In this article, the authors share why despite the attacks on new mobility technology and the fact that there will always be a desire by some consumers on the fringes to return to the days of travelling in their combustion-powered car, remarkable road trips in the future for most of us will be in an electric, non-polluting vehicles.
At the beginning of the last century, the roads of our cities were rapidly filled up with horse carriages and buggies leaving behind the animal excrement for the inhabitants to smell and causing the local water to be polluted. The situation became so intolerable that when the arrival of the combustion engine posed an alternative, it not only swept away the out-dated technology of horse and cart, but also changed human behaviour and society. Despite the outcries of the establishment – probably above all those working in the horse industry – that the automobile was not reliable, was too expensive for farmers, was dangerous to pedestrians, and could not travel on rough roads, the combustion engine simply was too superior for the horse alternative to be ignored. The automobile gave people the chance to privately travel long distances across the country, not just within cities. Within 10 years, our cities had changed and decades after, new roads and highways were built at tremendous public expenditure, petrol stations emerged, motels appeared, and life has never been the same. Nowadays in the U.S.A., over 86% of transportation is comprised of passenger vehicles, motorcycles, and trucks.
However, like all successful advancements that changed human behaviour, it replaced old challenges with new ones. As technology became more widespread, these challenges started to accumulate as fast as the animal excrement had and by the time the next century came about, these shortcomings could no longer be ignored. One look at our roads, our skies and cities and it is blatantly obvious. During rush hours or holidays, productive working or relaxing time is wasted. Individuals are enclosed in metal boxes weighing over a ton, and moving slowly forward while inhaling polluted air with cancerous particles which pose a more deadly health risk than horses ever did. The picture is the same in all our cities from Berlin to Baghdad, Bangkok to Buenos Aires or Boston to Baton Rouge.
As the shortcomings became more obvious, engineers on the fringes started to increasingly address them with new solutions and technological inventions. These obviously challenged the status quo of our cities and the vested interests in the old technology. The businesses and industries associated with the combustion engine did not embrace these alternatives but rather fought them while still paying lip service and pretending to have embraced progress. They are stuck in the innovators dilemma. On one hand, they need to do so, in order to ensure that their competitive advantage of producing a highly sophisticated machine remains a source of value for their firms. At risk are tens of billions of dollars in intangible assets in the form of patents and production know-how as well as logistic chains to ensure the smooth manufacturing of the combustion engine. On the other hand, their governance and capital market dependency does not allow them to accept shrinking margins and high cash outflows associated with the market introduction of the new technology. Nevertheless, for many of these firms, their very survival is at risk, so they do what countless of other industries did before them when facing radical technological alternatives, they; a) defend their out-dated technology with promises of further improvement; b) measure the upcoming technology with old standards in order to discredit its potential; and c) dismiss the threat that the broad social changes of the new technology will bring about.
Promises on how to clean up Diesel by 2020 or assumptions about making driving safer through using more driver-assisted gadgets should be put into context. These technologies have been around for over a century. The brutal reality of Everett Rogers’ famous S-Curve technology theory has simply caught up with them. In his 1962 publication “Diffusion of Innovations” he explains the concept of growth (technological advancement in our case) plotted over time. The S-curve shows a slow process at the start of research into the technology followed by a rapid acceleration in the middle phase and finally tapering or levelling off towards the end of the curve. The combustion engine has reached the end of this cycle and further advancement in this cycle and further advancement to this technology absorbs an increasing amount of resources. Put in a different way, more and more R&D is required for less and less technological improvement. However, only the bold would dare to abandon their previously created value in this know-how and start investing in the next S-curve – the electric powertrain. It is obvious that those with the highest sunk costs in the old S-curve (i.e. large automobile firms and suppliers) are the last to dare this move. Instead it is left to new comers (i.e. Tesla, Evelozcity) to disrupt the industry.
