/ Motoring

Improve electric cars or hydrogen will overtake

Man charging an electric car

Electric cars are the future. At least, that’s what manufacturers are leading us to believe with cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. But are there better options, like hydrogen, that should be explored more?

There have been two fundamental reasons for me to pose these questions this week.

Firstly, a report released by a US automotive industry research firm, J.D Power, and secondly an insightful email from Which? reader Allan Parsons.

What’s turning us off electric cars?

The report, Drive Green 2020: More hope than reality, highlighted three key issues the public has with electric vehicles (EVs):

  • 17% of those surveyed said they’d be interest in an electric car, but this plummeted to just 5% when they were told they’d have to pay a $15k premium for one.
  • Consumers were put off by higher ownership costs of electric cars, with EVs expected to depreciate faster.
  • Although they wanted to reduce their carbon footprint, helping save the environment carried a relatively low weight for consumers when buying a new car.

So money is a key factor in people’s decisions to buy electric. But the key aspect of electric cars which turns my nose up is the impractical range and charge figures the manufacturers appear to be promoting.

For example, the Nissan Leaf will do just 100 miles on a full charge. And although you can do a ‘fast charge’ in 15 minutes at an EV charge point, which will give you 80% capacity and ultimately another 80 miles, first you have to find one. If you want to fully charge the batteries, you have to have the car plugged into a mains socket for a full eight hours!

I’m not sure how happy I’d be about reducing my carbon footprint by buying a Leaf for the same price as a Lotus Elise, and then having to walk the final third of my 150-mile round trip to work every day because of the limited range.

Is hydrogen the future?

And it looks like I’m not the only one who is slightly sceptical about the immediate future of electric cars. Allan Parsons, a retired scientist and lifetime subscriber to Which?, also shared many of the concerns I’m having and wrote to Which? Convo about them.

He underlined the scientific and economic benefits of hydrogen as the prime future fuel, and this extract from his email summed up his argument most poignantly for me:

‘If you take into consideration that it is quite easy and cheap to convert all current petrol/diesel fuelled cars to directly burn hydrogen (in the same sort of way that they can be modified to burn LPG), it should be apparent that overall this is a much more carbon-neutral scenario. This is because it does not require the whole of the world’s current petrol/diesel car stock to be junked and replaced with brand new, very expensive, electric cars.’

But am I just being too narrow-minded about EVs? Maybe electric cars should be treated with completely different expectations to those we have from a lifetime of combustion engine vehicles? I guess I’d have more time to ponder these thoughts on the 50-mile walk home on my daily commute if I did buy a Leaf.

Comments
Member

For a basic shopping cart which is little more than an electric milk float of old, the present electric cars ‘might’ just about rank as usable, if horribly uneconomic. However, as noted the costs are not remotely acceptable and it is hard to see such vehicles as a real prospect. Hydrogen has several considerable advantages and one or two real drawbacks. The main draw back is the highly volatile nature of the gas which is, to say the least, very keen to burn. So far it is also unclear how much hydrogen could be stored in the car and thus how much range one could obtain.
Perhaps the greatest plus for hydrogen is the fact that it can be produced when it can be produced and stored for use when it is needed, thus decoupling generation from consumption and functioning somewhat like a ‘storage battery’. This could mean either the much derided and probably somewhat useless wind driven generators, or perhaps solar installations along, with many other possible or potential sources. However, while generating small amounts of power which could simply generate hydrogen from water is relatively easy, storing hydrogen by compression is not. So how much range could be pumped into a hydrogen car and at what cost?
Today I am likely to do almost no mileage, perhaps 10 miles, yesterday I did about 160 miles and much of the previous week has been somewhat like yesterday. I am retired but have considerable, but variable demands on my time. An electric car would be totally useless for me, currently a petrol car which achieves close to 60 miles per gallon is meeting the needs, though even with that mileage I have to visit the filling station far too often at the moment!
This brings up other possible issues with the hydrogen car, e.g.
1) How much of the gas would leak out while the demand was low? How would venting be safely handled?
2) What would the refuelling arrangements be? Local, e.g at home or at only refuelling points? If the latter then the idea of home generation is out of the question.
3) Would a fuel cell be a better prospect than a traditional 4 cycle engine?
4) Even if the obvious issues were easily addressed, how much range could be delivered for a hydrogen car and how will the ‘real world’ costs pan out?

Member
pickle says:
5 November 2010

Hydrogen cars have been produced – their range is much the same as petrol powered cars. The element which gives the electric power is a fuel cell unit. The big problem is availability of hydrogen “pumps”, but no doubt this will be overcome in time. I think this is the way to go in future.
The short range of electric cars is the main snag – OK for city types but not for general use.
Which ever fuel is used there is the problem of generation with consequent carbon generation. Until the fuel can be made using recyclable principles we are stuck with carbon emissions.

Member

When batteries can be produced – and produced at an affordable price and not be full of environmentally destructive components – which can be charged as quickly as a petrol or diesel car can be filled with fuel, then and only then will electric cars be viable for general use.

Member

Battery cars might e fine for quite a few people, a 100 mile range would suit me most of the time, but not if expensive batteries needed replacing every few years. Many years ago I was involved in testing NIFE cells and they seemed to last without loss of performance for years and I understand that they are far less fussy about treatment than lead acid. Could they be used for cars?

It is the continuing costs that seem important if electric cars are to become popular.

Member

Interesting point about NIFE cells – I also did some research on them – one advantage was their ability for very rapid charge and discharge cycles without damage – these would seem useful as e-car batteries – but they have never been used commercially in any motor vehicle as far as I know.

Member

Sorry to come back but what on earth is any one doing a 150mile daily commute, they should be discouraged.

Member
Jeff says:
28 January 2016

What as in discouraged and forced to buy another home they may not be able to afford closer to their job? Or discouraged from applying for a job unless it’s closer to their home! Get real. It’s called freedom of choice – we don’t Iive in a communist state. Yet!

Member
Phil says:
6 November 2010

Hydrogen cars are not carbon neutral.

Currently the most common method of producing hydrogen is to extract it from natural gas, the carbon being thrown away. It would be far more sensible, and more “green”, to simply run the car on the natural gas. Before hydrogen can become a carbon neutral fuel there needs to be a massive investment in alternative methods of production, a huge increase in renewable and nuclear electricity generating capacity which is going to take a generation or more to build. The way things are at the moment we won’t have enough electricity to meet our current needs, let alone the extra demands of millions of electric and hydrogen cars.

Member

Thanks for the comments guys, all really good stuff.

I agree that, although some might say electric cars will suit their needs, battery-powered vehicles with a 100-mile range just can’t be depended on in every day life. We’d have to change our means of thinking before travelling anywhere. Instead of thinking ‘that’s probably too far to drive’, we’ll have to think about how we’ll get back!

As most of the comments here suggest, the broader cost of ownership of an electric car seems to be far steeper than what we are accustom to. I recently had to replace an engine and gearbox in a Renault Scenic after 80,000 tough motoring miles. Considering the mileage and relatively low