Stop, rewind

I have no doubt that the progress being made on vehicles will ultimately give us a viable alternative to burning fossil fuels in our engines.  This doesn’t preclude fossil fuel use completely; for some time, plug-in battery solutions will just move the combustion further up the chain – to the power stations.  One day, we might also have workable fuel cell options but looking at what’s available now in terms of hybrids and electric vehicle trials, my feeling is that fully electric cars will still hit the market first.  Presently, we are in an intermediate position where the hybrid solution delivers answers to some of our electrical needs but wholly electric battery offerings are being trialled.

When technology moves on, it goes through transition phases.  Remember some of the first DVD players which came onto the market?  They had both video cassette players and DVD players incorporated into the one box.  It’s like the hybrid car.  You couldn’t record on a DVD – like you can’t drive from London to Edinburgh using only the batteries to power a regular car.  You needed your video cassette then, and require an internal combustion engine now. 

Then there’s the infrastructure.  People had their favourite films on tape and the cost of replacing these with DVDs was initially prohibitive (especially since many would have been copied gratis, straight from television).  In a similar manner, there is the cost of the roll out of fast, convenient charging outlets.  There are some cars due on the market e.g. the Chevrolet Volt which should accept charge via standard domestic outlets, but if it were to have only an electric motor, the charging time en route would be considerable without a faster charge option.  (The Volt also has an internal combustion engine so remains a hybrid.)

At some point, I’m sure the balance will tip and we’ll see some solely electric vehicles used by choice as we did with the hybrids (remember the Hollywood stars flaunting their Mark 1 Priuses?).  This – along with substantial Governmental commitment – should help drive out the technical developments and infrastructure.

At the moment though, we’re still at the combined video cassette and DVD player stage and the solo electric motor has many hurdles to jump.  I have been reviewing information on the MINI E which gives some interesting details about the one year trial being conducted.  There are a few trial vehicles coming available but before you jump, read on.

It is suggested that participants have “access to backup transportation” which doesn’t inspire confidence, especially since I was reminded how old this technology actually is by following a ‘70s electric milk float earlier in the week.  The pilot project is limited in size because of a “significant amount of effort required to maintain the programme, including installation of the wall boxes [for charging], specially trained personnel and specialised facilities for servicing the vehicles”.  While there will eventually be economies of scale, it hints at the implications and cost of pushing this out to more than the paltry 40 vehicles on test.

The site openly admits the vehicles have a “fairly limited range” of 100 to 120 miles.  While this would satisfy most people’s requirements most of the time, there will be occasions when we just need to go somewhere further at short notice.  So without widespread charging points, most won’t want to take the risk.

“A private garage is needed to install the high-power wall box that charges the MINI E.  On-street parking is not an option.”  While public charging points might mitigate this limitation, again it demonstrates how much work will be needed to make this a reality.  Regarding the one year research phase, MINI also says “we’re not really sure about the long term endurance of the batteries on the MINI E” so they will need to examine them after the trial.

But it’s a free trial for these lucky people, right?  Actually, no.  The vehicle testers can enjoy this for £330 per month (but only in “a small test area in the South East of England”).  Oh, and the trial vehicles are all left-hand drive. 

So when should we expect to see fully electric cars available for all?  If I were to write that 28% of all vehicles are electric, you’d rightly question my sanity.  However, this was actually the case in the US in the year 1900.  Time to wind the video cassette back, then.

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