x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Convenience will dictate the future of electric vehicles

Despite 10 years of hype, sales have plateaued and hybrids continue to be a bit player in the car market.

It's a fair bet that the future of the car will involve electric motors. It's almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without some bold headline screaming the demise of the traditional automobile and the rise of a new world order. The end of internal combustion is nigh, say they all, though few dare to detail when and how. The problem is that no one knows the exact form that electrification will take. Will it be the now-familiar hybrid that becomes the dominant technology? Or will it be new-fangled electric cars like the upcoming Nissan Leaf? Maybe the winning formula will be a hodge-podge of both, either the range-extended electric characterised by the Chevrolet Volt or the plug-in version of the hybrid that Toyota is working on. It's all very confusing.

Forgetting hydrogen powered cars (for they, too, are essentially an electric vehicle, with a hydrogen fuel cell taking the place of a rechargeable battery), electrified vehicles essentially separate into four categories; hybrids, plug-in hybrids, extended-range electrical vehicles and pure electric cars. The Toyota Prius would be a prime example of the first, the aftermarket-equipped Prius tested on this page an early example of the second, Chevrolet's much-ballyhooed Volt the third and the eagerly-awaited Nissan Leaf the first mass-market sample of the latter.

Though all will find a place in the motoring world of the future, which will establish enough of a mainstream presence to significantly reduce the car world's impact on the environment and which will be relegated to sidelines as idealistic, but flawed, niche players? All indications are that the current standard hybrids may never achieve the universal appeal once promised. Despite 10 years of hype, sales have plateaued and hybrids continue to be a bit player in the car market. To make significant inroads in cutting our dependence on fossil fuels, any alternative to ordinary internal combustion-engined car must be both as convenient as current products, offer significant fuel savings over current technology and be cost effective. While current hybrids pass the first test quite easily, they stumble on the latter two.

Yes, a Toyota Prius gets significantly better fuel mileage than a Chevy Silverado. But is it, in everyday, real-world use, superior to a Volkswagen Jetta TDI diesel? Initial indications, at least those based on perusing the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) official ratings, would indicate that, yes, the hybrid would have superior fuel economy. But every Prius I have tested has averaged about 6L/100km, both in the city and in motorway use, the former somewhat better than I achieved in a recent Jetta diesel test, but the latter almost identical. And while diesel technology is more expensive than traditional powerplants, the complexity of a hybrid - a hefty battery pack, two motors (internal combustion and electric) and a complicated transmission - is more expensive to produce.

If my first experience with the plug-in version of a hybrid is any indication, there would seem to be a bright future ahead for that genre. Fuel savings were significant compared with an equivalent conventional hybrid (around 35 per cent to 40 per cent) and driving was completely conventional other than the need to plug it in every night. This aftermarket-sourced version of the Prius was certainly not cost-effective, but perhaps mass production will see cost/benefit ratio tilt so that owners might actually recoup the initial premium.

Extended range electric vehicles offer possibly even more fuel savings, since a car like the Chevrolet Volt, being entirely electrically powered until the battery depletes after approximately 64km, will use no gasoline in many people's typical daily drive (even plug-in hybrids use a little gasoline in urban driving). Petrol consumption will depend on how often and how far you drive beyond its electrical limit. There should not be any need to acclimatise to new driving techniques, as all indications are that they will also be as convenient to drive as a current car. Like the plug-in hybrid, the success of the Chevrolet Volt will depend on its cost. Current indicators see a US$40,000 (Dh146,921) price tag, a limitation to widespread adoption.

Electric cars certainly win the prize for reducing petrol consumption. And, at current prices, the cost of motoring electrically is cheaper than depending on fossil fuels. But, as has been well documented here, they suffer pitifully in the convenience department as a result of their range anxiety. Dramatic strides are sure to be made in the future, but it is very doubtful that a pure electric car will ever be as convenient as a conventional car. As for cost, Nissan is currently asking US$32,870 (Dh120,733) for the new Leaf EV in the US, but notes that the American federal government is kicking in a US$7,500 (Dh24,547) income tax credit, and California throws in another US$5,000 (Dh18,365).

The crux of this issue comes down to this: which technology is most likely to appeal to the broadest number of motorists; a car that can reduce fuel consumption by perhaps 50 per cent with little sacrifice or one that promises independence from fossil fuels but requires significant changes in lifestyle? Assuming the price/performance equation can be balanced, plug-in hybrids and extended range vehicles would seem to best poised to displace ordinary petrol-powered vehicles in the near future. They offer the best balance of maximising benefits while minimising infrastructure change and the recalibration of driving habits. Plain hybrids simply don't offer enough fuel savings to warrant their technological and monetary investment and EVs are too compromised for widespread adoption. motoring@thenational.ae