Under the Hood

The advent of dieselgate, which in some form or another, affected not just the Volkswagen group but various other vehicle companies, gave an extra push to the debate on electric vehicles.

I’ve now tried a number of hybrids and fully electric cars, both as a driver and a passenger, and there’s no doubt the technology is, if you excuse the pun, steaming ahead.

Cars, and road vehicles in general, have traditionally caused three types of problems: air pollution, traffic congestion (including parking), and accidents. Of course they’ve also solved a number of problems, by providing us with personalized and convenient circulation options.

I’ve lived with cars all my life, and have a totally irrational love affair with them—but then a rational love affair is an oxymoron. It’s a bit of an ambiguous relationship, since I have no enthusiasm for motor racing, whether formula  one or rally-driving, and yet I love driving—preferably driving fast.

The other thing I love is the perfection of the engineering solutions that underpin the automotive industry, which is a pretentious way of saying that I love fixing cars. I do much less of that now, because I have less time, twisting and bending is much less fun that it used to be, but mainly because car engines have really changed.

The core elements aren’t different, and the internal combustion engine, whether petrol or diesel, still operates on exactly the same principles, and uses the same arrangements of pistons, valves, shafts, chains, and belts to bring home the bacon. The same applies to other parts of the vehicle: brakes still use pads, gearboxes have cogs, and transmissions, driveshafts, shocks, and clutches could still be easily recognized by a World War II mechanic.

So what changed? In the last thirty years, cars developed a nervous system—the whole command and control structure changed, reflecting the enormous advances in sensors and consumer electronics. Putting that to work in a car is tricky—it falls under the heading of cybernetics: sensors drive moving parts, open and shut valves, and adjust emissions—or not, which is how the VW group peed in the soup. All this regulation has to occur while the car is bumping around, in an environment that includes water in vapor, liquid, or solid form, and with sharp temperature and light shifts.

Nowadays, it’s impossible to understand a car without plugging a computer into it: the vehicle then confesses its inner secrets to you, and you can even play doctor—turning off annoying warning lights, changing tuning settings, and diagnosing faults. In that respect, cars are already far more advanced than humans—imagine if someone developed a sensor, perhaps marketed as some kind of bike helmet, which tapped into your brain and retrieved all your key metabolic information, how your eyes and ears were doing, low-level infections, abnormal cell growth…

Some time ago, I bit the bullet and bought one such gismo off a US company called Ross-Tech, and was able to peer into the innards of my car. The Ross-Tech story is very much a tale of an entrepreneur, who decided to make a business out of something he enjoyed.

Like me, the Ross-Tech CEO is not a big fan of meetings.

The company developed a first-class product and empowered mom-and-pop shops that wanted to repair VWs and Audis, taking a bite out of the dealerships.

And here lies the first problem with the shift toward electric cars—they have very few moving parts. Maybe that’s an asset rather than a liability: if you own an electric vehicle, there are no plugs to change, no oil and air filters to worry about, no valve adjustments—you just drive the thing.

However, if you do have a problem, it can be pretty serious—recently an older generation electric car had a battery failure, and the replacement cost was twenty thousand dollars—the market value of the car was less than half of that. Nowadays, those prices have fallen, but there are still a few horror stories out there.

In the US, batteries have an eight- or ten-year warranty, depending on where you live, so what that tells me is that the average life of an electric car is eight years—no one in their right minds will risk a fifteen grand repair bill on a nine year old vehicle.

Battery cost is going to be a key determinant in the success of electric vehicles, with 2026 predicted to be the year where there will be a tipping point in yield, really pushing electric and scrapping diesel first, and petrol second.

In line with the predictions contained in my current book, The Hourglass, which I plan to release later in the year, car mechanics will be another group of people who will join the ranks of the unemployed—and as self-driving cars become a mainstream feature on the highway, the body shop fraternity will add to that list, as fender-benders become a thing of the past.

In the States, three-quarters of a million people work in the auto repair industry—that’s four times those in the coal-mining sector.

Dirty Donnie’s plans for the US coal industry, as portrayed on a wall in Dublin city center.

Which is an excellent segway for talking about energy sources. Electric cars are a wonderful improvement on emissions in the major cities of the world. The Chinese, in particular, are really driving this particular bus—the Middle Kingdom has already forbidden foreign investment in battery cells—and is racing ahead with other options.

So, you can clean up Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou—but energy, like fish, is not a printable commodity, and neither can it be created nor destroyed. It’s in limited supply, and a huge distribution network is required to feed all the electric vehicles.

China has a plentiful supply of coal, so it goes without saying that a thoroughly unclean source of energy will contribute to the cleaner cities of the future—this may lead to serious atmospheric and water pollution—a discussion that is far from complete.

For traffic congestion, the standard rule applies.

Build more roads, get more cars.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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