleet will eventually be enlarged to 200 Exora REEVs and 120 Saga EVs next year, with the intention of commercial production by 2013. However, the trial is restricted mainly to the government sector, and there is no avenue for public participation, unlike in Singapore, where incentives are given to those who want to contribute data to road trials.
In any case, Proton’s trump card should be the Exora REEV, which it said will help overcome “range anxiety” – the fear of being stranded should the battery runs outs.
The Exora REEV has a tiny petrol-driven generator to top up the battery whenever it runs low.
It can also be charged if the driver can find a wall socket or charging point, as opposed to the Saga EV, which runs purely on batteries.
Range-extended EV, which is another form of hybrid vehicle, will solve the interim problem of a lack of battery charging infrastructure, said Datuk Zainuddin Che Din, project director of Proton’s green tech department.
Officials from the Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry, Proton and Tenaga Nasional Bhd have visited several countries, including Britain, to observe how the charging infrastructure is developed. According to Zainuddin, current laws forbid anyone other than TNB from selling electricity to end-users.
The successful introduction of EV here will depend greatly on the availability of a wide network of charging stations. Charging an EV is not as simple as plugging it into a domestic power socket (though that is possible) as there are safety considerations.
EV owners will be advised to install a proper charging outlet using industrial-spec sockets and connectors.
“EVs are actually quite simple. The main components include an electric motor, controller (electronics) and battery. There is no oil tank, fuel tank, and there are no spark plugs or oil to change,” said Zainuddin during a recent media familiarisation trip to the headquarters of its EV partner, Frazer-Nash, in Surrey, England.
In fact, the first automobiles were electric and invented in the 1830s before the internal combustion engine became popular. While the latter has been the dominant technology for the last century, electric motors remain in use for trains and smaller vehicles (like golf carts and wheelchairs) given their energy conversion efficiency of over 90%.
By offering instant torque and smooth, seamless acceleration, with barely any noise, the electric car’s progress is becoming inevitable, said those in the EV industry. They assert that since these cars typically have half the moving parts of conventional internal combustion engines, lower maintenance cost can be expected.
“For example, by using the electric motors to brake (or regenerative braking), your brake pads last longer. On range extended vehicles, the engines run much less frequently, thus extending greatly the service interval, which no longer need to be based on mileage, but upon the hours of use. An EV will cost a lot less to run, even if there is a premium to be paid to own the car,” said Gordon Dixon, Frazer-Nash’s director for regional operations.
A specialist in EV drivetrains, Frazer-Nash is Proton’s technical partner for its upcoming range of EVs.
Going electric is not the only way to save Earth, though. While waiting for alternative technologies like the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (actually another form of electrification) and EV to mature, there is belief that the average fuel economy of vehicles running on existing internal combution engines can be improved by at least 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.
This belief is best encapsulated in the 50by50 Campaign (50% improvement by 2050) that is driven by the Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI), a multi-sectoral effort to promote fuel efficient vehicles.
Launched in 2009, GFEI is a partnership between the FIA Foundation, the International Transport Forum, the International Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme.
GFEI thinks that the bulk of the gains can actually be made in developing countries such as Malaysia as well as other non-OECD countries, where the number of cars are growing at the fastest rate, and to a lesser extent, in OECD countries.
(OECD or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is a grouping of 34 countries founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade. The bulk of OECD members are developed economies like the United Kingdom, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.)
According to GFEI, the average fuel economy (measured in litres per 100 km) of new cars in OECD countries can be improved 30% by 2020 and 50% by 2030 at either low or zero cost. The good news is that much of the savings can be achieved by improvements to the internal combustion engine, the conventional engine that burn either petrol, diesel or compressed natural gas.
“To achieve a 50% improvement by 2030, the main additional measures would be full hybridisation of a much wider range of vehicles (possibly including, but not requiring, plug-in hybrid vehicle technologies).
Vehicle technology is changing rapidly and more cost-effective technologies are likely to emerge in coming years, increasing the potential and lowering costs further,” said GFEI on its website (globalfueleconomy.org).
“Many of the improvements are achievable using existing, cost-effective, technologies. The technologies required to improve the efficiency of new cars 30% by 2020 and 50% by 2030, and the efficiency of the global car fleet 50% by 2050, mainly involve incremental change to conventional internal combustion engines and drive systems, along with weight reduction and better aerodynamics,” said GFEI.
The European Community, for example, will very soon adopt the Euro VI standard for diesel vehicles, which will spur the creation of ultra-efficient clean diesels. Malaysia, sticking to the antiquated Euro II for diesel, is only beginning to experiment with B5 biodiesel, a mixture consisting of fossil-derived diesel and 5% palm oil diesel.
As the potential for sulphur reduction in our diesel is only 5% at most (corresponding with the percentage of palm oil), improvements in air quality is not expected to be significant, if at all.
While recognising that EV can result in further carbon dioxide reductions and oil savings if they succeed in achieving mass-market commercialisation, GFEI noted that the actual contribution of electric vehicles will depend on the provision of low-CO2 electricity by the electricity generation sector, otherwise it is just akin to transferring the pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant smokestack.
A quick look at TNB’s generation mix show a less than ideal situation, with half of the electricity currently being generated by burning coal.
The percentage of fuel oil and distillates that are burned for power is also very substantial for this year, given a severe reduction in the supply of natural gas for power generation from Petronas.
And so, driving an EV right now is actually not doing any real favours to the environment when viewed from a carbon footprint perspective.
On the other hand, if the electricity comes from lower carbon sources like hydro, nuclear or renewable sources, then EV can take one step closer to being a form of low-carbon commuting.