Edit(July 2018): Originally, I did not mention that emissions from internal combustion engines contain a mix of chemicals besides CO2 and water that can be hazardous for health or harmful for the environment. I am not expert on these issues, and am just giving my best overview on the pros and cons of different vehicular propulsion technologies as I understand them. Car emissions can include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and hydrocarbons. Different fuels may burn cleaner or dirtier than others. As I understand it, lighter, more volatile fuels, such as natural gas, tend to burn more cleanly, while heavier thicker, less viscous fuels, such as diesel, burn dirtier.
Electric cars offer incredible possibilities, because they are a unique and flexible technology for converting stored energy into locomotion.
Electric cars are not a new idea, some of the earliest experimental cars were electric. But over the last two decades, electric vehicles have become much more viable, thanks to improvements in battery tech.
While there have been several successful electric vehicles, we have yet to experience a truly disruptive product that redefines our idea of the “car”, or vehicular transport in general. Unfortunately, this is not primarily based on technology limits, instead, it is complacent consumer habits, boring business strategies, and unimaginative investment decisions that are holding us back.
Improved battery technology, combined with smartphone scale computing, has made waves in small consumer products — such as drones or hoverboards, but electric vehicles are still a niche offering, only available at the middle or high end of the price scale. Toys and status symbols are nice, but this is not where electric technology offers the most value. We have been wasting a huge opportunity. Companies are trying to design electric vehicles as a 1-to-1 replacement for the traditional automobile, but this is a bad strategy because each technology has unique strengths and weaknesses. The traditional automobile was designed around the unique strengths and weaknesses of the Internal Combustion Engine, or “ICE”, so we need electric vehicles that play to the unique strengths of electric technology.
Electric cars do not make the internal combustion engine, or “ICE”, obsolete. Replacing the ICE is a bad strategy for designing and promoting electric vehicles. The ICE still offers a lot of value as a technology.
With internal combustion, organic fuel — readily available, easily distributed, and energy dense — is mixed with air(also readily available), and sparked or compressed to create controlled explosions. This means that half of the chemical reactants are simply pulled in from the ambient air as they are needed, and the waste products can be expelled back into the ambient air. The primary waste products, carbon dioxide and water, are completely safe and inert, except for CO2’s effect as a greenhouse gas(ICE emissions can also contain other dangerous or noxious chemicals in varying amounts).
Battery technology, in contrast which uses carefully engineered layers of metals and other chemicals to store electrical potential energy. Any technology storing large amounts of energy is potentially dangerous, and batteries are no exception, especially as we continue to test their limits. Batteries tend to be heavier, and more expensive up front, but it is hard to compare them 1-to-1 because of the many variables involved.
How many charges will a battery support over its lifetime? How long does it take for a battery to recharge? How much weight does the battery add per unit of energy storage? How much cost does the battery add per unit of energy storage? Do we have the infrastructure to support battery powered electric vehicles? Do secondary chemicals present ICE vehicular emissions, create hazards for public health or the environment?
To compare batteries and traditional fuel, we have to make assumptions about how the technology is used. This is exactly why we need to find the best uses for each, instead of trying to compare them head to head and choose a winner.
We definitely need to dramatically reduce vehicular emissions. I walk, bike, skateboard, and take the bus to get around. I drive or ride in a car only a handful of times each year. I want to see more people live like this. On the other hand, ICE vehicles are an indispensable and cost effective technology for communities, individuals, and our economy. But if we don’t reduce carbon emissions, global CO2 levels will continue to rise, with costs that will hurt humanity and the rest of the planet over generations.
What do I mean when I say “Electric vehicles should not be a 1-to-1 replacement for traditional ICE vehicles”? We need to look at the basic capabilities of traditional vehicles. Most consumers will automatically reject a product that does not meet their basic expectations and standards, even if it offers a lot of potential value in other ways. If you want to be ahead of the curve, you should think of ways you could benefit from a minimal electric car as a primary or secondary vehicle. Could you benefit from a vehicle with a range of 30–50 miles and a top speed of 35mph?
As a programmer, we are taught to write modular code. Making things modular “Makes it easy to swap or replace parts”. You have a lot of options for changing things in the future.
Modular design is difficult with traditional vehicles — the different components are connected in very specific ways. Fuel must be carried from the tank, to the engine, through tubes, and exhaust must be carried out. The engine is complex, large, and heavy, which limits where it is placed and takes up space. Finally, the mechanics of steering and driving the wheels add more complexity.
A typical ICE car places the heavy mass of the engine in the front, to keep the car balanced. Even though the engine is in the front, it powers the rear wheels because the front wheels are used to steer. This means that a mechanical drive train needs to run down the middle of the car, which is why you have that bump in the car in between your seats. Electric vehicles can get rid of this “hump”, but that is only the start.
We are trained to expect cars to have a particular form, because the rules of the ICE make the standard design much better than alternatives. But with a minimal electric vehicle, you would have more choices. The vehicle could be a box, a cube, a trapezoid, a half cylinder, or other shapes. It could have a lot more open interior space even while fitting in relatively small linear dimensions. In this regard, it would be much like Doctor Who’s Tardis, where newcomers always notice it is unexpectedly bigger on the inside.
In an electric vehicle, it is easy to run a wire between the motor and battery, no matter where you decide to place them. The battery or motor can be serviced, replaced, or even upgraded with relative ease, without affecting the other components. In a minimal electric vehicle, with a low top speed, aerodynamics are much less important, which gives you more flexibility. Because it is lighter, everything is more efficient.
One exciting possibility would be combining a tiny house with an electric vehicle. They are a perfect fit for each other, as both espouse minimalism, simplicity, and modularity. This could transform our ideas of housing and travel. Also, self driving electric vehicles offer additional design flexibility, because there is no need to accommodate a human operator, only passengers. You wouldn’t need a driver’s seat in the front, or even front facing windows at all.
The possibilities are endless.