"In the next 60 months the automotive industry will see more change than in the last 60 years. European car manufacturers should commit to electric cars now or Europe will be in economic trouble. "
By Michiel Langezaal, co-founder and CEO of Fastned.
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Once in a while a new technology comes along that profoundly changes the way humans relate to energy and transport. Wheels, steam engines and airplanes are all steps towards the change that put humanity on a new trajectory. When I first drove the full electric Nissan Leaf back in 2011, I realised I was sitting in one such technological breakthrough. An internal combustion engine peaks at ~30% efficiency. This is the result of a century of continuous improvement and trillions of dollars in research and development. The room for improvement that’s left in combustion engines is minimal. Yet there I was, driving the first generation of a car that comfortably hit 85–90% efficiency! Immediately I understood the tremendous potential of the electric car: fast acceleration, no noxious emissions, three times as energy efficient — and it could be driven on pure sunlight.
Since the introduction of the Nissan Leaf, more electric cars have hit the market. But this is just the beginning of a massive shift from fossil fuels and combustion engines; to electric cars, powered by renewable energy. At Fastned we call this the Autowende. Here’s why I think the European automotive industry has to say goodbye to the internal combustion engine and put all their effort and funds behind the electric revolution.
As battery prices continue to fall and more people start to appreciate electric cars, the internal combustion engine and the traditional European car manufacturers are facing the perfect storm. They have to comply with ever stricter emission regulations and deal with a changing public attitude towards exhaust emissions. There are three reasons why I believe electric motors are the future.
“We’re a V-12 engine company. Project that into the future. Do I go the way of the rest of the industry and downsize the engine? Do I see Aston Martin with a three-cylinder engine? God forbid. You’ve got to do something radical. Electric power gives you that power. It gives you that torque.”
-Andy Palmer, CEO of Aston Martin
The joy of driving — “Freude am fahren” as BMW calls it — is no longer possible with internal combustion engines. The internal combustion engine has reached the limits of physics. It may be able to meet stricter emission regulations for the time being, but this results in a dull driving experience.
In the coming decade emission regulation forces cars to become even cleaner, which will in turn make fossil fuel cars more expensive. In the EU for example, car companies will have to comply with an average CO2-emission throughout their fleet of 95 grams per km in 2021. This means that within six years the entire fleet sold by Daimler should have exhaust emissions similar to a Fiat Panda. So car companies can still build a growling flat six cylinder Porsche, but they have to offset this with a zero emission car. In other words, to comply with emission regulations car makers don’t have many options left but to sell serious numbers of fully electric cars.
Electric cars have massive torque from the moment you hit the pedal, which makes them better than gasoline equivalents. And they can deliver hundreds of horsepowers without any emission scheme to worry about. Soon you’ll face the choice between a fun, quickly accelerating electric car, which can be charged on pure sunlight and which might earn some tax breaks — and a dull, heavily taxed fossil car which is banned from city center and packed with expensive emission controls. This may well be the reason Volkswagen resorted to cheating the emission tests. Building cars with an internal combustion engine that combines great performance and low emissions simply wasn’t possible at low costs.
“I would be disappointed if the price per kWh was not in the $100 dollar range by 2020.”
-J.B. Straubel, CTO Tesla Motors
Digital cameras and solar panels were once expensive. Not anymore. These technologies followed a steep ‘learning curve’ and declining costs. A similar fate awaits the electric car. In 2010 — when the very first Nissan LEAF came to market — lithium-ion battery prices were around $1000 per kWh. In 2013, at the time of Tesla introducing its Model S, analysts concluded that battery prices had dropped to around $400 per kWh. GM announced a price of $145 per kWh for its all electric Bolt which will be introduced in 2016. Tesla Motors expects to produce batteries in the range of $100 in 2020.
The trend is clear: the price of batteries is declining at an annual rate of around 20%, while the internal combustion engine is getting more expensive in order to comply with emission regulations. It may be hard to imagine today, but we’ll soon see the day that electric cars are cheaper to purchase than comparable gasoline cars. In markets with high taxes on polluting vehicles, electric cars will be competitive even sooner.