Frankfurt - It was with a sense of apprehensive excitement that industry execs from around the world congregated at the Frankfurt Motor Show last week to symbolically usher in a brave new era where, by the next time you blink, electric propulsion will supposedly be the new normal.
Diesel vehicles, it seemed, were about as warmly received as that proverbial fart in the perfume perfume factory, following the much publicised dieselgate scandal that has cast suspicion on more than just one manufacturer, and even the petrolhead stars were overshadowed by the huge buzz that manufacturers created around their new lithium ion battery-powered ‘saviours’.
And they were out in their droves at Frankfurt.
BMW fired the show’s first salvo with its i Vision Dynamics Concept, which is set to eventually spawn a Tesla-rivalling four-door called the i5.
According to BMW, the concept manages a range of 600km between recharges and can accelerate from 0-100km/h in under four seconds.
Currently the longest-range electric car on the market is Tesla’s Model S 100D, which has a US EPA rated range of 539km. That should be just enough to nip range anxiety in the bud for many.
Such long-range batteries are rather expensive however, and today’s batch of less costly electric cars can’t come close to matching the Tesla’s range, although the situation is improving. Nissan’s new Leaf manages an EPA rated range of 241km (up from its predecessor’s 172km) and Chevrolet’s similarly-sized Bolt is said to be good for 383km.
Volkswagen is aiming to launch its “electric car line-up for the people” with the ID family from 2020 onwards (which includes a funky modern-day Kombi), and Frankfurt saw the latest ID Crozz crossover concept make its debut with a claimed range of 500km. Mercedes-Benz used the show to reveal its take on a future compact EV hatch in the form of the EQA concept, which claims 400km between charges.
It’s hard to find any major car company that hasn’t committed to offering an electric or hybrid variant of every model in its range by (insert not-too-distant year), after investing (insert dollar amount in billions) in electric vehicle development.
Some are even pouring on the styling charm in a bid to get pulses racing, such as Honda with its cute, retro-styled Urban EV Concept (above) that “sets the tone” for a 2019 production model.
Another Frankfurt headturner was Jaguar’s I-Pace race car that’s set to power the world’s first international race series for production-based battery vehicles, giving motorsport fans hope that there is still plenty of octane-free excitement in store after the EV revolution.
And yet when all the dust has settled, there are still plenty of practical hurdles that need to be cleared before electric vehicles become viable for the majority of buyers.
For starters the potential driving distances between charges are still on the low side, particularly problematic in countries such as the US and South Africa where long-distance driving is more prevalent.
The other big hurdle is that electric cars are still somewhat more expensive off the showroom floor, although this is likely to change with time as mass production efficiencies of scale take hold and new innovations surface.
Most experts seem to believe it’ll take less than a decade for electric vehicles to reach cost and convenience parity with their internal combustion engined equivalents. Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance researchers believe this will take place by 2022, while UK investment banking firm UBS made the bold prediction - after tearing a modern EV apart - that the breakeven point in terms of overall buying and running costs could come as early as 2018, in Europe at least.
Then comes the question of charging infrastructure. Fast-charging stations are still few and far between in South Africa, although the DTI-endorsed Electric Vehicle Industry Association, backed by BMW and Nissan, is intending to expand the footprint, while also lobbying for much-needed government incentives. Yet there is a catch 22 for motivating the infrastructure when buyer demand is currently so low, with BMW having sold only 76 i3s last year and Nissan just seven Leafs.
Even European countries are sitting with a demand vs infrastructure conundrum, not to mention the question of where all the electricity is going to come from - an even more pertinent point for load-shedding-wary South Africans.
But the real deal-breaker for many is that much of world’s electricity is still dirtily generated by coal. On top of that, the production of large batteries is far from CO2-neutral, with Swedish Environmental Institute IVL equating one battery’s production to 700 hours of driving in a conventional car. And what about naughty kids unplugging charging cars in the dead of night, and, and, and…
Just don’t be too quick to dismiss the battery-powered car, nor its hydrogen fuel cell powered cousin, which faces even bigger cost and infrastructure hurdles, but none of which couldn’t be solved with a decent breakthrough or two. The spluttering, rudimentary internal combustion ‘driverless carriages’ of the late 19th century must have seemed on the road to nowhere at the time, yet look what they eventually evolved into.
Electric cars will almost certainly surge ahead. Just not tomorrow or the next day. Blink if you must.