Pity the poor middle management engineers at Volkswagen who are getting it in the neck for doing what their bosses told them to do, either explicitly or implicitly. There is a tremendous pool of superb engineering expertise at VW and at all the hundreds, if not thousands of ancillary companies worldwide that provide VW with components for the range of cars produced by the group. For decades they have been honing their skills, shaving ever-decreasing slivers of efficiency out of a mature technology that has been continuously refined for more than a hundred years. And now this technology has reached the end of a glorious innings. The automobile, driven by the internal combustion engine, has changed the face of the earth, has transformed the lives of every one of us. Let’s stand up and pay homage to all the brilliant men and women who developed and refined this means of individual transportation that gave us so much freedom to move, to explore the world.
And before we sit down again, let’s observe a minute’s silence for all the thousands of people who will be out of jobs unless they are flexible enough to retrain, whose expertise will no longer be needed. The VW scandal shows, more clearly than any technical study, that the internal combustion has finally reached its limits. It can no longer cope with the air pollution standards demanded by the finite limits of our planet. Locomotion by means of controlled explosions within a confined space, the basis of internal combustion engines, cannot compete with the smooth power of an electric motor.
I first rented and drove an electric car six years ago. It was an expensive car, very basic, and the battery drained alarmingly quickly. Nevertheless, I could see the potential of the electric motor, and was immeasurably thrilled as the partially drained battery re-charged on a long hill descent, putting back nearly 50% of the power it had used to climb the hill. Not only that, but I hardly touched the brake. The speed of descent could be controlled by selecting between various levels of regenerative braking. That was the epiphany. Range anxiety is like fear of flying. Very real, but irrational.
For a conventional car company like VW, the imperative to continue doing what it knows best is irresistible. Otherwise what are they going to do with the hundreds of specialists on their payroll because electric motors are compact and virtually maintenance free? e-cars don’t need elaborate cooling systems; regenerative braking reduces wear and tear on conventional brakes; service intervals are much longer and costs are lower… the list goes on. What about batteries and range I hear you say? Yes. Batteries are a weak point, but they are getting better all the time. In 2010 my electric bicycle had a range of 25 kilometers with a 7-kilo lithium metal hydride battery pack (the battery pack was susceptible to the memory effect. i.e. it had to be completely drained before recharging). By 2012, my bicycle had a range of 50 kilometers, the lithium ion battery weighed less than 2 kilos and could be charged at any time without worrying about the memory effect. With ICE’s the fuel has to come from far away (often from troubled parts of the world). With an electric car, you can potentially make your own fuel at home and then it’s virtually free. Apart from concern for the planet, the biggest argument is when you think in terms of efficiency. The operating efficiency of an electric car is around 88%. For the best ICE’s after accounting for friction, losses in transmission, combustion, etc., the comparable figure is 15% to 30% (Energy Trends Report, 2008)
So if you have to buy a new car in the near future, project your thinking a little bit into the future and ask yourself: do I want to invest in a dinosaur?