How long that takes is anybody’s guess. It depends to a great extent on your crystal-ball view of the global economic future. Probably decades, even without a Eurozone crisis or oil shortages. Note that the latter issue may or may not prove fatal to the petrol-driven car – thus potentially answering the question for good. And even when high-performance, affordable electric cars start hitting the roads, you’d have to wait for who knows how long until the entire auto fleet could be converted – until that day when the last exhaust-spouting car engine dies out...
There are also a couple of related realities that people typically don’t always think about, but that are worth mentioning.
Firstly, the most popular of the green/electric vehicles, gas-electric hybrids, burn fossil fuels in engines. And hybrids are regularly touted as the transition technology to the electric car. It is perhaps ironic that of all the alternative propulsion technologies on the market it is hybrid technology that has probably saved more transportation fuel than anything else tried so far. You’d expect such an efficient transportation technology to have a relatively long operational lifetime.
Second, no matter how electrified passenger cars get, trucks, their omnipresent counterparts on roads and highways are not going electric any time soon, that is, barring the emergence of some unforeseen, revolutionary high-capacity battery or other advance. Nobody knows, for example, how to efficiently propel heavy tractor-trailers, long-haulers and larger transports without burning fuels in big internal combustion engines, hybrid power plants notwithstanding. And medium-size trucks probably need engines as well. So the fuel station is probably a keeper.
For smaller trucks like pick-ups and SUVs, the issue is a bit cloudier. Most ‘experts’ don’t think that electric batteries, even improved ones, will be able to drive small trucks in the short- or mid-term, so that’s why the car companies and governments are still sticking with the poor cousin of electric propulsion family, the hydrogen fuel cell. Though long ignored by most, fuel-cell vehicles have shown that they can haul larger loads. But like electric vehicles and the public/private recharging infrastructure that makes it all run, fuel cell-powered vehicles and its hydrogen infrastructure would be costly to build, and have yet to materialise.
Still, I always try to be optimistic about the world’s survival prospects and try to keep an eye out for potential breakthroughs. Thankfully one arrived in this week’s Science magazine.
Researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, UK have demonstrated an early form of an improved, high-power electrochemical cell – the lithium-air battery. Such a device could theoretically provide some four to ten times the energy density per weight that conventional lithium-ion batteries do, which would banish EV ‘range anxiety’ and make electric vehicles fully practical. Today’s lithium-ion batteries can provide power for about 100 miles before needing to be recharged and nobody wants to be stranded with a dead battery.
“We need to go beyond the 300-mile driving range for EVs, so we need a transformational shift. Lithium-air batteries have the potential to provide it,” says Peter Bruce, lead researcher of the study, who describes himself as a battery specialist “for longer than I care to think of”.
Note the word “potential”. Their findings are essentially a proof of concept. That said, it is this type of breakthrough that could prove to be a stepping stone toward a golden and perhaps achievable, goal.
And that gives me hope.