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What if all cars were electric?

11 min read
23 Feb 2016

There are were more than 1 million electric cars sold by October 2015, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, but that’s only 0.1% of the world’s motor vehicles. However, it does look like the electric car market is gaining traction, with the number of models becoming available in Australia ever-increasing. So, what could the future look like if all cars were electric?

Looking back to look forward: 20 years of electric car development

Hybrid electric cars have been a visible part of the car market for some years, with the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight launching in the late 1990’s. These hybrids still rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on the petrol fuelled internal combustion engine, but also use electrical power generated by the car itself.

More recently, plug-in hybrids have reached the market, which also use a combination of electric power and an internal combustion engine, but can be plugged in to an external power source.

Globally, there are now which dispense with the internal combustion engine altogether and are powered exclusively by rechargeable battery.

Could we be heading towards an all-electric future for motoring?

Looking at Australia, sales of highway-capable plug-in electric vehicles have risen from just

So, we could say that the use of electric cars in certainly growing. On the other hand, those global sales of over 1 million represent just 0.1% of the world’s motor vehicle stock. It should be noted, however, plug-in electric vehicles have reached a 1 million sales benchmark twice as fast as older hybrids that didn’t offer the capacity to recharge from an external source.

But as these machines become more prevalent across the country, how will it affect Aussies everywhere?

Environmental factors

Direct emissions from cars will decrease

Direct emissions are those that come from the vehicle’s tailpipe, as well as evaporation from the vehicle’s fuel system. These contribute to things like smog, haze, and health problems; and, in the wider picture, the build up of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Electric cars produce zero direct emissions – a significant selling point against conventional petrol cars. Even hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles both produce some direct emissions from evaporation, as well as when they’re not driven in all-electric mode (although less so than a conventional car).

Wheel-to-wheel emissions

However, moving beyond direct ‘in use’ emissions alone, the environmental impact also extends to what are called the ‘wheel-to-wheel’ emissions. This includes everything related to manufacturing the vehicles themselves, fuel production, as well as emissions when the vehicles are in use. According to this article in The Australian, electric cars use 50% more carbon in their manufacture than a petrol equivalent because of the materials needed for the battery. Additionally, when the vehicle is in use the carbon emissions are directly associated with where the power for the electric car is coming from. If you’re charging using solar then the emissions savings are significant, but if you’re charging form the grid it depends on the energy profile of the state you are in.

Most electric power plants produce emissions, and depending on what is used to generate electricity, there may also be additional emissions associated with the extraction, processing, and distribution of coal or gas. According to The Office of The Chief Economist, the mix of electricity generation across Australia for 2013-14 was 85.1% fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and 14.9% renewables (hydro, solar, wind etc.). However, wind generation grew by 29% and solar by 27%.

Given all the variables, it’s difficult to establish a reliable, definitive figure for emissions associated with electricity generation for electric vehicles, with some areas making greater use of renewables than others and the electricity generation mix constantly changing.

That being said, according to a report on electric car emissions can vary greatly from one country to the next depending on the dominant means of electricity generation. For Australia, with a predominantly coal based infrastructure, they calculate an electric car will emit 292 grams of CO2 per km, equivalent to a fuel economy of 9 litres per 100kms. This is actually lower than the average fuel consumption for conventional passenger cars, given as 10.7l/km by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. By contrast, the report suggests an electric car in Canada would only emit 115g CO2/km, equivalent to 2.7l/100km.

Electric cars and a nations energy profile

While all-electric cars clearly benefit from zero direct emissions, their full ‘wheel-to-wheel’ emissions seem to depend heavily on the electricity generation mix in each country, and even each area, and how this might change in the coming years.

User cost: petrol versus electricity

The cost of charging an electric car battery will clearly depend on how much you pay for electricity where you live, and also vary from one model to the next. Website states,

“The average price for electricity per kWh in Australia is about $0.25 and it takes approximately 18 kWh to travel 100kms, so it will cost approximately $4.50 in electricity charges to travel 100kms.

“In comparison, the average petrol car in Australia uses 11.1 litres of fuel to travel 100kms (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics). That’s a cost of $16.65 to travel 100kms at $1.50 per litre. Even a very efficient diesel vehicle (5 litres per 100kms) will cost $7.50.”

Looking at specific models, according to the RAC running costs report, they estimate ‘fuel’ (electricity) for the Nissan Leaf costs $12.23 per week. Compared to the petrol Nissan Pulsar, also a 5 door hatchback of comparable size, the estimated fuel costs are $26.79 per week.

The cost of electricity = the cost of fuel

There have been concerns in recent years about the rising cost of electricity. Research from the Parliamentary Library and the Clean Energy Council both separately attribute much of the rising cost to upgrading network infrastructure. However, both predict any price rises to be much more moderate in the coming years as investment in infrastructure tails off. The December 2015 price trends report from the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) also predicts,

 “Over the next three years, residential electricity prices are expected to be flat or slightly increasing for most jurisdictions. However in the first year a number of jurisdictions are likely to see price decreases.”

The AMEC report highlights potential savings for Aussies taking advantage of ‘time of use’ offers (for example, anyone utilising lower tariffs for using electricity during off-peak periods. For electric cars, this could fit in well with recharging overnight.

Reduced Noise

Electric cars are much quieter than conventional vehicles, so anyone living near a main road may soon have cause for celebration! According to an MIT report,

The only sounds they (electric cars) make come from the tires, the air, and occasionally from the high-pitched whine of the electronics.”

