Coachlines - January 2024

30.01.24 Freeman Nolan Newman

The problems with current Battery Electric Vehicles – part one

My next car is very likely to be electric. Not because it is the best car for my needs, because it is clearly not. Nor because I believe it is truly beneficial environmentally*.

In my previous blog, I made a pop at virtue-signalling North London Battery Electric Vehicle drivers, and I may well be joining them.

So why would I choose a flawed vehicle for my needs that I don’t believe is beneficial for the environment?*

(*Note- This does have to be caveated by the way it is used and the length of period of “ownership” and I will come back to this later in the blog).

It is because the taxation system in the UK is so heavily biased towards electric vehicles (BEVs) that I would be economically foolish to not take advantage of this. If I was to run a BEV as a company car, I would only pay 2% Benefit in Kind (BiK). This is compared to 8-12% BiK for Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs) and up to 37% BiK for traditional Internal Combustion Engined (ICE) cars.

Also, all the costs of running the car would be borne by the company and if they bought the car new, the cost of this can be written down 100% within the first year against their tax bill (or at 18% per annum if bought second hand).

So, if I took a brand-new BMW i4 as a company car valued at £50,000 for example, my BiK would be about £34 per month and the company can recover all the costs against their tax bill. Compared to a total BiK of around £1,000 (including fuel) for the equivalently valued ICE BMW 4 Series.

However, I’ve digressed somewhat. The core point I wish to make here is that electric vehicles are simply not as ‘green’ as most people believe. Particularly with the current Li-Ion batteries that are predominant now.

What I do not intend to do is argue that we shouldn’t change from traditional ICE cars to BEVs, but to make you aware that the choice is more nuanced than it has been presented. BEVs are not the panacea they have been made out to be. I do believe that they are part of the wider multitude of solutions for the transport sector, but government policy has been very much that EVs are the ONLY solution.

As explained in my previous blog, we HAVE to do something to counter global warming, and this is as good a start as we have for now.

My first major issue is the real CO2 emissions of BEVs

The main reasons that we are switching to BEVs from ICE vehicles is to reduce CO2 emissions. Whilst it is true that the CO2 emissions of the vehicle when in use is zero in the direct environment it is in (no tail pipe emissions), this does not take into account the CO2 emitted in the production of the electricity that is used to charge the batteries. In effect what is happening is displacement of the CO2 emissions from the direct environment of the vehicle to the power station.

In addition, there is also a significant amount of CO2 produced in the manufacture of the vehicle. For BEVs this is about 70% more than the equivalent ICE car due to the production of the batteries.

We have to look at the whole life CO2 emissions of the vehicle to truly compare the CO2 emissions of BEVs and ICE cars.

Volvo did a study of the CO2 emissions of its XC40 car- comparing the BEV version to the ICE version:

Figure 1- please see [1] in the bibliography for the source

This graph shows, that for an equalised lifespan of 200,000km, the lifetime CO2 emissions of the XC40 ICE compared to the BEV version under various mixes electricity production (global, within the EU and if totally recharged by renewables).

You can clearly see the increase in CO2 emissions in the manufacture and, on the global and EU mix of electricity production that CO2 emissions are displaced from the direct environment of the vehicle to the power stations producing the electricity.

And so, you can see that, currently, in the EU (including the UK in this calculation), there are still significant CO2 emissions from BEVs and the reduction is approx. 22%, over the equalised lifespan.

Personally, I think that the equalised 200,000km lifespan is an assumption that has to be made in this study to make the comparison but is erroneous. The average lifespan of a car is around 14 years and 200,000miles/320,000km and ICE cars, if properly maintained, can easily manage 20-25 years and 500,000km. Compared to the lifespan of the battery of a BEV being estimated at eight to 10 years 120,000miles/200,000km (before range and performance degradation become noticeable) and due to the battery being about 40% of the value of the vehicle, this in effect being end of life for that vehicle.

There is an argument that an older vehicle is greener, the longer its useable lifespan, as the CO2 emissions from its production can be amortised over a greater number of years and therefore the CO2 emissions per annum are smaller.

