There is a lot of discussion these days about electric cars and the future of the internal combustion engine. Slowly, electric cars are creeping into our consciousness. You probably know one or two people who have one, brave early adopters helping to work out the bugs. Even though I still drive a car with an internal combustion engine, I fully expect that this is my last gas-powered car. I think that the switch to electric is inevitable and the reason is e-cars are so much simpler than gas-powered cars. Despite being low-volume, niche products, e-cars are currently almost cost-competitive with their internal combustion-powered sisters.
The reason electric vehicles can compete despite being low volume (and therefore high cost), products is they are so much simpler. When you compare an e-vehicle to an internal combustion vehicle, there are a whole bunch of parts you simply don’t need. Parts such as:
- Exhaust, Catalytic converter(s), muffler(s)
- Electronic ignition
- Intake manifold
- Gas tank, fuel lines, fuel pump, and filter
- Fuel injection
- Connecting rods
- Valves, camshaft(s), rocker arms and timing chain/belt
- Cylinder head
- Oil sump and pump
- Transmission and torque converter
- A bunch of shafts – drive shafts, half shafts etc.
- 4 wheel drive
- Radiator and fan
- Water pump
- Bunches of universal joints
- Starter and solenoid
- A ton of gaskets
- A ton of processors and software to make it all work
- Lots and lots of bearings
E-cars either don’t need these parts or need far fewer of them. This means they are cheaper to design, cheaper to build, and cheaper to maintain. Certainly, the batteries are expensive but we are still early in the life of the e-car. As volumes ramp up, the cost of the batteries will continue to decline. In 2010, batteries cost $1000 per kilowatt-hour; now they are less than $200 per kilowatt-hour and we can expect this cost to keep dropping – especially as we see volumes increase.
In addition to their simplicity, electric motors offer a giant advantage over internal combustion engines: they produce their peak torque at 0 rpm. This is why trains use electric motors to turn their wheels. It’s tough to get a train moving and maximum torque at 0 rpm is a big advantage and is why train engines are willing to suffer the increased complexity and cost of having a diesel engine coupled to a generator powering electric motors.
Maximum torque at 0 rpm means that electric vehicles don’t have a problem getting from 0 rpm to enough rpm so they don’t stall – a problem with internal combustion engines. This is also why e-cars offer accelerations that are race-car fast.
The final factor pushing the adoption of electric cars is the Chinese market. The internal combustion engine represents a huge barrier to entry to any company that wants to make cars. Designing your own internal combustion engine is simply too difficult an engineering challenge for a new car manufacturer to tackle. Electric cars change this equation.
The Chinese, as part of their long-term project to modernize their economy, have automobile manufacturing in their sights. They want their own domestic car manufacturers. They see that electric vehicles are going to disrupt the automotive industry. There are already Chinese companies designing and selling their own electric cars. Having driven in one, it seemed to be a perfectly good vehicle. They also have terrible pollution problems in all the major cities. So, for the Chinese, electric cars are compelling. Electric cars offer an entry into the automobile manufacturing business and help to address their pollution problem. If 1.4 billion Chinese switch to electric cars, that will drive down prices everywhere.
We are close to a tipping point where suddenly the advantages of e-cars become compelling. Sure, as electric cars replace internal combustion cars the price of gasoline will fall; but the operating cost per mile of an electric car is already a fraction of that of internal combustion cars. Once the purchase cost of electric cars and internal combustion cars is the same, the change to e-cars will be very fast. Half a decade from now gas-powered cars will feel soooo 2010.