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The Future of the Automobile: There is No Free Lunch

The traditional internal combustion engine is on the run and many analysts say its days are numbered. Is the thundering V12 destined to be replaced by silent electric drive? Is the migration to electric drive a certainty for the auto industry? Auto manufacturers around the world are scrambling to catch up to Tesla and launch viable electric offerings. In one sense, they are betting the ranch on electric drive and plowing billions into R&D.  The CEO of BMW is under siege by shareholders for not moving the company fast enough toward electric vehicles. Moving toward an electric future seems to make so much sense in the here and now—perhaps until you get into the weeds and start looking at some of the serious problems and complexities around electrifying of our vehicle fleet. (Featured image courtesy of BBC Science Focus Magazine)

Some questions that need answers: Where will all the lithium and cobalt come from and at what environmental cost? What are the consequences of large-scale mining for Rare Earths? How much will need to be invested in the power grid if we were all to begin plugging our cars in? What are the full cycle environmental implications of an electric car? What will we do with all the old batteries? A substantial amount of our electric power generation still comes from dirty coal—how does that square with a clean energy future based on electric vehicles?

In this world, there is no free lunch. The following two reposted Bloomberg Hyperdrive articles from last week articulate the complexities surrounding the future of the automobile. The first article focuses on the environmental downside of mining the lithium needed to support a large-scale adoption of electric vehicles. The second article makes the case that the hydrogen fuel cell is the most viable option for the future of the automobile.

Bloomberg Hyperdrive

Saving the Planet With Electric Cars Means Strangling This Desert

Mining lithium and copper to supply the battery boom and fight climate change is wrecking a fragile ecosystem in Chile. 

By Laura Millan Lombrana 

The oases that once interrupted the dusty slopes of the Atacama desert in northern Chile allowed humans and animals to survive for thousands of years in the world’s driest climate. That was before the mining started.

Bloomberg Hyperdrive
China’s Father of Electric Cars Says Hydrogen Is the Future
Updated on

His vision to make China an electric-vehicle powerhouse revolutionized the global auto industry, cementing a move away from the combustion engine. Now, Wan Gang says get ready for the next game-changing moment. The world’s biggest car market is set to embrace hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles the way it did EVs, Wan, who’s been called the father of China’s electric-car movement, said in a rare interview in Beijing on June 9.

A former Audi executive who went on to become China’s science-and-technology minister, Wan convinced leaders two decades ago to bet on the then-untested technology of vehicle electrification, selling it not only as a way to boost economic growth but also to tackle China’s dependence on oil imports and its mounting levels of pollution. His strategy — using government subsidies to bring carmakers and drivers on board — made China home to one of every two EVs sold globally today.

“We should look into establishing a hydrogen society,” said Wan, 66, who’s now a vice chairman of China’s national advisory body for policy making, a role that ranks higher than a minister and gives him a voice in the nation’s future planning. “We need to move further toward fuel cells.”

That means the government will commit resources to developing such vehicles, he said. While China plans to phase out the long-time subsidy program for the maturing EV industry next year, government funding for fuel-cell vehicles may stay in place to some extent, Wan said.

In typical EVs, lithium-ion batteries store electrical energy produced away from the car and use that to power the vehicle. Hydrogen fuel cells use a chemical reaction to produce energy, converting hydrogen stored in the vehicle into electricity, while emitting only water vapor. Hydrogen’s superior energy-to-weight ratio over a lithium-ion battery lends itself to longer trips.

Despite the backing of industry giants such as Toyota Motor Corp. and the benefits of fuel-cell vehicles — they refuel faster and are more suitable for driving long distances than all-electric vehicles — the technology hasn’t caught on amid expensive prices.

But China has the muscle to change all that should it make hydrogen-powered vehicles a national priority — the type of turning point the industry has been waiting decades for.

For Wan — a mechanical engineer trained in Germany — the shift toward hydrogen is a natural step in realizing a vision of having electric cars dominate inner-city traffic, while buses and trucks filled with hydrogen tanks roam the nation’s highways for long-distance travel.

