Despite having been around since the middle of the 19th century, electric cars have always played a distant second to their petrol and diesel engined counterparts. Even as the world welcomed the 20th century, electric vehicles didn’t have the range or performance of combustion engine models. If you wanted to travel more than 50 or 60 miles in electric car, you were out of luck. Today, things are different.
Firstly, electric cars are now more affordable. The Nissan Leaf is the world’s best-selling all-electric car, while almost every major car manufacturer has committed to electric and hybrid cars. And demand is riding high: electric car sales are hitting double-digit growth rates, often above 50% year on year.
It’s not just car manufacturers that have seen the future. Governments are taking positive steps too, even setting dates for the complete sales ban of petrol and diesel cars (the UK and France, for example, are set to ban petrol and diesels from 2040 onwards, while Paris will introduce a similar ban as early as 2030).
Significantly, 14% of global carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation, and with 95% of vehicles using petrol or diesel engines, something needs to change. Other than investing in a lot of solar panels, or paying for 100% renewable energy, switching to a greener form of transport is the most profound change that can be made.
But are electric vehicles really that much greener? Surely the electricity still needs to be generated, just as a petrol or diesel engine needs to burn its fuel? You’re right, in part: the electricity that charges your electric car does indeed need to be generated, often from relatively dirty fossil fuel or nuclear power stations. But the way that electricity is generated is changing at an incredible pace. The percentage of electricity generated by renewable sources has risen significantly in the last decade. By 2022, 30% of the world’s supply of electricity will come from renewable sources.
Why has the tide turned in favor of electric cars? After all, there’s no tougher audience to convert than traditional motoring enthusiasts. So if you’re trying to win over the skeptical petrolheads in your life, power and performance are a good place to start. When fully electric cars like Tesla’s Model S boast breakneck 0-60 mph times as low as 2.4 seconds (and an incredible 1.9 seconds for its new Roadster electric sports car), it’s easy to see why they’ve rapidly gained ‘highly desirable’ status among casual drivers and enthusiasts alike.
The other big factor is running costs: 100 miles in an electric car costs just a few dollars, if that. In many parts of the world, 100 miles in a petrol car could cost US$10-15. An electric vehicle offers far superior fuel consumption (as long as you have a convenient place to charge it).
Perhaps more than anything else, improvements in battery technology have helped open the floodgates. The big battery tech breakthroughs are yet to come, but the development and fine-tuning of lithium-ion battery technology has helped push electric cars through the magic 300-mile range barrier. This could double over the next decade.
Tesla is one of the pioneers of the modern electric car era. Key to Tesla’s story is its mercurial founder, Elon Musk. Musk is no car industry patriarch. He comes from a very different world, having co-founded digital payments service PayPal in 1998. His fresh, tech-first approach brings a business strategy and style that’s closer to Silicon Valley than the classic industrial strongholds of Detroit or Germany. Musk’s Tesla has shaken up the established vehicle industry, proving to everyone that electric cars can match and even surpass combustion engine vehicles. Tesla has given the electric car market its ‘iPhone moment’, a much-needed injection of innovation, performance and – perhaps most importantly – a sense of ‘cool’.
Above all, electric cars like Tesla’s make economic and environmental sense. At the Frankfurt and Geneva motor shows last year, some of the biggest dates on the automobile world’s calendar, the headlines were dominated by electric vehicles.
Ford, GM, Toyota, Renault, Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover, and many more are each investing billions of dollars to release a series of hybrid or all-electric cars from now until the early 2020s. Volkswagen is planning at least 25 new models with either hybrid or fully electric power sources, while Volvo has committed to electrifying its entire range of existing and new models as early as 2019.
If this all sounds like a new world compared to the gears-and-pistons-loving car establishment, that’s because it is: even non-traditional manufacturers have thrown their hat into the ring. Exhibit A is vacuum cleaner company Dyson. The British design and engineering company has committed £2bn and around 400 people to the project, with its electric car set to roll off the production line in the early 2020s.
Tesla’s latest product is aimed at the logistics sector, a fully electric truck designed for heavy road haulage. Christened the Tesla Semi, it has a range of up to 500 miles and can accelerate from 0-60mph in 20 seconds even when fully loaded. Retail giant Walmart has pre-ordered 15 Tesla Semis, while food and drink manufacturer PepsiCo has signed up for 100.
At DHL, the backbone of our business is our global transport network. We have some 92,000 road vehicles in operation, but we’ve already modified 20,000 vehicles to be more environmentally friendly. Our long-term plan is to hit zero emissions by 2050, so to help us get started, DHL has also pre-ordered ten Tesla Semi trucks, set to hit the road in 2019.
Tesla isn’t alone. A dozen other automobile manufacturers, including Volkswagen, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz all have electric trucks in development.
Right now, electric cars make up less than 5% of all car sales, but that’s about to change. Society recognizes the need for environmental action, and car manufacturers know the shift in public opinion has already taken place.
It’s clear to see that we’re at the start of a race to develop commercially successful electric cars. The big factors are cost and range. Critics point out that, aside from expensive Tesla models, electric cars still suffer from a comparatively poor range of barely more than 100 miles.
Battery anxiety is still an issue, and there are also question marks over battery longevity – any battery, whether it’s in a mobile phone or a truck, has a defined lifespan. Manufacturers are getting around this by offering paid-for battery replacements after a set time (usually 7 or 8 years or more) or providing battery leasing schemes.
The culture of battery charging, of how to get a small charge to last long enough, has become second nature to phone users over a couple of decades. We’ll adapt this culture to motoring as we got used to any other change over the years.
Want a truly long-range forecast? Look out for electric planes ... yes, they’re really happening.