In their desperate attempt to hang on to their valuable knowledge and patents, the industry goes into a public relations “offensive” trying to measure the new technology by old standards. The four most frequent attacks on new mobility technology are 1) e-cars also require energy to move and hence we are just shifting the pollution and energy consumption from the vehicle itself to oil/gas/coal/nuclear power stations somewhere else; 2) the production and eventual disposal of the batteries in an e-car are a source of dangerous pollution that has not been solved; 3) our electricity network would collapse as a result of the increased demand from e-mobility; and 4) the e-car technology is no alternative yet because it does not enable us to charge our cars as fast as we can refill it at a petrol station (“charging anxiety”), nor does it allow consumers to travel vast distances – close to a 1000km range on a single tank (“range anxiety”). nor does it allow consumers to travel vast distances – close to a 1000 km range on a single tank (“range anxiety”). Apart from these there are numerous other mainly laughable concerns raised, which we won’t go further into detail. Suffice to point out for example, the danger of the quietness of the e-car compared to the noise of a combustion engine. A problem so irrelevant that it can and has been solved by a $5 gadget that “beeps” when a car goes into reverse.
On the first challenge, it is indeed a physical reality that any acceleration or forward movement against air resistance requires energy. However, the efficiency with which we convert primary sources of energy such as oil and gas into this forward movement matters tremendously. It is furthermore an undeniable reality that the machines and process, which are being used to convert these primary sources into energy, operate in a real world and under the same rules of physics as any other machine. Admittedly this is stating the obvious but nevertheless required to be able to see the absurdity of the challenge. A combustion engine inside a car needs to be 1) small enough to fit inside the vehicle; 2) light enough to ensure that the vehicle remains mobile; and 3) clean enough for the pollution created by the process to be tolerated by humans walking next to them in cities. Each engine powers exactly one car only and needs to be produced again and again for each separate vehicle with all its sophisticated parts. The engine takes the primary energy source and converts it through up to 6000 explosions per minute into forward movement while at the same time moving itself; a technological miracle of engineering to be admired. The conversion from primary energy sources to electricity follows a very different path. Enormous power stations located outside of cities have virtually no restrictions as to their size or weight and require no mobility at all. A single power station can power millions of cars and machinery. The pollution created can even be filtered at a single source making an investment in better environmental control more efficient. Stating the obvious, an industrial filter in a power station is substantially more efficient than a filter inside a car. As any physicist or engineering student in his first year will attest to, the design of a machine faces compromises between energy conversion efficiency (in our case, efficiency is the percentage of available energy in fuel converted into actual energy for forward movement and acceleration) and other restrictions imposed on it. If the machine needs to be smaller – it will lose efficiency; if it needs to be lighter – it will lose efficiency; if it needs to be mobile – it will lose efficiency; if it needs to be built affordably a million times, again and again – it will lose efficiency. That is an undeniable reality which when converted into numbers means that a modern combustion engine inside a car has an efficiency ratio of just over 20% compared to a modern power plant which operates at over 70%. So, 10 litres of petrol in our tank, which might allow us to travel 100km would generate sufficient electricity to allow us to travel for over 350km. The difference in efficiency is actually even higher considering the costs and energy required to convert crude oil into petrol through refining and then transport it to petrol stations located throughout the country.
Let us turn towards the second challenge outlined above – the environmental damage caused by the production and disposal of the batteries required to power electric vehicles. Admittedly, the scientific research here on environmental concerns is still in its infancy but so far there is indication that it poses a substantially lower risk to the known exposure of environmental damage which we have experienced from oil exploration (see Deepwater Horizon), transportation (see Exxon Valdez) or eventual and continuous consumption (see Dieselgate). However, the fact that there are risks, some of them unknown, should not stop us from pushing ahead and progress. After all, pollution from horse manure in cities was obviously more disturbing than pollution from combustion exhausts. Humanity did not even contemplate, at the time, that the use of petrol in vehicles would lead to oil spillages of entire coastlines or substantially increase risks of cancer and respiratory related illnesses in the population. As research in this area intensifies, great solutions are emerging in the recycling and refurbishment of car batteries. The restoration of the chemistry in batteries is one approach taken. The other is the use of car batteries for stationary purposes when their vehicle related use has come to an end. It is estimated that even with our present know-how, these ex-vehicle batteries still have over 10 years usable life in a stationary function. One final point on this is, of course, the combustion engine technology itself is not free of batteries either. So, to stop progress in e-car mobility based on this concern should equally be applied to the starter engine inside our conventional cars, which are powered by electricity provided by a battery.
