Ah, Saturday mornings. Nothing quite like them. First, take the poop machine for a walk in the fresh morning air, then back in for coffee and a multi-decade staple – US automotive show Motorweek. The show remains worth watching because it keeps up with the times, more or less (the host’s two-extra-yards-of–fabric suits have not), and now includes a regular and interesting electric vehicle component.
What’s particularly fascinating about the show’s EV component is that it provides a glimpse into the actual energy transformation interface, which provides a useful contrast to how that reality is portrayed in the wider media. Media coverage of these front-line developments is actually quite muted. Oh, we hear about the energy revolution all right, how solar is now as cheap as fossil fuels, how wind energy now makes up x percent of energy capacity, how we are near a “tipping point” with respect to EV adoption. These are overcrowded-bandwagon messages that are seldom analyzed properly, and rarely meaningful in headlines. It is refreshingly authentic then to see what happens when media-driven certainties meet a cheerfully enthusiastic reality, when the rubber literally meets the road.
A recent electrified subject on the show was the Range Rover P400e – a luxurious beast “moving towards a truly electric future” with a plug-in hybrid powertrain that can go 31 purely-electric miles without waking up the 2-liter turbocharged gasoline engine.
Of course, there are many caveats in that 31-mile-range number. That is “up to”, a range under idealized conditions. Turn on the heater or AC and the range drops. Turn on seat heaters and it drops. Drive quickly or at highway speed and it drops. The beauty though is that you do have options; there are a number of ways to extend this range and move by electricity alone. Of course, driving so slowly that you accumulate a pile of enraged drivers behind you probably isn’t worth it, but who am I to judge. Unless I’m in that queue.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to electric power. Anyone who’s driven a turbo motor, or more precisely anyone who’s kept track of mileage achieved by a turbo motor, knows that light-footing it – accelerating like your tank holds the last gasoline on earth – will result in impressive mileage. That’s why most new automatic transmissions upshift at 1,000 rpm or thereabouts, to prevent the motor revving into the turbo boost zone where it simultaneously guzzles a lot more fuel and is a lot more fun. That 75 year old driving their turbo-4 Kia under the speed limit will get fifty miles per gallon; you will get twelve.
In the Range Rover 400e review, the reviewers begin with a general sense of enthusiasm about “the future”, as they tend to when reviewing something new, and commend the seamlessness of the hybrid powertrain. By the time they get to the real-world numbers at the end of the segment, their enthusiasm has dimmed as they note that the vehicle achieved 19.6 miles per gallon, and that a diesel version of the P400 had recently returned 26.1 mpg, and that if efficiency is your goal it’s important to consider the various options and not just the exciting “future-oriented” one.
The above is not a criticism of hybrid vehicles. Don’t write to tell me you love yours; I think they’re pretty slick too. A hybrid makes a lot of sense in many circumstances, far better than a pure EV. A quick run to the store for groceries (or alcohol/cannabis to get me through the evening news (because I work in the energy industry)) on purely electric power would be a wonderful thing, with a good old gasoline engine there to make longer journeys as effortless as we like. Were I in the market for a new car, which I am not (because I work in the energy industry), a hybrid would be an appealing choice. My purchase would show up in the “electrified vehicle” count, and climate activists everywhere would be pleased.
And, assuming one uses the vehicle for many short trips that don’t awaken the gasoline engine, the emissions profile of personal travel is significantly reduced, and this is a very good thing.
But this wave of new-world vehicles is not going to impact global emissions in any serious way any time soon, for reasons like the Motorweek reviewers found. That weak performance (and yes, of course, some do much better) is environmentally compounded by the fact that electric vehicles remain a tough sell – even hybrids. Sales are weak in Britain (a “gravely concerning drop” says the BBC), China (nearly 50 percent fall in year over year sales, falling for 4 months in a row) and the US (Tesla reporting a 39 percent fall in US sales in Q3 and other EV models flat or falling; record US monthly EV sales occurred late in 2018).
These statistics run completely contrary to what we read in the news. We read about how the EV revolution is here and inevitable. We hear about how Toyota hopes to get “half of its global auto sales from electric vehicles by 2025.” Analysts have noted that VW has “bet the ranch” on rapidly rising EV sales.
That might be convincing, if auto makers weren’t some of the world’s most garish self-promoters. “Today, probably none of our customers are absolutely sure how fast the market is going to move to EVs,” said a representative of one Germany’s leading constructors of electrical components for EVs (link above).
It is possible that people develop a newfound enthusiasm for hybrids and EVs at a very rapid pace, but given the number of models available already, and the ever-increasing charging options, the optimistic projections seem to defy reality. It is very hard to tell if the hype isn’t simply pseudo-enthusiasm from manufacturers who are being forced to build them regardless of what the public is saying (a view that is supported by the unusually strong desire to collaborate on EV tech – VW teaming up with Ford, Toyota with BYD, etc. – no one wants to go out on a limb if the public chooses not to get excited).
Why? Other than added expense, it is hard to say why, particularly for hybrids. Hybrids make perfect sense and largely operate like any other vehicle, yet have difficulty gaining momentum. Mitsubishi’s highly acclaimed Outlander Plug in Hybrid is selling at about 200 vehicles per month in the US (the gasoline Outlander has US sales averaging 3,400/month).
Pure EVs of course have much bigger challenges, and if the hype of Elon Musk is removed from the equation, no other pure EV model is making significant inroads (the Nissan Leaf, a pure EV and almost affordable, is selling at a rate of just over 1,000 units per month in the US compared to about 16,000 similarly sized Nissan Sentras in the US every month this year).Even the taxi-cab standby Toyota Prius, which has been around for 20 years, is selling at less than 2,000/month (the Toyota Corolla sells more than ten times that).
And a final factor worth remembering in any such transition is what happens to all the existing vehicles. A few years back, there was a gasoline price spike and many consumers moved to smaller more fuel efficient vehicles. But the old lumbering fuel hogs never went away – they simply lost value, and were purchased by lower income people or bargain hunters that may have had a higher fuel bill but were trading up in a serious way. The same will happen even if EVs become popular – they will only become popular among new car buyers, and the hundreds of millions of gasoline engine cars will find a home at a theoretically lower value. (This all assumes that there isn’t some sort of wildly huge government intervention program to force EV conversion, which would be lunacy, but we can never assume governments won’t act in an ill-conceived manner…)
As is becoming a common refrain, try to tune out the media onslaught about the revolutionary pace of change in the energy world. It will change, but it will take a very long time. An energy conversion is not like a horses-to-cars conversion, nor is it like a land-lines to cell phones one. Those were revolutionary changes; evolutionary changes take their own sweet time.
Energy literacy is more critical than ever. Luckily, help is available! Pick up a copy of “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or Indigo online. These Amazon reviews may be the wisest material you’ll find on the internet (except that one loser).