Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Top Scientist Slams Electric Vehicles, But Misses the Mark

A top U.K. scientist says the rush to get electric cars on the road is "dangerous." The scientist, Dr. Richard Pike, is head of the Royal Chemistry Society—an important position with a direct line to the media. He says that all of the supposed benefits of electric vehicles are nothing but myths.

We beg to differ.

Electric CarDr. Pike is mostly stirred up about the political fuss over electric vehicles, and the roughly £250 million of government funds intended to aid the tech in the U.K. That represents a third of the national budget for the science and engineering research council. In Pike's eyes, the money would be better spent on general science.

In a piece Pike wrote for Research Fortnight he says: "The myths of the electric car centre on its energy efficiency, reduced carbon emissions and low operating costs...Unfortunately, none of these are true."

Energy Efficiency. Pike says that government assertions about electric cars being three to four times more efficient than conventional cars are exaggerated, because the figures don't take into account distribution efficiencies. These vehicle efficiency figures are in kWh/km—simply how much energy (electric, or fuel chemistry) the car needs to propel it one kilometer. Pike points out only 36% of the available energy from a power station's fuel goes into electricity sent down the lines—the rest is lost during production, so in the big picture, EVs aren't all that efficient.

He's right, as far as that goes. But it's hard to push power station efficiency higher, due to engineering problems, costs, and hard laws of physics (thermodynamics of heat engines). And Pike's wrong on two counts: Traditionally-fueled cars, and even next-gen fuel cell cars, rely on a fuel station network, with tanker fleets propelling fuel around the country. That's an additional energy waste that should go into the calculation, along with issues like fuel spills, the cost of fuel-based fires, energy required to make the fuel, and too many gas-guzzling muscle cars.

Pike also plays down the fact that energy in power stations can also come from alternative sources, such as hydroelectric, where worrying about efficiency in power stations is a fairly invalid argument.

Reduced Carbon Emissions. According to Pike the cars wouldn't play a big role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Presumably his argument is that more electric cars would place a burden on power providers, who'll burn more fuel to generate more electricity to keep the vehicles rolling.

And that's true, in a 100% fossil fuel nation. But coal- and oil-fired power stations aren't the future. More and more interest is being focused on alternative power, with wind, wave, solar, biomass and hydroelectric options on the table as carbon-neutral energy sources. Even nuclear power is a good option here, because despite its PR problems, it's a surprisingly clean industry. And we dream about getting a working fusion reactor, and then everything will be electric-powered.

Lower Cost. Pike also says electric vehicles aren't cheaper to run. Well, in a price per-kWh-per-kilometer sense they are currently cheaper than normal vehicles. That's due to high oil prices and massive government taxation on the conventional fuel side, versus low electricity costs and government subsidies on the EV side. But this point Pike does have right: In the long term, as fewer and fewer gasoline-powered vehicles are on the road, the government will see its tax revenues decline and, like a vampire seeking its next vein, it'll most likely look to tax electricity.

Mainly Dr. Pike's argument is off-key in spirit—the electric car debate is all about the future, since the conventionally-fueled car is doomed for environmental and oil-shortage reasons. By highlighting the supposed problems of EVs Pike is detracting from the main point: We should stop using petrol, and coal and oil in power stations, and get EV cars on the road as soon as possible.

[via RegHardware] Image: Reuters

Related: 6 Electric Cars Coming Soon [pics]
Related: Is $2.4 Billion For Obama's Electric Cars Plan Enough?
Related: New Lithium Battery Charges in Seconds, Could Revolutionize Electric Cars