Superficial observers of the electric vehicle scene often assume that there’s only one reason for drivers to go electric, whether it be a desire to address climate change, a wish to save money on fuel costs, or the joy of getting a tax break. In fact however, major events in human history can seldom be attributed to any single cause - they are driven by technological, economic, political and social factors that interact in complex ways, and the EV revolution is no exception. Often these factors are not “causes” in the simple sense of the word, but rather different ways of looking at a sequence of events.
Above: Tesla Model X (Instagram: hsun49)
Michael Barnard, writing in CleanTechnica, identifies seven “somewhat overlapping lenses” that can help to explain the transformation of the world’s transportation and energy systems that is beginning. Together, he writes, they strongly indicate that the future of clean technology is electric.
Fungibility is the property of a commodity whose individual units are interchangeable. For example, cash is completely fungible - it’s easy to convert cash from larger to smaller bills, or from banknotes to cash in a bank account, and to exchange any form of cash for goods or services. Any solution that’s more fungible than an alternative has a competitive advantage, and electricity is highly fungible. “A generator in Nevada can put a megawatt-hour of electricity into the grid and receive payment from a utility in California,” writes Barnard. “The utility doesn’t get that specific megawatt-hour, it just gets a megawatt-hour from the grid.”
Electricity is also highly fungible in terms of different voltages and types of current. The high-voltage AC current traveling through power lines gets converted to 120- or 240-volt AC before it’s delivered to your house, then converted to DC to charge your EV’s battery. Such conversions happen all the time, effortlessly and cheaply.
This is not true of fossil fuels. You can’t put diesel (or coal or natural gas) in your gasoline car, and you can’t put gasoline in your furnace, or use it to charge your smartphone.
Ubiquity is another quality of electricity - at least in the developed world, it’s everywhere. Of course, gas stations are widespread too, but they aren’t as ubiquitous as electricity. Although most consumers don’t realize it yet, charging an EV at your home or workplace is more convenient than stopping at a gas station to fuel a legacy vehicle.
Above: Soon, folks will park their car at work, plug in, and come back to a fully charged car (Instagram: electric_news)
Ubiquity is also a major argument against hydrogen as a transportation fuel (one of several). For hydrogen vehicles to catch on, automakers (or governments?) would have to invest billions in hydrogen generators, fueling stations and a distribution network - a much more complicated proposition than simply adding charging stations to the existing electric grid.
Loose coupling is a concept from software engineering. As Barnard explains, “a loosely coupled system means that no component requires a specific other component in order to work.” When it comes to transportation, trucks and roads are loosely coupled, and Barnard sees this as a reason that electric trucks will eventually replace railroads as shippers of bulk freight. Elon Musk made a similar prediction at this week’s Tesla Semi reveal event, saying that shipping goods in convoys of Tesla’s autonomous trucks would be cheaper than shipping them by rail.
Electronics outperform mechanical solutions. Many of the technological advances of the past couple of decades depend on the power of electronics. It’s not just smartphones and computers - new cars are more powerful, safer and more fuel efficient than ever before, and that’s not because of improvements to the mechanical parts. It’s thanks to computer-based components such as electronic fuel injection, traction control, sensors and computer diagnostic systems. “Any solution which is based on electronics and electricity will outperform purely physical solutions at a lower price eventually,” writes Barnard.
All modern cars are packed with electronics, but EVs are even more so, and Tesla is leading the trend by a long stretch. As Tesla co-founder Ian Wright explained to me in a 2014 interview, Model S is the first vehicle to be controlled by a single integrated operating system, as opposed to the hodgepodge of interconnected computers that runs legacy vehicles.
Above: A look at the digital displays in a Tesla Model S (Instagram: bockarch)
“I think Tesla did take a real Silicon Valley systems architecture perspective in designing all the electronics in the Model S,” Wright told me. “I don’t know to what extent that way of doing things will translate to the big guys, but I think it is a very different way of doing it and I expect that their electronics and software will wind up being quite a bit more reliable than what we’re used to in cars.”
Human nature doesn’t change, and any proposed transformation that doesn’t take it into account is bound to fail. Barnard points out that people want comfort, convenience and fun, they are bad at making rational decisions, and they value immediate benefits over future gains. This sounds like bad news, but it isn’t. Electronics deliver not only more efficiency, but better features, and the latter is what entices consumers to buy. “The way to get people to shift to better alternatives faster is through understanding human nature,” Barnard points out. “Efficiency programs that depended on educating people barely moved the dial. Giving people better TVs, refrigerators, stereos, smartphones, and lights moved the dial a lot.”
Tesla’s founders intuitively understood that, and it’s the main reason for the early success of the company. While greenies and a couple of aspiring automakers tried to talk people into buying electric cars to save far-away polar bears, Elon Musk and his merry men offered them a cool-looking Roadster that could embarrass a Corvette on the drag strip.
Simple economics also supports the case for an electric future. Battery costs are steadily dropping, a fact that the platoons of pundits who rail against EVs (and renewable energy) seldom mention. Furthermore, the value delivered by each kilowatt-hour of electricity is increasing far more quickly than the cost of electricity. For example, in some service areas, increasing use of renewable energy has resulted in higher electric costs, but it has also reduced other economic problems, especially those caused by air pollution. Toronto, which recently eliminated coal-fired power plants, now has zero unhealthy air days per year instead of the previous 55.
Above: As our electric grid gets cleaner, electric cars get cleaner (Image: Zajazdi si na Tesle)
“It’s human nature to ignore the amazing advances in utility per kilowatt-hour and complain about the price,” says Barnard, “but people are getting a lot more out of each kilowatt-hour than they used to.”
“The future is already here,” as author William Gibson said. “It’s just not evenly distributed.” The electric future is clearly taking shape in places like Norway and California, while in other parts of the world it’s still just a rumor. Even within Europe, the pace of electrification varies enormously. A recent report from the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association found that plug-in vehicles have cracked 1% of the auto market only in the richest countries. In Norway, which has a per-capita GDP that’s more than twice the EU average, 29% of new cars sold have a plug. In economically-challenged Greece, 32 lonely plug-in vehicles were sold last year.
EV-makers are well aware of this, and they follow a strategy of focusing on strong markets, while cautiously developing new ones. “Frankly, marketing out to Idaho... doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at this point in time,” Michael Arbuckle, Nissan’s Senior Manager of EV Sales, told me recently.
Tesla is much more aggressive in this regard, as a quick glance at the world Supercharger map makes clear. Yes, Superchargers are thick on the Left Coast and the Northeast, but Idaho and Wyoming have them too. So do Mexico, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. In Europe, the empire has reached Croatia, Slovakia and Poland, and it is pushing ever farther east.
Above: Tesla Model X at a Supercharger station in Dubai (Image: Tires and Parts)
There are still places on Earth where people get around in horse-drawn carts, and a century from now, battered old pickup trucks will still be belching smoke somewhere (if we’re lucky). But the electric future is on the way, and for those who can make sense of the complex convergence of causes driving the transformation, there’s an unlimited amount of opportunity.