The Automobile of Tomorrow -- and Always Will Be?

Yesterday was “Battery Day,” the long-awaited moment when Elon Musk was to reveal Tesla’s breakthrough in battery technology that would make the electric car a real economic rival to the internal combustion engine. It was therefore a significant moment not only in the evolution of electric cars but also in the development of policy by governments and international agencies towards a switch from fossil fuels to cleaner and renewable sources of energy.

There’s an obvious link between these two trends. Petrol is the fossil fuel that provides the energy for the internal combustion engine that still powers the overwhelming majority of automobiles on the world’s roads. If it’s gradually replaced by electricity as the fuel powering cars, then one major source of demand for the world’s oil companies will shrink very substantially. And where automobiles go, other forms of energy consumption are likely to follow, notably home heating.

That at least is the intention of most Western governments. Britain’s Tory government, for instance, has decreed that the sale of petrol-driven automobiles will be prohibited by 2035. Ministers are considering bringing forward the date to 2030. There are pressures to speed up the transition from MPs in all parties—notably from a 100-strong group of moderate “One Nation” Tories. And this policy has received support from some unexpected backers, notably the company formerly known as British Petroleum, which, under its new CEO, Bernard Looney, has adopted an almost missionary stance in promoting an ambitious Green agenda.

Quick off the mark, but what about the long haul?

As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard also pointed out in a fascinating analysis of the future trends in the energy market, Looney intends to free his company “from the fossilised grip of his predecessors. Not content to declare a rhetorical Net-Zero target by 2050 -- who doesn’t these days? -- he has called for the U.K. to pull forward its ban on the sale of diesel and petrol cars to as early as 2030. “We’re up for it,” he says.

Mr. Looney is not quite the revolutionary he seems, of course. As Evans-Pritchard points out in the same article, BP is also “doubling down on liquefied natural gas” which is another fossil fuel.  And placing a large bet on the proposition that “natural gas with carbon capture” will become a far larger part of the energy market once the technology for carbon capture and storage has broken out of the laboratory. And having his research department look closely at the coming prospects for hydrogen as a fuel for everything from aircraft to home heating (at least as I read between Evans-Pritchard’s eloquent lines on that last point.)

Even with these qualifications,  the push for electric cars and the switch from oil go hand in powerful hand. Are there any reasons for caution on the side of the skeptical investor? Though most investors have not been very skeptical until now, I think there are.

To begin with, there is likely to be some consumer resistance to electric cars for the reasons that were first outlined by Thomas Edison to Henry Ford in 1894 when evaluating the latter’s petrol-fueled Quadricycle:

"Electric cars must be kept near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won't do, either, for they have to have a boiler and a fire. Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke, and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it."

Both men changed their minds about electric cars subsequently, and Ford embarked on developing one, but in the end abandoned the attempt. That said, some of Edison’s complaints about electric cars are echoed by drivers today. There’s still debate over whether they’re too slow—with admirers saying they’re actually quicker off the mark than conventional autos and detractors responding that quicker is not faster once they’re actually off the mark.

Genius at work, 1899.

Some of these deficiencies will doubtless be remedied by what is a self-consciously innovative industry, but whatever the reasons, polls suggest that consumers are for the moment nervous. A nationwide survey by the U.K.'s automotive trade body (admittedly an interested source), quoted by the Telegraph, found that 44 percent of motorists don't think they'll be ready to run a battery vehicle in 2035. Many say they can't see themselves ever owning one. So it’s not surprising that according to the same report, industry insiders now want, as so often, better government incentives for consumers to purchase electric cars. And when the politicians are talking of bringing the ban on selling petrol- and diesel-based vehicles from 2035 to 2030, the producers are talking of pushing it forward to later than 2035.

The second basis for caution is that as another Telegraph report points out, the minerals needed for the production of car batteries--nickel, cobalt, and lithium—face a number of market obstacles. They’re scarce, difficult to mine or refine, located in countries with bad environmental records, dangerously volatile (lithium), and all in all their supply looks to be falling behind demand.

“Their growing scarcity is a problem that is weighing heavy on not just Musk, but the entire electric car industry,” writes the Telegraph. “Demand for nickel is expected to increase six-fold by 2030, and supply isn't keeping up.” When that happens, prices rise. And the price of electric cars, though becoming more competitive, is higher than other cars and so already a negative market factor.

The third consideration is that electricity doesn’t grow on trees—that is, not until they’re cut down, transported, and fed into power stations. Or as the intellectually lively former Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan, tweeted earlier this week: “I am often struck, in discussions about energy, by how many people talk of electricity as if it were a source of power rather than a medium. Your phone is probably coal-powered.”

So in order to replace disgraceful gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting conventional automobiles with vehicles powered by “clean” electricity, we have to generate much more electricity and make it available to drivers across the country via EV (or electric vehicle) charging points. That means more coal, gas, oil, or timber being fed into the power stations.

What also flows from this reality is that electric cars, however expensive in themselves, will be the cause of much larger costs in the form of a nationwide network of EV (for electric vehicle) charging points, not only as now in public places but in future in people’s homes as well.

In The Hidden Costs of Net Zero, Mike Travers, a distinguished engineer, estimates that the cost of installing EV charging points alone will be a considerable one—something on the order of £31 billion. (At present the U.K. has just five percent of the target number of public devices promised for the end of the decade.)

He goes on to estimate the impact not only of switching to electric cars but also of wider policies of decarbonizing, for instance, home heating, and concludes that the extra demand for electricity would overwhelm the existing system of electricity distribution and require massive infrastructure repair and development at a total bill of £410 billion, an average of £15,000 per household.

Even if we assume, as we must, that the second-order costs of electric vehicles alone would be much lower, these are such staggering figures that we look naturally look for alternatives to current policies, and that takes us down the route of innovation.

As Evans-Pritchard noted above, the titans are doing so. BP’s policies include both banking that carbon capture will give natural gas a longer life expectancy as a respectable energy source and, in the longer term, developing the potential of hydrogen as a versatile fuel, presumably by overcoming its dangerous volatility as tragically seen in the destruction of the Hindenberg.

The problem with innovation is that while it can be depended upon in general, it’s not a reliable solution in particular. Carbon capture is far from a sure thing. If it does ever emerge from the laboratory, however, its benefits need not be confined to natural gas. In principle at least it might make all fossil fuels clean or cleaner—gas, oil, and even coal. Given that these fuels have far lower prices than the accumulated costs of the electricity that powers the Tesla, that would revive their market appeal. The same would be even truer for a new clean fuel emerging from a safe hydrogen.

These rivals to the electric car would have looked smaller yesterday if Elon Musk had unveiled a battery that enables EVs to travel further, faster, and with shorter refueling times at a price that competes with conventional autos and perhaps with other innovation-based cars and that can plausibly claim to leap over the obstacles listed above.

Did he do so?

He said he did. He promised a new battery that would enable Tesla to market EVs at $25,000, a fifty per cent cut from the present $50,000. That would be a game-changer. But industrial history is littered with the bones of true innovators who were over-taken in the final stretch.

We’ll see.