Turning to the third major challenge – our electricity network would not cope with the increased demand for electricity generated from e-car mobility. A series of simple calculations should put our concerns at rest. Let us focus on the automobile capital of the world – Germany. There are about 40 million cars in Germany, with each car driving about 10,000 km per year. An electric car consumes about 20 kwh per 100 km. So, if all those cars are eventually replaced by electric vehicles, the entire electricity consumed by cars would be an additional 80,000,000,000 kwh or 1,000 kwh per capita. Presently, Germany consumes 6,600 kwh per capita per year and could easily increase this to 7,600 kwh per capita. This would place them at about the same electricity consumption per capita as Russia, Japan, Belgium, or Switzerland (all between 7,000–8,000 kwh per capita), which is substantially less than South Korea, Australia, Luxembourg or New Zealand (8,000–10,000 kwh per capita) and around half the consumption of the U.S.A., Canada, Sweden, or Finland (all over 10,000 kwh). There simply is no reason to assume that the usually so efficient Germans would not be able to cope with this challenge when other industrialised nations have been capable of doing so. A further argument of course is that the capacity to deliver sufficient electricity is not challenged by per capita consumption averaged over a year but instead by peak consumptions. Industry and consumers need to be assured that electricity is available at all times even when there is peak consumption. Here the recharging pattern actually helps to smooth out consumption cycles. In all countries, peak demand or peak load follow the same working patterns of the economy. Electricity consumption increases as people rise, from 6am onwards, reaches a plateau at around 9am, starts falling off from 6pm and has an increased drop as people go to bed from 11pm onwards. Charging cycles of electric cars work in exactly the reverse – they start when people reach their home at 7pm ,remain constant throughout the night and reduce as the vehicles are put in use from 7am onwards. The end result is that the daily consumption of electricity actually is smoothened out making it easier for the power utilities to cover and accommodate the modest increase in electricity demand. Simple timers on the night recharging stations could further reduce any stress on peak demand. If this argument is still unconvincing then perhaps Elon Musk’s (CEO of Tesla Inc.) answer to the question “From where will all the electricity to power your cars come from?” might suffice. He responded that all the electricity required to refine crude oil into fuel is enough to power his cars. Indeed with our present technology, we require about 1.6kwh to refine 1L of fuel – at a fuel consumption of 10 L/100 km, this is almost the same as the consumption of an electric car for the same distance (about 20 kwh).
Let us turn to the last and most sustained challenge against e-car mobility – that present technology is no alternative to the combustion engine because it does not enable consumers to charge their cars as fast as refilling them at a petrol station (so called “charging anxiety”); nor drive as long distances as their current combustion engine drivetrains allow (“range anxiety”). In order to back up this argument, the industry and increasingly the consumers, pose two statistical questions to e-car manufacturers that are almost as irrelevant as the consumer questions previously posed to combustion engines about top speed and acceleration to 100 km/h. These are 1) how many hours does it take to recharge the battery and 2) what is its total range. In order to follow why these are almost irrelevant questions, one needs to understand that the development of e-mobility could also result in a natural shift of social and cultural consumer behaviour. Just like how the introduction of the combustion engine over a hundred years ago not only led to replacing the horse and cart but also meant that people behaved differently.
Firstly and stating the obvious, an electric vehicle is not required to be driven to a petrol station to refill, which poses a great advantage. The currently existing electric grid allows access to charging virtually anywhere where there is electricity – overnight at home, in a garage while watching a movie, at the company car park where there is a socket, in front of a restaurant while eating, or when parked on the street where there are street lamps. Electricity is everywhere, unlike petrol stations. Furthermore, and again unlike petrol stations, these charging opportunities require virtually no real estate to be used. Petrol stations not only create bad smell and ground water pollution from spillage, they also use up valuable space in congested cities and lead to a drop of real estate value around them. Charging opportunities can be incorporated easily in the existing infrastructure of car parks and garages. All that is needed is access for the cars to be plugged in and charged accordingly. This is like having odourless petrol stations everywhere with simple “fuel” nozzles that fit into our e-cars. Once the market that would deliver electricity is liberated from electric companies’ monopolies, the upfront investment required to install these nozzles are miniscule. As a result, the e-cars could be charged constantly when they are not in use without the additional time and effort required to drive to a petrol station, wait in line, handling poisonous, flammable and unhealthy substances and depart with petrol smelling hands and cloths. Given that the average car in the industrialised world is used less than 5% of the day – it makes no difference how long it will take to recharge the battery. The consumer does not have to wait next to his car until it is filled up (unlike a combustion engine) nor does he have to wait for the tank to be almost empty. He simply plugs it in when possible even when the energy remaining is 80%. Anybody who has ever driven an electric car can attest to the fact that recharging behaviour changes completely in two respects 1) no more waiting while recharging and 2) recharging even when the tank is still relatively full. Hence the consumer is totally agnostic as to how long it takes to recharge the battery from totally empty to totally full, the existing technology is obviously good enough to meet demands.
