Electric and hybrid cars – welcome to the new norm?

Ever since watching the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” 1, I’ve been curious as to where the electric car industry would be at this point if the plug on the GM EV1, and other Electric Vehicles (EVs), hadn’t been pulled in the mid-1990s. Even so, hybrids have been popping up more frequently, and EVs – such as Teslas – have had a positive impact within the market, with a clear demand for them.

The film points to some conspiracy theories - which I’m inclined to believe - regarding the influence that oil companies and their lobbyists have on our government’s decision making; such as making it difficult to build public charging stations. On the other side, we had auto-makers worried that the new type of vehicle will reduce revenue in regards to things such as maintenance and tune-ups. In reality, the push for more efficient vehicles has been mandated by regulations imposed by government entities to reduce emitions, and any work towards that takes away from building cheaper cars to sell for higher profits, which is what car companies are about. Even with the attempt to halt the emergence of EVs two decades ago, from 2005-2014, there was an average of 352,306 hybrid vehicles sold, according to the USDT.2 And the future looks bright for both hybrids and EVs; in March of 2016, 325,000 people put down a $1,000 deposit for Tesla’s new Model 3, which won’t even reach their buyers until late 2017. While this doesn’t tell us that everyone is onboard to buy EVs, it points towards enthusiasm about the technology and the positive impact it may have.

Perhaps the biggest sign that hybrids and electric vehicles are here to stay is the fact that racing series have been adopting these technologies in the past few years. Formula 1 brought forward the hybrid era in 2014. The switch from naturally aspirated, 2.4L V8s, to turbocharged 1.6L V6s mated to multiple Energy Recovery Systems has brought forward an unprecedented increase in efficiency. These energy systems take wasted energy from the brakes and the turbo charger and power the 120kW electric motors that provide an additional jolt throughout the lap. Earlier this year, Andy Cowell, Managing Director of Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, mentioned that these small, 1.6L V6s are producing over 900bhp and have an astounding thermal efficiency of 50%.3 By comparison, these new engines deliver more horsepower than 3.0L V10s from a forgone era, and make the 30% thermal efficiency of regular gasoline engines seem a bit outdated. We’re talking about an increase in efficiency of 66% in only three years of the new engine era, with more to come in the new era of engine regulations for 2017.

Another series making its way into the racing world is Formula E. While this series hasn’t really grabbed the attention of the masses, racing series are used by automakers to design and develop these new technologies and increase their impact on their road-going vehicles. These all-electric formula-style race cars are equipped with a 200kW engines, with a 28kWh Lithium-ion battery to last half of the race. Power limits have been increased in the coming years. Currently the drivers are required to use two cars to complete the race distance, meaning drivers switch cars halfway there. One of the goals is to get rid of the need to change cars. What makes this interesting is the fact that Ferrari CEO, Sergio Marchionne, recently mentioned that Ferrari is considering joining in the future when the series has matured and when it makes sense that the use of this all-electric technology will help to improve their road cars.4

While the hybrid and EV percentage in the automotive market is still very small, it is safe to say that the development of these technologies is here to stay, which will in turn make more consumers warm up to the idea. When you hear that Ferrari, the automaker known for making some of the world’s most famous and powerful naturally aspirated gasoline engines, is talking about having their full automotive lineup go hybrid by 20195, then that tells all petrol-heads that the shift is real. Not to mention the many hybrid supercars already on the market from the likes of Porsche, McLaren, and Audi.

 

1.     Who Killed the Electric Car?, Directed by Chris Paine, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2006.

2.     “Table 1-19: Sales of Hybrid Vehicles in the United States”, United States Department of Transportation,

http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_19.html

3.     “Fuel Thermal Efficiency”,

http://www.formula1-dictionary.net/thermal_efficiency.html#index_top_page

4.     “Ferrari outlines requirements for possible Formula E entry in future”, Autosport, http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/127039

5.     “Marchionne Says All Ferraris Will Be Hybrid Starting in 2019”, Road & Track, http://www.roadandtrack.com/new-cars/future-cars/news/a31483/marchionne-ferrari-hybrid-2019/