Referring back to my caveat at the beginning of the blog (*).  The tipping point for EVs to become more environmentally friendly than the equivalent ICE is around 48,000 miles or 77,000km [3]. Given that a lot of EVs are currently leased (both private and business vehicles) and these leases are generally for two to three years and 24-36,000 miles at maximum, you can see that this tipping point is not reached when the lease finishes and a brand-new BEV turns up, perpetuating a cycle that is less green (more CO2 emissions overall) at this point than the equivalent ICE car. Only if taken for four years and 48,000miles does it equalise, let alone improve on the ICE car emissions.

So, in summary, a BEV is only the greener option if you keep and use it for more than four years and 77,000km.

My second major issue with BEVs is weight

One of my engineering heroes is Colin Chapman, who founded and ran Lotus from inception in 1948 until his untimely death in 1982. His engineering mantra is, famously, “Simplify, then add lightness”.

All Lotus road and race cars under his aegis were incredibly light, allowing them to be fast and agile with much smaller engines and less power than their contemporary competitors, resulting in the winning of multiple races and championships from F1 to the Indy 500 among many others.

Lightness is a core component of efficiency – the lighter a vehicle, the less energy consumed over any given distance and speed compared to a heavier vehicle.

We seem to have lost this art of making things as light as possible in general in car design – as more systems are required by legislation (e.g crash protection) or demanded by the market (e.g air conditioning, sound systems), the larger and heavier vehicles become. This can simply be seen by the ever-increasing size and weight of the next generation of a particular brand and model – nowadays VW Polos are larger and heavier than the original Golf, a size up in the range.

Added to this is the huge weight of the battery pack required to give BEVs reasonable range. The simple reason for this is the energy density of today’s Li-Ion batteries are about 1/100th of petrol and hence you need huge numbers of these battery cells to give commensurate performance and range.

It has to be noted that electric drivetrains are significantly more efficient (~80%) than ICE drivetrains (~35%) allowing BEVs to immediately claw back approx. half of the deficit due to energy density, but there is still a significant shortfall that hasn’t been recovered.

This is then compounded by another issue – in a front-end crash, the mass of the engine (in a front engine car) can be ignored upon impact as the car does not have to “carry” it any further. Therefore, the design of the safety structure (eg. crumple zones) and the dissipating of the energy of the crash does not need to take this into account. Because most BEVs have their batteries in the middle of the car (to protect them), this mass still has to be taken into account, meaning larger and heavier safety structures, further increasing the weight of a BEV.

This means a BEV tends to be 30-40% heavier than the equivalent ICE car.

We have got to the point that smaller BEVs are nearly two tonnes in weight and the new Volvo EX90 full sized SUV BEV is more than three tonnes before being loaded with passengers and luggage. Quite frankly it is more a truck than a car.

Today, even Lotus seems to have lost the knack for producing flyweights. The new Eletre SUV BEV weighs in from 2.5 tonnes and is the antithesis of everything that Lotus stood for under Chapman. It is the first ‘chunky’ Lotus (Chapman’s nickname behind his back). It is also brilliant according to all the reviews.

Compare these to the truly brilliant Audi A2 of 1999 – a car way ahead of its time, which weighed around 830kg, only needed small engines to have sufficient performance, amazing fuel economy and still have enough space for four adults to travel in comfort. Given its aluminium structure meaning that there is no rust, there are still a significant proportion of these vehicles on the road today, 18 years after it stopped being made. This, in my opinion, could be argued to be one of the greenest cars around due to its long lifespan and flyweight efficiency.

This excess weight of BEVs creates two major issues:

1. More energy required to power a heavier vehicle requiring more batteries adding to the weight (a vicious circle)
2. More wear & tear on consumables such as tyres and roads

Now, this wear and tear issue has a nasty side-effect – increased levels of particulates from tyres and the road surface. These particulates are, in effect, both similar in size to and quantity of the particulates that would have emitted from diesel engines. This has a major impact on city centre air quality and subsequently an effect on respiratory health.

Imperial College has been researching the impact of tyre particulates in particular [4] due to the increasing weight of vehicles and in particular the extra weight of EVs.

In summary, due to their extra weight, BEVs are nowhere near as efficient as they should be and due to increased tyre and road wear & tear, may not actually improve city centre air quality and have an unexpected adverse effect on respiratory health.

In part two of this blog next issue, I will discuss the other two main issues – real world range and the cost of BEVs- and tie everything together in an overall summary.

Thanks for reading.