Next to “charging anxiety” (i.e. the ability to find convenient on the spot charging stations), the second consumer fear that is widely reported to cause doubts about e-cars is “range anxiety” (i.e. the fear of not reaching a desired destination). Several German automobile manufacturers have been delaying the launches of e-car models until their battery technology reaches the range of 250 km or more – allowing the new e-car competition to continue gaining market share. There are several reasons why range anxiety will ultimately not be a deterrent for consumers to buy e-cars. Firstly, in reality already today, most people travel substantially less per day or per trip than the available range offered by existing electric car models. In a survey encouraged by the European Commission and conducted as part of the JRC Scientific and Policy Report, the average trip distance in six European countries ranged from less than 15km for personal trips in Italy to 35 km for personal trips in Spain (business trips and personal trips in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and UK were measured). The total average range driven per day was between 40 km (UK) and 80 km (Poland). The report concluded that “such distances can be comfortably covered by battery electric vehicles currently already available on the market.” Granted, the more relevant analysis would not have been an average km per trip but a distribution of trips per distance to see what percentage of total trips a range of 200 km would cover. Nevertheless, the substantial gap between range available (200 km) and range travelled (80 km) would lead us to the same conclusion as the report itself.
Consumers are enjoying the freedom of their private mobility not only on a daily or typical weekend at home basis but ever so often use their combustion engine car for a lengthy road trip or to drive long distances to their holiday destination. It is in this area where we need to take a step further back and make some predictions about future social behaviour. What will become of the legendary “road trip”? Consumer patterns are already indicating that the long drive from North Europe, along French toll roads to the sunny Mediterranean coasts are being replaced by low-cost flight alternatives. Especially the younger generation, who no longer relish the long hours waiting in hot metal cans, sitting in traffic jams, listening to a common radio station when they can save money and time by taking alternative means of transportation while listening to their private music collection on their iPhone. As an example, Ryanair’s number of customers has already exploded from 75 million in 2011/12 to over 130 million in 2017/18. In addition, the rapid development of fast charging networks, coupled with technology to significantly shorten charging times will provide viable and acceptable alternatives to long distance travel.
For sure there will always be a desire (by some consumers on the fringes) to return to the days of the nostalgic “road trip” in their combustion powered car, smelling petrol fumes and roaring engines, just like some people still love going to the countryside to ride their horses on a farm and through green fields. However, for most of us, the future will consist of being driven quietly to work and home in an electric, non-polluting vehicle that easily charges itself when not in use. There simply is no stopping technology.
About the Authors
Stefan Krause is CEO and Founder of EVelozcity, an electric vehicle company addressing the future needs of urban mobility. He has over 30 years business experience, including 14 years experience as a Management Board Member of German Blue Chip companies. Prior to this, he had a dynamic career building tenure at BMW that began in 1987. He holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Würzburg in Germany and serves as the President of the Schmalenbach-Gesellschft, a prestigious academic and business association in Germany.
Dr Boris N. Liedtke is the Distinguished Executive Fellow at INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute and has over twenty years experience in the financial sector. He was the CEO of the largest bank by assets in Luxembourg and board member for Operations at the largest German fund manager. He is author of numerous articles on finance and trade as well as having received his PhD from the London School of Economics for the publication of Embracing a Dictatorship by MacMillan.