I have only once in my professional life been described as an eternal optimist (by the then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling, as it happens, and I think a hint of sarcasm may have been in play), but in thinking about the prospects for the development of ultra-efficient, affordable, long-range, long-lived batteries for car and light vehicles I think there are some good reasons for being positive.
I can recall a review of the Tesla Model S about seven years ago in which the journalist described the car as 'the future on wheels'. I had the opportunity to drive one myself more recently and I came to the view that he had a point. But when it comes to impressive statistics the review I have just finished reading of the latest Tesla Model S – the 'Plaid Plus' - tells me that it is coming to market with an amazing 500 mile range. (Tesla's Elon Musk is on record saying that a car with a 600 mile range is in development.)
Think about that – our research at the Foundation revealed that the average annual mileage for a petrol car in the first three years after registration was around 7,500 miles. A 500 mile range would mean you might only need to recharge just over once a month. That could sweep away the ongoing anxieties of motorists lacking the off-street parking to be able to charge their cars at home.
All well and good if you have deep pockets. The Tesla Model S range starts at £75,000 which sets it well outside most motorists' reach. But Tesla have long made the point that they are following well established automotive practice – the cutting edge tech goes into the top-of-the-range vehicles first, with the expectation that it will gradually trickle down, in this case to the Model 3 family saloon, and probably beyond, with further models reported to be on the Tesla drawing board.
And where Tesla has led, so other auto companies have followed, both established giants such as Volkswagen and Nissan, as well as enterprising start-ups, like Chinese companies Nio and Byton, all of whom are funnelling investment into battery-electric drivetrain solutions. United States giant General Motors has just committed to an all-electric line-up for 2035 (with, it seems, Will Ferrell's encouragement). Jaguar has just committed to go all electric by 2025!
The problem the battery builders have yet to tackle is the cost (financial, economic and social) of sourcing raw materials and then developing the at-scale production that should see costs to the end-user fall. The technological breakthrough needed is to find alternatives to lithium, nickel and cobalt, because if that can't be done not only will prices stay high but on some counts supply will simply be insufficient to meet demand.
But necessity, as they say, is the mother of all invention. Ever tightening regulation, here and overseas, gives the automotive world a tremendous incentive to focus the millions ploughed into tech development. Companies that can't meet the zero tailpipe challenge are in for a very hard time by the end of this decade, when our own government's ending of the sale of internal combustion engined cars kicks in.
Finding zero tailpipe solutions for heavy trucks remains a conundrum for which there appears to be no clear answer. Various solutions are being explored, from a switch to hydrogen power through to stringing up overhead wires to deliver electricity, like those above many of our rail lines. It would be a brave writer who chose to predict which solution would win the commercial race, but it is a race that offers a considerable prize.
So, from a policy perspective there are reasons to be, if not cheerful, then at least hopeful: never underestimate human ingenuity especially when it is coupled to an existential crisis like global warming. Look at the phenomenal pace at which vaccines have been developed to tackle the covid pandemic.
What about the other side of the zero-carbon coin for road transport? We can 'green' the vehicles we use but what scope is there to 'green' our use of the roads too? A sure-fire way to reduce vehicle emissions would be for us to do less driving. Which doesn't necessarily mean stopping altogether. In turning out to be the year of staying at home, particularly for office staff whose employers found that enabling them to work remotely wasn't at all a bad idea, 2020 has posed a direct challenge to us to think hard about when, where and how we choose to travel. Frankly, we all need to get better at choosing the right mode for the right trip.
And on that subject, as more and more of us get familiar with shopping on-line and home delivery of all manner of goods maybe we should revisit the electric vehicle that readers of a certain age might remember with some fondness, and which may have shown us one version of what 'good' could look like? And by that I mean the humble, electric milk float, familiar to anyone who was around in – golly – the last century.
The old school milk float had many strengths, not least in its ability to travel quietly through the sleeping streets, but its range was severely limited and it was distinctly lacking in oomph. Surely those are both shortcomings that could be tackled now by an enterprising designer given the right brief and backing?
Who's for a stylish Jaguar electric float forming part of that promised 2025 EV line-up?
Steve Gooding is the Director of the RAC Foundation. A version of this blog was previously published by the LGA. This blog is also published as part of the Decarbonising Transport series with Greener Transport Solutions.