Days of Future Past: Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles. A marvel of modern engineering. Well, not quite…

The automobile was first invented in 1832 by Scottish inventor Robert Anderson. Most major corporations and the majority of car buffs would have you think it was coal-powered, and quite likely believe it themselves. That is what sounds more likely, after all.

Except for one thing: this self-propelled carriage was electric. In 1897, the first taxis hit the streets of New York City, supported by a network of charging stations. Thomas Edison, knowing that electricity would power the cars of the future, set about developing a long-life, high density battery to power the hordes of electric vehicles that would be manufactured in the coming years. This view made perfect sense – electric vehicles of the were inexpensive to buy, and could be charged by the fledgling electrical grid of the United States of America. They were incredibly low maintenance, much like today’s EVs.

Automotive legend Ferdinand Porsche, the founder of Porsche AG, had been busy around this time, too. In 1898, he designed his first car, which happened to be pure electric. The same year, he designed the first petrol-electric hybrid car.

Then Henry Ford came on the scene, and started production of the Ford Model T. This, coupled with breakthroughs in oil extraction technology, made petrol-powered cars both cheap and easy to manufacture. A deciding factor in Ford’s success was arguably the moving production line, on which cars would move along while parts were added. This enabled specialist workers to build the same component over and over and over – increasing worker skill over time and therefore improving build quality in the process.

Ford Model T

This made the Ford Model T cheap, reliable, and readily available to customers. Ford ran at a loss for a number of years, but profits would eventually soar, making what is now the largest family business in the world. In the process, electric vehicles faded from memory as the rumble of internal combustion engines dominated the roads.

Henry Ford implemented a manufacturing approach called vertical integration, in which the bulk of the manufacturing process is carried out in the same factory. Ironically, this approach appears to be what will ultimately kill internal combustion engines – in a time when vertical integration has pretty much vanished from the manufacturing scene, Tesla Inc. has made extensive use of this age-old approach, and is doing quite well at it.

This same approach is in place for the Silicon Valley firm’s new Model 3, which despite the company’s infamous history of running late, is still expected to start production this month. The car also appears to be causing ripples over at BMW, although it is too early to say for certain.

As we now reach production of Tesla’s newest model (no pun intended) and their first mass-market car, it seems fitting to look at the future of sustainable energy. How will we power millions of electric cars? What infrastructure will we need to implement?

The good news is that the advent of the solar roof now looms over our heads. Tesla is now taking deposits on their Solar Roof, developed and manufactured in conjunction with subsidiary company SolarCity, and Forward Solar Roofing is taking deposits on a similar product which they claim produces twice as much electricity as Tesla’s one, while also costing around one-third less.

In both cases, these solar roofs are set to be cheaper than traditional roofs, with the added benefit of saving customers money through the production of electricity. Tesla’s offering also has the option of heating elements to melt snow in colder climates. Combined with a couple of home storage batteries, you could conceivably go completely off-grid.

This all brings us back to electric vehicles; for the first time in history, it is possible to get completely free fuel for your car – with no drawbacks, and the only trade-off being that you have to buy a different, cheaper kind of roof that looks just like the old roof, but without the possibility of rust, and an ‘Infinite Tile Warranty’ if you buy it from Tesla.

A sample picture showing the Tesla Solar Roof installed on a house. Source: tesla.com

Another candidate for clean, sustainable transportation is hydrogen fuel, the current flagship of which is Toyota’s Mirai. There are two ways hydrogen can be used to power a car. The first is in the form of hydrogen fuel, which is fed into an internal combustion engine and burned, just like petroleum. The second is to feed hydrogen into a hydrogen fuel cell, which uses hydrogen to generate electricity to run an electric motor. Both methods produce water as their sole by-product.

While great in theory, hydrogen fuel has many crippling drawbacks. The first internal combustion engine was developed in 1806, and used a combination of hydrogen and oxygen for fuel – so not much has changed. Hydrogen-fueled vehicles have been touted for years. The 1991 sci-fi film Knight Rider 2000 predicted hydrogen fuel would be running cars by the end of the 20th century. Of course, this never happened on the scale depicted in the film.

The production of hydrogen fuel is the biggest drawback. While hydrogen can be produced many ways, the majority of the hydrogen currently being produced is a by-product of fossil fuels. The long-term plan for production doesn’t look promising, either. As a mid-term solution, hydrogen will be produced by electrolysis of water, ultimately becoming photo-biological.

This means that in the short term, we will have to continue operating oil wells, if in a slightly modified form, in order to produce hydrogen. Mid-term, we will be removing enormous amounts of water from the eco-system, a point that seems to have been missed by many scientists and advocates of the technology.

I firmly believe that the future of motoring is pure electric – it is by far the most efficient way to go, and has the most trouble-free transition process. Charging infrastructure is cheap, and electric cars can be charged at home using free electricity produced by your solar roof.

So check out your nearest EV dealership to see what you can find! Don’t forget to follow Sustain Automotive for more information on sustainable transport, and share this post on Facebook, Twitter or Google+

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