Oil and biofuels vehicles, check your mirror; the car behind you might be electric

Time was when humanity seemed to take endless leaps forward in terms of technology. There was a sense that everyone was pushing forward at the same time and in the same direction. In today’s world, when investing in the next big tech, the great diaspora of ideas can be a challenge that divides investment funds, and has the ability to muddle that sense of direction, that notion of collective tech-progress.

Which brings us to cars. Combustion engines surely can’t go on for ever, that much is clear, but in that maelstrom of ideas, could the electric car now be attaining a critical mass? And could the two great energy and transport rivals — oil and biofuels — be developing a blind spot around their rise?

For years now the rising clamour between the biofuel sector — buoyed by the immediate aftermath of crude’s jump to $147/b, then sent reeling by the shale explosion — and the conventional oil sector has enlivened energy markets for commentators and campaigners alike.

It’s been a complicated development, with analysts and experts predicting the dominance of the internal combustion engine to be challenged by increased engine efficiency, hybrids, hydrogen cars, growth of LPG-fuelled vehicles and electric cars.

It’s a far cry from the good old days. Back then, history could be relied upon to sweep away any legacy of the also-ran; leaving a good, clean narrative that shows inventor after inventor lining up to bolt on improvements to the generation’s clear defining concept. Take the development of the steam engine; the boiling kettle on the Watts’ family stove drove England and then the world into Industrialisation.

You see it in the combustion engine. Rudolf Diesel tried compression as a means of ignition. In the airspace too; in some quarters, the genius of the Wright brothers was not that they were first to fly, but simply that they were the first to remember to pack the camera. The Wright Flyer in itself being just one of a number of competing, but broadly similar, concepts that were proving that even the hitherto unyielding constant of gravity could be no barrier to humanity’s progress.

The development of alternative modes of powered transportation, to wean us off our dependence on oil, have been suffering from an identity crisis issue. Once, biofuels — perhaps driven most prominently by ethanol — were the standout favourite in that race, attracting legislative backing to make a good concept economically palatable.

Biofuels hits a critical mass

The indication was that this was the way forward — the sector attracted investment, a critical mass was attained and the road ahead seemed clear. For the conventional energy sector, the establishment of the E10 requirement in the US and other energy mandates from the rest of the world, including Europe’s Renewable Energy Directive, must have caused the odd convulsion. If the thin end of the wedge was feared, calls for E15 and — gasp — E85 must have confirmed the worst.

If lobbying expenditure is anything to go by, then the burgeoning battle for the hearts and minds (and votes) of US senators and members of congress quickly saw investment of a different sort mounting up.

According to opensecrets.org, the oil and gas sector spent $141,370,272 on lobbying the US government in 2014, versus agribusiness’s spend of $126,498,021. While those numbers are declining year on year, they still represent an approximate doubling of the spend at the turn of the century – both clocking in around the $70 million a year mark.

Rise of a serious electric contender

Today, the intentions of the EPA and the position of the RFS are shrouded in some confusion and oil barons are doubtless feeling more confident about their own position.

In Europe too, there’s clear signs that mandate-appetite is also not carrying the same sort of thrill as it once had. But while these efforts have been going on, the electric car has enjoyed a breakthrough. And maybe, in the manner of two bald men fighting over a comb, the energy sector — both conventional and less conventional — has witnessed the rise of a serious contender.

The breakthrough has come as the endurance and range of electric cars— and by that I embrace the hybrid option that has blazed the trail — has shot up. Just about every major car manufacturer now has, or plans to introduce, an electric version nestling in its range.

Names like Leaf and Bolt litter the role-call, although increasingly staple production models are simply being offered in petrol, diesel, and electric options. Even Aston Martin, the granddaddy of petrol consumption, has mooted an electric version from James Bond’s favoured carmaker. Imagine, 007 showing his green credentials.*

But that’s only one dimension in the development — across the UK and Europe, electricity filling points continue to sprout with all the vigour of a stout corn crop. The debate about energy content, bang for buck, second generation and food versus fuel runs the risk of being been left dawdling in the rear-view mirror.

The US has set itself out to have a million electric cars on the road by this year — a goal set out by President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address — and the vision at the time smacked of Kennedy’s ‘man on the moon by the end of this decade’ speech.

The UK — an interesting case study since it has emerged as the biggest buyer of electric cars — saw a substantial rise through 2014, leading the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders to dub it ‘the year of the alternatively-fueled vehicle’.

Where once that legend would have masked a plethora of alternate alternatively-fuelled vehicles, there’s been little doubt that the growth in 2014 came in electric vehicles.

The number of ‘plug-in’ vehicles leaped — while it’s still a small percentage of the near 2.5 million new cars to hit the UK’s roads in 2014, some 14,000 of them were plug-in cars.

That’s a four-fold increase, according to the SMMT. Combining both the hybrids and plug ins, the total new AFV cars reached over 50,000 — some 2% of total new cars.

As ever, the blunt statistics mask some other factors — the UK government makes available a subsidy of up to £5,000 for anyone considering buying an electric car, and the latter part of 2014, wherein oil prices collapsed, coincided with a dramatic reversal in buying patterns.

Data from the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, ACEA, shows a steady upward trend quarter-on-quarter through 2014. Though Q4 2014 versus Q4 2013 saw a sharp 7.7% contraction in sales of electric vehicles across the European region.

Key to the change was the Dutch — sales of electric vehicles across the Netherlands slumped to 12,920, down nearly 50% from the near 22,500 new units shifted in 2013.

That more than overpowered the 2907% increase seen in Latvia, where sales soared from 13 to 391.

The UK came top of the league table, supplanting the Netherlands as Europe’s most enthusiastic sparkie, with Germany close behind and the Netherlands and France — a country whose faith in diesel has been shaken recently by pollution and health fears — respectively third and fourth.

While it’s easy to read too much into the mushrooming demand for electric cars, there is still a long road ahead. The experience of the Netherlands — by far Europe’s biggest buyers in 2013, their ardour cooling through 2014 as government incentives eased — and the apparent impact of lower retail fuel costs on electric car buying patterns are just two of the competing factors that may hold sway over the passenger car complexion.

Where the competition seems to be easing though, is around the central idea of an alternative to oil-powered transportation.

The electric car is here — it’s amongst us and almost indistinguishable from its oil-powered ancestors. Maybe the rise of a common rival may encourage the oil and biofuel sectors to lay aside their differences and work together? More likely though, evolution tells us that as habitats shrink, competition becomes ever fiercer.

* Aficionados will know that Bond drove a Ford hybrid SUV in Quantum of Solace.

Source: The Barrel

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