As we could read last week an electric cars consortium has entered the bidding process for Saab. They act very secret but as I learned just recently it’s not the BAIC thing that was rumored about before. It looks more like some Japanese companies related to the automotive business got together to place a bid. While we don’t know much more about who they are yet we know that their plan is to build electric cars only in Trollhättan.
But can that work? In any case it is a pretty ambitious plan given how hard the pure electrical car companies like Tesla had to fight for survival ever since. I know that the electric cars is often praised as the saviour from carbon dioxide and the key to future mobility. It is the loved child of many politicians and even here in Germany the government wants to see one million electric cars on the road until 2020. But is the electric car really the answer? Is it the key? For me the answer is clear: No.
Let’s take a look at the reality electric cars have to face today. One big hurdle is their price. A rather small car like the Nissan Leaf costs about Euro 36k in Germany, the semi-electric Ampera starts just below Euro 44k. Given the fact that for example the Astra starts somewhere around Euro 18k this is a huge hurdle for sales. Even if the price for electricity is a lot lower than for fuel you can drive quite a bit before you break even on the extra price. Also worth mentioning is that there are for sure many people who can’t or simply don’t want to spend the extra money just to be environmentally correct. In many countries governments give a special tax benefit to encourage people to buy electric cars despite their price. This is something that works to a degree but cannot be the way to go forever.
All these issues about the car itself have made the way pretty bumpy for the companies behind them. Looking at Tesla their track record after fifteen years of work are some two thousand cars on the road and a slight chance to make a profit in 2012. The Nissan/Renault alliance is said to have spent about four billion Euro on their electric car programme. It would be interesting to look at this from an economical view and to calculate how many they’d have to sell to break even. And to put that in relation to the said consortium. How much money would they have to spend to get this running, let alone to be viable in ten or more years? Look at the Volt. Not the worst concept but through price and fire issues it is not where GM executives wanted it to be. No matter if they put their bet on the wrong horse or they just executed it poorly, this will cost a lot of money. GM should be able to handle that but how about a pure electric car company? It would make them shut down pretty quickly.
Not to forget that any manufacturer of electrical cars must be prepared for the next round. Once there are more of that kind on the market the selling point will be economy again. Even before the return on the first investment has come they may have to invest again to meet new demands, be it by customers or law, just like it is with the internal combustion engines today. Only in a significantly shorter timeframe.
But you have to look at more than just the car itself when judging the environmental value of electrical cars. Where does the energy comes from. The range extender thing is not free of emissions. It reduces them for sure but in the end it is still dependent on oil if you want to drive more that 40-80 kilometers (as Opel states for the Ampera). If you want this to be more than a bridge technology you need to use alternative fuel in there, too. BioPower would surely be a fit in there.
For all those pure electrical cars it depends on where your electricity comes from. To be really emission free you’d need to get your electricity from renewable sources. I know there are still some out there who consider atomic energy as emissions free but would I like to replace 129 grams of CO2 per km by 10 grams of nuclear waste per km? No, not at all. Looking at Germany we will shut down all our nuclear plants within the next ten years so the electricity above the one that can be produced from wind, sun, etc. will most likely come from coal plants. Not that good either. If you seriously follow the chain of electricity back you have to admit that “emissions free” is hard to get today.
This leads me to another thing you have to look at: infrastructure. This is not aimed at the plug in stations, those can be installed by skilled people wherever you need them. If you want to get a serious amount of electrical cars running you also have to look at the electrical grid in your country. While the western world may have a proper one you have to consider a serious increase in electricity that not only has to be produced but also delivered to the customers. An interesting example that you could to a certain degree adapt is India. People earned more money so more could afford an air condition for their home. This seriously lead to trouble with a weak electrical grid. The local electricity companies would need to invest in this. And while the investment itself may not be the main problem in Europe I can tell you that it is a huge problem in Germany to build a new high-tension line from the north sea through the country to deliver the power from the wind turbines to the industries and homes in the south of our country. The reason? Nobody wants to live beside that line because of the electro smog.
So looking at all this, is the electrical car bound to go down the drain? No, it will surely find its place in the concept of future mobility. Even I could use one to drive to work daily. And for many of those pizza delivery guys it would make sense, too. But it is in no way the only answer to our problems. Hydrogen could be another piece in this puzzle, but due to the logistic difficulties maybe more for city busses and other fleets that return to one refilling station frequently. But for those average drivers you may need to offer some kind of fuel that you can just fill in your tank as you did it with today’s gas or diesel. Ethanol is certainly an option. The main backlash with this is that it was too often made from corn and other food but current generations of Ethanol can be made from many different kinds of waste. We are not yet as far as the DeLorean in Back To The Future took us but we can get pretty near to that.
My main point in all this is that we should not make the same mistake we made in the past: set all on one card. Back then it was oil, now it seems to be electricity. There are many interesting technologies out there so we should not put all on a single one, we should rather use every one at what they are best at. For example electricity for shorter distance, ethanol, with or without range extender for those who need to drive far. The fuel cell is also interesting, maybe even for supplying homes with energy. We have to substitute oil in many places of our everyday life so we need many alternatives.
But let’s now get back to where this post started: the electrical consortium. I would not want Trollhattan to place their bet on just one card. Maybe it would be a big number of initial jobs that came with that plan but they are all dependent on the success of the electric car alone. I strongly believe that an affordable electrovehicle can only be made by a company that has also other products in the market to compensate the first decade of losses. Saab was on a pretty good road with BioPower, eAAM and ePower. I would want to see a company like Mahindra & Mahindra pick this up and add the finances to make it fly. As I stated before I heard from several sides that they have a solid plan that should be pretty close to what we Saab Fans long to see while with said consortium it is pretty likely that the cars won’t even be branded Saab.