So, this is the year of the Electric car. Or is it next year, it’s hard to keep tabs? Either way, it is fair to say that scientific and technological advances have not quite kept up to speed with past predictions.
But now, there are reasons for optimism. The first full electric vehicle from a major manufacturer, the Nissan Leaf, is in production and will soon be available. However it may not be appropriate for everyone – due to its range (circa 100 miles) it is only useful for urban trips, although in fairness it is only marketed as such. However, as a statement of intent it is massive, and it is a huge step forward. Every other major manufacturer is now playing catch-up. Others will follow and before long quality electric cars will be a common sight on our roads. Charging points will become easy to find in major cities, and the government is providing significant financial incentives to promote purchase of these vehicles.
However, can battery powered electric cars ever be more than a stop gap? Will range forever be a problem? Is this a technological cul-de-sac?
Fuel cell vehicles are quite close behind – these are essentially electric cars with an electricity generator on board powered by hydrogen and oxygen from the air. There is no need to carry heavy batteries around and as easy to refill as a petrol or diesel vehicle.
Hyundai stated in 2008 that it will deliver the world’s first production fuel cell vehicle in 2012. In December last year it confirmed that 500 hydrogen vehicles would be rolling off the line that year and up to 10,000 units by 2015. By this time, the cost of the PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane, although I’m sure you knew that – if not, at least remember where you read it first) fuel cell is predicted to decrease to 1% of their current cost.
In California, Scandinavia, Japan and Korea a hydrogen network is growing. In the UK we have nothing.
Imperial College London have predicted that by 2030 Fuel Cell Hybrid Electric Vehicles (FCHEV – a plug in battery mated to a fuel cell generator) will have lower production costs than pure electric vehicles. FCHEV will also be cheapest over the life-time of the vehicle, much cheaper than diesel or petrol cars. Charge at home and refill with hydrogen at a fueling station when you are out and about.
So is the future electric or hydrogen? The UK government is committed to battery powered electric cars so are we in danger of backing the wrong horse or have we got it right?