Sunday, 31 July 2011

It may not be THE answer, but it is AN answer.

Top Gear got me thinking this evening. For those of you who didn’t see it, Clarkson and May conducted an uncharacteristic sober and objective review of the two 100% electric offerings from Nissan and Peugeot. Nicely made cars, on the expensive side (the Peugeot especially which was monumentally ugly and prohibitively expensive for what you get at £30k) but the consensus was positive. Except for the electro-motors Achilles heels – range and charge rate.
The distances that electrical cars are capable of covering are just too limited to be of practical use for anyone looking to cover much more than 30 miles a day, and the charge times (around 12 hours from flat to full charge) are just too long for most users.
With the best will in the world we have to accept that reserves of oil are very definitely finite, bugger the ecological aspect, just for logistics and economics we need to develop alternatives and develop them now.
I’m far from convinced that electrically powered cars are the answer. Not just for reasons of practicality, but also the cost of the unit, the cost of charging (they have to be charged from the mains and electricity bills are soaring almost as much as the charges we see for petrol and diesel) and the fact that the electricity has to come from somewhere. The juice flowing from the wall to the car does not magically appear from nowhere, there is a power station at the end of the line, either burning coal or gas – themselves using limited fossil reserves, or nuclear. Nuke stations I have no problem with, but plenty of the people who will gladly shell out the extra for a leccy car will have a very real problem with it, and sorry, wind and solar just ain’t gonna provide the power.
James May reasonably made the point that Honda have the answer in hydrogen powered cars. Yes, getting the hydrogen into a tank and powering a motor isn’t an easy task, but is it really much more difficult than the extraction, refining and distribution process for crude oil?
In the short term, if we do need to wean ourselves off petrol electric cars then electric is the only answer, if only we could get around the range and charging issues. Well, that and the decidedly ecologically unfriendly way the cars have to be made.
The Top Gear guys came up with the tongue-in-cheek idea of running a dodgem style wire grid over the top of the road. Obviously and intentionally ridiculous. But there is a solution to the problem, and it is a very old solution as well.
Back in the days before cars and trains there was a network of horse drawn stagecoaches around the country, in order to keep to some semblance of a timetable, once you factored in the bloody awful roads, cracked wheels axles and people holding you up for your lupins, at points on the route, the tired horses would be changed for fresh ones with the old horses being stabled, given some oats and some kip before being hitched to another stagecoach when they were ready.
How difficult would it be for the car producers to use a battery of uniform dimension and connection? How much of a cushion against the oil running out would it be for the petrol stations and oil companies to offer a service where you pull up onto the forecourt, remove your expiring battery, place it into the charging rack, take a fully charged one, insert it into the car, pay up and drive off?
Yes, there would be logistical issues, but surely it couldn’t be that difficult, could it? The USB has done the same for computing, why not a similar interface for cars?
Just saying.
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