Some say the traditional petrol-driven internal combustion engine is on the way out.
It would seem inevitable, given that the alternative – the electric engine – is less harmful to the environment at the point of use.
The implications of the rise of the electric engine for the global oil business is beyond the scope of this article, but oil will probably continue to be important going forward because of its role in powering so many other sectors of industry.
But as far as the demands on the oil industry that road-going vehicles will make, it seems there is a definite downward trend emerging.
Perhaps the most significant recent development is the German government’s decision to ban the combustion engine effective 2030.
The concept car in front is German
Germany, having ushered in the age of mechanical road travel with the invention of the Benz Motorwagen in the late-1800s, has taken another far-sighted decision to phase out petrol-driven engines.
The geeky and green politicians wandering the corridors of the Bundesrat – the country’s upper house of parliament – have persuaded enough of their fellow lawmakers to support a proposal which would only allow zero-emission vehicles to be registered from 2030.
The original report of the decision appeared in Der Spiegel, and was mentioned by Reuters, which quoted the Green party’s Oliver Krischer as saying: “If the Paris agreement to curb climate-warming emissions is to be taken seriously, no new combustion engine cars should be allowed on roads after 2030.”
Reuters notes that a switch to zero-emission cars could mean the loss of thousands of jobs since the building of such cars requires fewer staff, apparently.
Nonetheless, that is what the Germans have voted for, and the country is unlikely to veer from its plan to stop selling the internal combustion engine in the European Union by 2030.
And while some may worry about what this means for their jobs, others are optimistic.
As quoted by Bloomberg, Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, says: “We’re now flipping the switch. We’re ready for the launch of an electric product offensive that will cover all vehicle segments, from the compact to the luxury class.”
The hybrid car in front is Japanese
While the eventual goal is zero emissions, meaning electric vehicles, there are already millions of cars on the road which use hybrid engines, which are cleaner than petrol.
Of those, perhaps the most famous model of car is the Toyota Prius. But there are many others, and the total number of electric cars of all brands has surpassed 1 million, with 477,000 of those having been sold in 2015, according to a study by the International Energy Agency.
In a statement accompanying its report, the IEA says: “The global stock of electric vehicles on the road surpassed 1 million in 2015, a significant milestone, albeit the current stock is still small compared to the ambitious aim of deploying over 1 billion electric vehicles by 2050 to achieve the 2°C goal.
“China and the United States were market leaders in total sales, and Norway kept its global lead in terms of market share, with almost one in four cars sold being electric, but the global share is still low, with only seven countries having more than 1 per cent of electric vehicles in their market share.”
Carbon Brief, which analysed the IEA data, says the US, China, the Netherlands and Norway together accounted for 70 per cent of all electric cars worldwide. Of those countries, China became the world’s largest electric car market last year.
We have made a bar chart here using partial data from the Carbon Brief report, which looks into the growth of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and how different countries stack up.
Source: IEA via Carbon Brief
In an interview with Carbon Brief, the IEA’s chief economist Laszlo Varro says: “Electric cars are roughly 10 years behind wind and solar in terms of deployment and technology development. Still, electric car technology is also gathering momentum. Electric cars increasingly capture the consumer’s imagination.”
No grit, just glamour
Electric cars have always been thought of as being less alluring than traditional combustion-engine cars, not having the historic connection to the earliest days of motoring and not being present through all its developments in racing and supercar development.
Indeed even today many of the top supercar makers would not even consider building a car around an electric engine.
The only company which has put electric engines front and centre of its vehicles is Tesla, which could be argued to have changed the general perception of electric cars as slow and sedate cousins to their petrol-roaring counterparts.
But Tesla has definitely found a market and a receptive public, and has developed into a car company with many strings to its bow, including autonomous driving technology.
And this could be said to be where much of motoring is going: electric cars driven by computers.
Moreover, the past couple of years has seen the growing popularity of Formula E, a series of races modelled on the Formula 1 circuit, but featuring only electric cars.
There are still many technological challenges to overcome, however, not least of which is the development of a durable and affordable battery to power the vehicles.
But for now, here’s a pie chart showing the top-selling hybrid car models in the US in 2014.
Source: HybridCars.com and Baum & Associates
Running on empty
The life of the battery in an electric vehicle is of course of critical importance and much research work is currently concentrating on developing longer-lasting batteries.
At the moment, the cars with the longest-lasting batteries, according to a report on the Autos Cheat Sheet website, are listed below, along with the number of miles they are estimated to last on a single charge.
- Tesla Model S 85D ~ 270 miles
- Kia Soul EV ~ 93 miles
- Fiat 500e ~ 87 miles
- Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive ~ 87 miles
- Nissan Leaf ~ 84 miles
- Volkswagen e-Golf ~ 83 miles
- Chevy Spark EV ~ 82 miles
- BMW i3 ~ 81 miles
- Ford Focus Electric ~ 76 miles
- Smart Electric Drive ~ 68
Given that these are hybrid cars, most if not all of them operate a system which means that once the electric charge runs out, the petrol-driven motor fires up and can keep you going a longer distance.
But the ultimate goal being fully electric cars, most of these companies, along with many others, are busy developing and launching even longer-lasting batteries, with some interesting products having been revealed recently.
Leaders from opposite angles
As can be seen from the above list, Tesla’s vehicle has by far the longest range, but its price point is also the most out of reach, starting at more than $90,000 compared to the second-placed car, Kia Soul, which retails for under $17,000.
Be that as it may, the battery is still the thing, and here Tesla is way out in front. And the company has attracted the attention of another leader, in the shape of General Motors.
GM has joined Tesla in announcing the companies’ plan to produce affordable electric vehicles which will go for more than 200 miles on a single charge, according to a report earlier this year on Think Progress.
Meanwhile, Samsung, which recently had some trouble with exploding smartphone batteries, has unveiled a new electric battery prototype which it says can increase the range of cars to more than 370 miles, according to a report on ZDNet.com.
As well as a longer range, Samsung says its battery takes up 20 to 30 per cent less space. The company expects to begin commercial production by 2020.
Looking further upstream and inside the labs, Wired reports that a group of scientists have developed battery technology which could lead to electric cars that can travel long distances without requiring charging every day.
The scientists say their Lithium-air or lithium-oxygen battery has the potential to be up to 15 times more efficient than current batteries.
Even more outlandish claims on behalf of batteries are made in this article on Pocket-Lint.com.