The adoption of fuel-cell vehicles has been slow in spite of China having an abundant supply of hydrogen, Wan said. There are only about 1,500 such vehicles in use there today, compared with more than 2 million purely electric vehicles, he said.

The U.S. Has a Fleet of 300 Electric Buses. China Has 421,000

It’s not just China. Hydrogen fuel cells have struggled to gain traction worldwide not just because of high costs — one of the key components is platinum — but also because of the lack of infrastructure and the complexity of storing hydrogen.

Then there’s the matter of hydrogen’s flammability, as evidenced by the recent fire at a refueling station in Norway.

Efforts are underway in Japan, which plans to increase the number of fuel-cell vehicles on its roads to 40,000 by 2020 — though BloombergNEF estimates sales so far aren’t close to that target. In Europe, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz unit rolled out a fuel-cell version of its popular GLC SUV. In the U.S., the California Fuel Cell Partnership is trying to promote the technology, with limited success.

Back in China, buses appear to be particularly ripe for fuel cells, which use a chemical process to convert hydrogen into electricity, emitting only water vapor. China is by far the world leader in using electric buses — accounting for 99% of them worldwide last year, according to researcher BNEF — but they’re mostly used in cities for short distances.

Hydrogen buses are capable of driving beyond 500 kilometers (310 miles) on a full tank, versus about 200 kilometers for electric ones. That presents a big opportunity because there are five long-distance buses in China for every inner-city one, according to Wan.

Read a profile of China’s father of the electric-car industry

China is promoting the adoption of hydrogen vehicles in selected trial regions as it sets up an ecosystem that includes hydrogen production, storage, transportation and refueling, Wan said. Long-range commercial vehicles aren’t currently well-suited to run on batteries alone because of weight and range constraints, according to a BNEF report last month. Fuel cells would be a good bet should the government ease restrictions on hydrogen-refueling infrastructure.

Wan Gang

Wan Gang

Beyond hydrogen, Wan voiced skepticism about the notion that computers will completely replace the need for humans in the driver’s seat.

“I believe that people still want to drive or have a sense of control,” Wan said.

He also said he doesn’t envision China issuing a national ban on the sale of gasoline cars as provincial authorities will be left to make their own decisions. The current dual-credit system, which resembles the cap-and-trade systems being deployed worldwide for carbon emissions, will continue, but it will gradually be converted to a carbon trading system, he said.

China requires all carmakers to meet minimum requirements for producing new-energy vehicles, including fuel-cell autos. Carmakers that don’t meet the quota can buy credits from rivals that exceed it.

China Is Giving the World’s Carmakers an Electric Ultimatum

“We have a responsibility to reduce emissions,” Wan said.

— With assistance by John Liu, Ying Tian, Angus Whitley, Sabrina Mao, Nicolas Bock, and Jinshan Hong

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3 Responses to The Future of the Automobile: There is No Free Lunch

  1. Doc June 16, 2019 at 5:11 pm #

    Cliff notes?

    I think new technology will solve the automobile issue.

    One small ‘fact’ from 1970’s: Most noted scientists and the world agreed that all oil reserves would be exhausted by 1990.

    I’d really rather talk about cars here rather than Philips’s version of saving the world from unknown enemies.

  2. Michelle H Rand June 16, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

    All the money and environmental treasure being spent away from the ICE could be better spent making the current technology more efficient and cleaner. We will regret the direction we are rushing into headlong….

  3. GLK June 16, 2019 at 4:09 am #

    While I agree the environmental impact of volume battery production is largely ignored, as are the electrical infrastructure and taxation ramifications, it is my understanding that alternatively hydrogen is not found in nature thus it has to be manufactured. Making hydrogen requires platinum as a catalyst. Since platinum is 5x rarer than gold sourcing enough platinum to manufacture the volume of hydrogen required to ultimately replace petroleum fuels may not be possible. Hydrogen’s volatility is concerning as well. It is popular to demonize gasoline six ways to Sunday. The reality is there are good reasons why petroleum has been the fuel of choice for over a century and those reasons aren’t nearly as nefarious as the perpetually hysterical make them out to be.