While this might be seen as a pleasant reduction in noise pollution, the report also identifies safety concerns, for other road users, pedestrians and particularly for blind people, who rely on sound to decide when it is safe to cross the road. They point out,

“The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that pedestrians are considerably more likely to be hit by hybrid or electric vehicles than by those with an internal-combustion engine. The greatest danger is when the hybrid or electric vehicles are moving slowly: they are almost completely silent.”

Adding artificial noise for safety reasons

These concerns are already being addressed by various governments and moves are underway towards fitting electric cars with Acoustic Vehicle Alerting Systems (AVAS). European Union countries, for instance have agreed on a requirement that

“The sound to be generated by the AVAS should be a continuous sound that provides information to the pedestrians and vulnerable road users of a vehicle in operation. The sound should be easily indicative of vehicle behaviour and should sound similar to the sound of a vehicle of the same category equipped with an internal combustion engine.”

There is a five year transition period for manufacturers to comply with the new rule.

Perhaps in the future electric cars will be able to detect how many cars are in the immediate vicinity, say in a traffic jam, and adjust their generated noise accordingly. Wouldn’t it be a nice break in a city traffic jam for cars to be emitting a low grumble at the same volume as just one car, rather than the stifling clamour of fossil fuel powered engines in the early morning rush?

Battery life

The lifespan of the electric car battery, the cost and environmental impact of disposing and replacing it, are likely to be key factors for the mainstream success of electric cars. How Stuff Works reports the lithium-ion battery for the Tesla Roadster is likely to last about 5 years or 100,000 miles (160,934km) and cost $US10,000 to replace. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that this is a high end luxury car which costs $US100,000 – so in those terms the replacement battery perhaps seems more in keeping with the high cost of the car itself.

Research presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society was more optimistic, if also less specific. Mikael G. Cugnet, Ph.D said “The battery pack could be used during a quite reasonable period of time ranging from 5 to 20 years depending on many factors.” He identified temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius as having a detrimental effect on battery life, especially if sustained over months, which may be bad news for customers in Australia.

The study assumed the battery was beyond useful once it had lost 20% of its original capacity (although, depending on range requirements, some drivers may be happy to continue using a battery after that point). The article also highlights possible ‘second lives’ for batteries after they have lost too much power to be used in electric cars; “These applications could include backup power for computers and medical equipment, or electrical grid storage, which would go hand-in-hand with renewable power like wind or solar to keep electricity flowing even when environmental conditions aren’t right. Another option is recycling a battery’s components to make new batteries.”

It is also worth remembering that battery technology for electric cars in still developing and life span may improve, along with the overall capacity. As well as commercial companies, Japanese and European Union officials are in talks to jointly develop advanced rechargeable batteries for electric cars.

Charging stations

A major consumer concern with all-electric cars in ‘range anxiety’ – will you reach your destination before the battery runs out or you can recharge along the way? This might be an issue for long distance trips.

Drive reported on plans to install 16 high power ‘supercharger’ stations between Melbourne and Brisbane, making longer journeys more feasible. The report states that electric car manufacturer Telsa “is adopting a “build it and they will come” mentality to electric cars in Australia and feels it will soon have the right formula and model mix to help the technology gain traction.

Along with charging stations, advances in battery technology – and therefore range – will play an important role. Japanese battery maker GS Yuasa Corp has said developing a battery that can power an electric vehicle 500km on a single charge is feasible.

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Moreover, even as things currently stand, an article in The Conversation questions whether a large infrastructure of charging stations is necessary and points out that,

“Almost all Australians live in cities, and our cars travel short distances in traffic. In Sydney, fewer than 10% of cars travel more than 100 km per day. The median distance travelled each day is less than 35 kilometres. In the other capital cities, fewer than 5% of cars travel more than 100 kilometres per day.”

These habits seem to be within the range of existing electric cars, so charging at home may be sufficient in many instances.

Retail market – if all cars were electric, would they be cheaper?

Another perceived barrier to take up of electric cars is the relatively high purchase cost. The 2016 Nissan Leaf, for instance, comes with a manufacturer’s recommended retail price of $51,500 according to Car Advice.

This is an increase on previous Leaf models, perhaps due to availability of increased battery capacity which, according to The Motor Report will increase the range by about 27%, up to 250km on a single charge. Clearly, the technology is still developing and it may be that, with many new technologies, the early adopters are paying the price of research and development.

My Electric Car suggests the current high price of electric cars,

“is mainly due to expenses related to efficiencies of scale and the cost of the batteries. As scale production of electric vehicles has increased and battery costs reduced the cost of electric cars has come down. Lithium-ion battery prices have also dropped 40% between 2010 and 2012 with the prospect of further substantial reductions in cost over the next five years.”

So, what is the future of the electric car?

Although hybrid and all-electric cars are not exactly new, it’s clear that the technology is still emerging and evolving. In the shorter term, the environmental benefits and the success of electric cars as a mainstream motoring option seem to rest on a number of factors; the development of electricity generation methods, the comparative fluctuations in electricity and petrol prices, the advances in battery technology and/or charging infrastructure needed to make longer journeys possible and achieving savings in production which would allow manufacturers to price electric cars more competitively.

In the longer term, fossil fuels, and therefore petrol, are a finite resource that will be depleted eventually. So if the electric car doesn’t take over, we can only wonder how else the transport of the future might adapt.

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