The Future of the Car

Article by Marcus Coleridge

The future of the car is as exciting a prospect as it is daunting. Over centuries, forms of road transport have evolved from the Mark 1 horse and cart to the multimillion-pound super-cars and hyper-cars that can be bought today. Needless to say, the car has revolutionised the way we live our lives. 

Most powered transportation has a fundamental flaw; fossil fuels. What fossil fuels have enabled us to achieve is nothing short of a miracle: globalised communication, travel, heating to your home, putting food on the table, making a phone call... I’ll spare you the rest, but you see my point. Every move we make can be traced back to either the use of electricity or the combustion of a fossil fuel (oil, coal or gas). Even the humble action of eating cereal leaves a considerable carbon footprint: take into account the tree that was cut down to make the cardboard box, the oil that was extracted from the earth to make the plastic bag inside and then the lorry that ran on diesel in order to bring it to the shop.

Burning fossil fuels has its advantages, yet it has made us into a power hungry, wasteful species that, through climate change, is becoming a victim of its own success. As it stands, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is at a level not seen for just shy of one million years. Whilst such volumes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not a new phenomenon,  we are forcing a natural occurrence that would normally span hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years. Just to add some perspective, in the 17 years I have been alive, enough barrels of oil have been extracted to fill the Dead Sea over five times. Moreover, the sheer mass of coal mined is equal to that of 24,000 Great Pyramids of Giza. And finally, enough gas has been extracted from the earth to fill the Grand Canyon nearly 15 times. 

Whilst I could fill the rest of this article with streams of negatives, it is not all doom and gloom. There is light at the end of the tunnel and there are many individuals and companies taking strides in the right direction. The UK Government has made the decision to bring forward the planned 2040 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035 in order to reach its goal of being completely carbon neutral by 2050. So, what will we all be driving in fifteen years when you can’t buy a petrol or diesel car anymore? Well this is the million-dollar question and for the time being, there will be a mass transition to electric cars. The majority of car manufacturers are now either developing or have already developed electric alternatives to their fossil fuel line up. The demand for these vehicles is evidenced by the 130,000 fully electric vehicles on the roads in the UK. The sheer volume of EVs being produced is immense, with the numbers growing exponentially throughout 2019 and into 2020.

However, with all of these new EVs on the road, one of the most significant concerns is how and where they can be charged. A recent study in the UK showed that there are now more public electric car charging points than petrol stations at 32,000 to 8,000. Indeed, the majority of petrol station operators, such as BP, are now building fast charging points at their stations. 

Another big concern for potential customers is how far their car will go on a single charge. This seems needless, given the fact that battery technology and energy density is developing so rapidly that new EVs like VW’s ID.3 can achieve over 340 miles on one charge. It is also rumoured that car batteries will degrade over time, however, the latest battery tech at Tesla would suggest otherwise; one of their vehicles recently reported passing one million kilometres on its original battery. And the positives just keep coming. It is now cheaper to manufacture a bank of batteries to put in a hatchback than it is to build a combustion engine to put in it. When buying an EV in the UK, you are currently eligible for a £3,500 government grant towards the cost of the car. Recharging an electric car is roughly £2-3 as opposed to £30-40 to fill up a car with fossil fuel, and you can do it with a charger installed at home. So valuable is this technology that the EV company Tesla is now worth more, in just ten years of existence, than the entire VW group which includes VW, Porsche, Audi, Bugatti, Ducati, Bentley and Lamborghini.

So, electric cars are great, and we should all go and buy one immediately? Well, It’s a little more complicated than that. An electric car runs on batteries and the batteries require lithium. Lithium is a metal that has to be mined out of the ground, much like mining coal, and this isn’t the most eco-friendly process. It is also a finite resource, much like fossil fuels, and at the rate we are going we will have chomped through the Earth’s known reserves by the end of this century. Therefore, whilst an EV may produce no CO2 in day-to-day use, the damage done to mine the lithium in the first place cannot simply be swept under the carpet. Don’t get me wrong, EV’s are far more environmentally responsible than a petrol or diesel car, but their manufacturing process isn’t quite so squeaky clean.

The next question that must be asked is, if EV’s eventually hit a dead end, where do we go after that? I believe we will eventually end up using Hydrogen power. A hydrogen powered car combusts pure hydrogen with oxygen to make water and electricity or energy in the process - and that’s it: no other waste products. Hydrogen is in abundance across our planet, in the air we breathe and in our seas, so no harmful mining process is necessary and there seem to be no other side effects. Hydrogen power has been tested on rail networks across the UK as some regions (such as the west country) still require diesel and can’t be electrified; hydrogen powered trains are therefore necessary to replace them.

Why aren’t all of our vehicles being powered by electric or hydrogen now then? The problem is, where is all the necessary electricity going to come from? In the UK, we currently use a number of different power sources from solar to nuclear: in 2019, only 36% of our power came from renewable sources, with the other 64% coming from gas and only 1% coming from coal and oil power stations. Renewables, and lots of them, need to be the way forward as, while hydrogen fuel cells release no CO2, the initial process of breaking water down into its constituent parts is a very energy hungry process.

As Barack Obama famously said, “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” Eco-friendly transport, power, and ways of living are what the planet needs. If we continue on our current trajectory, we will suffer. Our generation needs to be the early adopters and pioneers of the technology that will enable us to adapt the frivolous lifestyle we have enjoyed as a population since the Industrial Revolution. The ideas are there, yet they need to be heard and acted upon by those who can influence not just a community, but a global population. We are treading on thin (and rapidly melting) ice and it is our responsibility to apply the brakes and think again.

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