Is the future really electric?

Is the future really electric?

Short answer: yes and no.

Settle in folks, because this may be a long one. For a bit of background, when I’m not tapping away at a keyboard writing articles for you lovely people to read, my day job is a design engineer and I’ve worked in the EV Infrastructure industry for about 13yrs now, back when it was very much in its infancy. I sell my own brand of EV home chargers and own an EV. So you could say that a) I know what I’m talking about and b) I’m slightly biased towards EVs.  This is a fair point, but working as an automotive journalist as well, I like to think I can see all sides of the argument. Speaking of which…

The biggest talking points around EVs at the moment are:

  • Costs of buying an EV
  • Rubbish public charging infrastructure
  • EV range not being enough

All of these are very good points. Though as I’ll point out, 2 & 3 are intrinsically linked and have to work together. So let’s start with the point most pertinent to Magnitude Finance – the cost of EVs. Yes, they’re expensive at the moment, nobody can deny that. If you look at cars where there is an EV and an internal combustion engine (ICE) version, the EV is always a lot more expensive. This is usually down to the battery costs – manufacturers have been making cars with engines for over a hundred years, it’s what they know and can do it day in, day out very cheaply. Changing that over to a new propulsion system is difficult, which means it’s expensive. And as they sell in lower volumes currently, this also means it’s pricier. 

The news isn’t all bad though, because you need to look at the whole running costs of the car as well. Yes, if you compare say a Hyundai Kona petrol to a Kona EV, the EV is around £10,000 or around £150 per month more. If you look at other aspects like fuel things get better – you’re likely to spend over £2000 per year on petrol, which is £175 per month. If you can charge at home, overnight at a low rate that’s going to cost around £25 per month.

Rough calculations:

CarFinance Payment (36m/10k/£5k deposit)Fuel Cost over 10k miles, per monthTax per monthTotal Cost Per Month
Hyundai Kona 1.0 Premium£256£175£13£444
Hyundai Kona EV Premium£412£25£0£437

As you can see above, the prices end up being almost the same, so there’s no difference when moving to an EV. You can also add in maintenance to this – EVs have much less wear on their brakes thanks to the use of regenerative braking, and there’s a lot less to go wrong in the drivetrain (batteries, motors, controllers, that’s pretty much it). Then you can consider that EVs are actually nicer to drive – much smoother, quieter and more relaxing. All that without thinking of the amount of local pollution you’re removing (note I said local pollution, the debate over where electricity comes from will rage on for years, so I’m leaving that out of it, nobody can deny that EVs improve local air quality).

But things will change with regards to costs. Once the world settles down a bit, battery tech will improve and as more and more huge battery factories are built, they will become cheaper. The battery is the one major component that is pushing EV prices up, so once this falls, the price of an EV will drop drastically. There will then come the point where the EV and ICE equivalents cost the same – price parity – then due to less complex production costs, they will actually be less. Most experts believe this will happen within the next 5yrs.

Now, onto the infrastructure

The problem is, we’re at a somewhat awkward stage in the transition to EVs at the moment, with a lot of legacy (old) tech that was introduced over 10yrs ago still out there, which simply isn’t up to the job of handling modern charging needs. It’s absolutely correct that this needs to be fixed, but that is what’s happening. There are hundreds of new fast chargers, rapid chargers and ultra-rapid chargers going into the ground at sites across the country every week thanks to the billions of pounds of investment from the public and private sectors. So they are improving, though it’s understandable that EV owners (getting more and more by the day) are frustrated right now as many are trying to charge and find broken chargers at key locations.

The provision of fast, plentiful, reliable chargers is absolutely key to the success of EV take-up, but also to shaping the future of EV design. Right now, we have manufacturers releasing huge numbers of big, heavy electric SUVs with big batteries. That’s for a few reasons – the buying public has been told that they need SUVs (that’s another topic I need to rant/explore but for another day) and so manufacturers release SUVs. Now it just so happens that when developing a new EV from scratch, it’s easier to package the large battery packs in a taller SUV body shape. But these are bigger and heavier themselves, which means the range is reduced due to the weight, which ends up with a seriously dangerous spiral of more weight meaning less range, so they add more battery which ups the range, but weighs more etc. This is why we have SUVs with 110kWh battery packs now – Joe Public wants cars to have a big range.

They want the big range because they don’t trust public charging and think they need to be able to do 300 miles on one charge, which in 99% of cases just isn’t true. But frankly, manufacturers just need to get as many people in EVs as possible, so they can see this for themselves and there’s then time for the infrastructure to improve. You see, the average daily journey in the UK in 2020 was 25 miles, that’ll be even less now with more people working from home – so even in the depths of winter that means only needing to charge the Kona EV up about once a week. So realistically, nobody really needs a car that can do over 200 miles of range, so long as there is a public charging infrastructure in place which means you can fast charge that car in 15 minutes at a reasonable price. Once that happens, I strongly believe that manufacturers will start offering smaller battery packs in the same space, so people have the option of a 150-mile range or a 300-mile range, but if they choose the shorter range it’s much cheaper, with less wear on tyres etc because it’s lighter. And it’ll be a lot cheaper to buy. So as you can see, the range and infrastructure are intrinsically linked but can work hand in hand to make the future a lot better for EVs.

Now the next big question – what about hydrogen and synthetic fuels?

Okay, without getting too soap-box preachy about it, people need to give up on hydrogen – for normal cars. I strongly believe it will have its place, but it won’t be in passenger cars. The production and storage of hydrogen is just too costly to make it viable. They are still electric vehicles, you’re just carrying your power source with you, plus a power plant to create it. It’s just nowhere near as efficient as a battery EV. It is very well suited to medium and heavy goods vehicles as they can carry large enough hydrogen tanks and they can do the big distances required by those vehicles, and there’s a lot of development going into that at the moment. There’s also the not insignificant matter that every major manufacturer is currently investing tens of billions into bringing out new EVs – this is VHS vs Betamax all over again and EV has won for daily passenger cars.

Synthetic fuels are very interesting because the ones being developed are being sold as ‘carbon neutral to the tailpipe’ – meaning totally clean production. This is absolutely great, and I’m all for them – within reason, as they’ll only ever be niche use. This is for two reasons – firstly cost, as it is incredibly complicated to produce and complexity means expensive. Secondly, these fuels still produce tailpipe emissions – yes they’re less than traditional fossil fuels but in the future, most cities and towns will be zero emission and so they won’t be allowed in. It’s why I believe synthetic fuel will only ever be the reserve of the wealthy and those who still want to run their glorious ICE sports and supercars at the weekend.

As I see it, the future will see ‘fuel’ split this way:

Daily driving cars for Joe Public, along with light commercial – EV

Medium and heavy goods vehicles – Hydrogen

Classics and sports car occasional use – Synthetic Fuel

Many people are also talking about the 2030 ban on ICE sales, well to start with it’s actually going to be 2035 as that’s when plug-in hybrids will be allowed until (and they will be what’s on sale well before then). Some think it won’t happen at all, I think it may even be brought forward. The fact is, this is only banning the sale of new ICE vehicles, you’ll still be able to buy and run second-hand ICE vehicles for a long time yet so most people don’t need to worry. The fact is, we’re at the start of a transition to more sustainable motoring and the end result will be cleaner air. That’s the simplest way of looking at it and that’s no bad thing, is it?