Bad cars gone electric

29.10.2011 20:50

Last week Slovenian chapter of EESTEC, the Electrical engineering student's European association, was running a workshop on electric cars in Ljubljana under the title Bad cars gone electric. I attended 6 public lectures on the topic (only 4 of which actually took place) in Center Evropa.

While the lectures provided an interesting insight into the industry behind electric vehicles they left me with few conclusions I can confidently share on.

A good case was made for semiconductor photovoltaics over biological means of converting sun's energy into a form usable in vehicles. Modern mass-market silicon cells achieve around 20% efficiency, while most plants manage to store below 1% of the energy in biomass. It's interesting how it was shown that solar cells on the roof of the car and it's parking spot could cover most of the energy needs required by an average car. But having solar cells on the parking spot at home while your car is with you in the office means you need to either charge another bunch of batteries at home or have enough grid capacity to charge the car there. Also, since a case was made that electric cars are made for the cities of tomorrow, how do you account for multi-story buildings, where not every car owner has a free patch of the sky she can use to top up her battery? Is it really a good idea to cover 1% of land with solar cells, even if it means economically unusable (but probably ecologically the best preserved) 1%?

One thing I haven't heard mentioned before is that you might use all the rechargeable batteries in parked cars as distributed grid energy storage. That might help with the fact that green energy sources tend to be destabilizing as far as energy distribution is concerned and such storage might provide additional stability. But again, you get plenty of problems there. How will you fairly compensate car owners for building and financing a part of infrastructure for you? How will you make sure that the car battery won't be used to stabilize the grid instead of powering my trip to the coast this weekend? Some of the positive effects of this particular idea presented on the workshop simply seemed to challenge the energy conservation law.

An expected solution to an awful lot of unresolved problems or limitations with electric propulsion seem to be smart computer systems of tomorrow. Low range? There will be a smart assistant in every car that will plan your journey to allow for enough charging time. Grid storage using a part of battery capacity? The smart grid will know when you will need your car and use the battery accordingly. Short battery lifetime? Smart charging and discharging controllers will fix that.

I don't believe that I will soon see a computer that will be able to predict to an usable accuracy that I will want to drive to the sea side tomorrow and that it should keep the battery topped up. But even leaving my personal doubts aside, the prospect worries me. It paints a future where everything is interconnected and there is some central intelligence somewhere that collects as much information as it can to predict personal wishes. This has obvious privacy and security issues which have not been addressed.

Depending on intelligent control instead of inherent stability also makes a system vulnerable to disasters. If the stability of the power grid depends on all the little cars being there with their batteries to support it and some intelligence to manage it, what happens when one of these components gets knocked out?

With cars that smart, I also wonder how soon the car companies will start employing software engineers instead of mechanics in their service shops. Recall the recent Jaguar software bug. They say no customers encountered it and the bug only got noticed when an Jaguar employee stumbled upon it. I wonder how many of their customers did notice and report it, only to be dismissed by a mechanic that did not recognize signs of a software bug.

Another problem that seems to be plaguing this industry is that everything must be compared to the regular, gasoline-burning cars. And that inevitably leads to comparing apples to oranges. Are you converting electrical kWh to equivalent liters of gasoline? Well, even for petrol cars the l/100 km figure is of somewhat limited usefulness. It gets even more complicated with CO2 emission figures people are throwing around. On a completely electric vehicle those depend more on how electricity is generated in your country than how much energy the vehicle requires to move around. This all gets complicated enough that numbers from different sources vary to such a degree that it's probably easy to nudge results in one or the other direction, depending on any hidden agendas.

I certainly believe burning oil in internal combustion engines will come to an end sooner or later. But confusing energy storage and primary sources while advertising your solution doesn't help anything but possibly to channel money into the right pockets. I won't believe some internal research that our existing national grid is capable of sustaining 800.000 electric cars while every new power plant is a struggle against environmental laws and not-in-my-back-yard public opinion. Nor when I hear news of over strained high-tension lines from the other side of the argument. It's simply too good to be true.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life

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