The Road to a New Thinking in Transport Power
Posted on 06 Nov 2022
In our previous article on climate change, we examined the technology, and alternatives behind the production of our food. We now turn our attention to the future of our transport.
The seismic shift in transport sustainability has been the move from petrol powered vehicles to electric.
In over a year, just one electric car on the roads can save an average 1.5 million grams of CO2. That’s the equivalent of four return flights from London to Barcelona. They are also quieter, reducing the effects of noise pollution in busy cities. Other benefits of electric vehicles include the ability to use the electric motor, instead of brakes to reduce the speed of the car. This both saves on energy, and reduces the emission of particles that the wear on traditional brake pads produce.
Battery powered vehicles (BEV) sales are undoubtedly increasing - March 2022 saw the highest volume of BEV registrations ever recorded in a single month, with 39,315 new zero emission cars being sold – an increase of 78.7% on last year. There was a total of 28% of all new vehicles sold that used some form of electric power.
Despite this, the looming deadline of 2030, where the sale of all new petrol powered vehicles will be banned in the UK is approaching at an alarming rate. The reluctance to adopt electric vehicle technology can be attributed to two key factors - the ability to charge a vehicle’s battery at a rate comparable to filling a tank of petrol, and the overall cost of electric vehicles.
Finding a solution to these challenges can be seen as a pivotal element in the adoption of a joined-up approach to sustainability.
The Birth of Electric Vehicles
It is thought that in 1835 Professor Sibrandus Stratingh from Groningen in the Netherlands produced the first electric vehicle that people could travel in. This particular car did not have rechargeable batteries, instead new batteries needed to be fitted when the old ones lost their power.
Professor Sibrandus Stratingh’s invention may seem a relic from the past today, but is it? Electric vehicle manufacturers around the world are looking at different ways to achieve public take-up of the new form of propulsion, weaning them away from the polluting, piston-driven, carbon-emitting internal combustion engines to the quiet, reliable and clean electric alternative.
The Battery Issue
As with almost any mobile electrical device, electric vehicle performance is reliant on the power and flexibility that their in-board batteries provide. The ‘traditional’ approach of charging vehicle batteries is similar to the way that we would fill our petrol tank; by tapping into an external source of power, and transferring that power to our vehicles as we would transfer petrol into our tanks.
This system has a number of disadvantages that have prevented the take-up of electric vehicles as opposed to their petrol powered alternatives. The charging time is often considerable - a full charge would take around 8 hours, or using a rapid-charging point drivers can add approximately 100 miles of range to their batteries in 35minuites. For many this is simply too long. In addition, the rapid charging of batteries degrades their overall efficiency far faster than if they were trickle charged.
A solution to this dilemma is proving very popular in China - the swapping of the entire car battery at special battery-swap stations. This provides a number of advantages, the swap time is very quick comparable to filling a petrol-driven vehicle. The batteries are also maintained at peak performance, trickle-charged by the provider who also monitors each battery to make sure the customer only receives a replacement battery that is in peak condition.
This battery-swap model typically entails the vehicle owner leasing the batteries, rather than purchasing them outright with the vehicle itself. It gives the additional advantage that as battery technology improves, the vehicle owner does not need to purchase a new car to take advantage of the new battery performance. This leverages one of the advantages of electric vehicles, namely the reliability they provide due to the lack of moving parts. The system also means that the initial purchase cost of the vehicle is far lower than fixed-battery models, comparable to petrol driven alternatives.
The technology is not without its challenges however. The charging stations are expensive compared with charging fixed car batteries, giving mileage costs similar to petrol vehicles. The batteries are also extremely heavy, meaning that the charging stations need to use expensive, precision heavy lifting equipment to automatically change each battery.
The battery swap technology is proving very popular in China, with fleets of taxis powered by the system. However drivers in countries such as the USA are more reluctant to adopt the system. The notion that a vehicle is not owned in its entirety is causing reluctance to adopt the system. Also, having a single battery pack type for each of the wide range of vehicle types seems not be viable. For this reason, battery-swap technology is proving more popular with commercial delivery fleets, and those private car owning individuals who do not own a garage where their cars can be charged overnight.
To address these issues, companies are looking into the idea of using multiple, smaller-sized swappable batteries. This would mean that each vehicle can have the number of batteries that suits its own characteristics. It also means that the entire battery pack does not need to be replaced each time, instead just the individual batteries that are depleted. This would also mean that the charging stations would not need to use such heavy lifting equipment to swap and manage the batteries.
Using charging stations also has a benefit to the environment. The station would have control over when they charge the batteries, meaning that they could only take the power from renewable sources. They could also act as a power store that can give power back to the grid at times that the renewable energy sources are unable to, providing valuable load balancing support to the grid.
A key link in the renewable energy chain are the vehicle manufacturers. There has been a level of reluctance to adopt swappable-battery technology as it would remove an important element in their marketing strategy. Manufacturers set themselves apart from others by improving battery performance. Also, having swappable batteries would remove a significant value element of the vehicle.
In addition, manufacturers often use the vehicle’s batteries as an integral part of the structure, so creating a system of swappable batteries for each vehicle would make them heavier, less efficient, and consume more valuable energy.
Vehicle and Route Optimisation
Manufacturers are using the move from internal combustion to electric propulsion to optimise their vehicle design. The drive train of electric vehicles are inherently simpler than their internal combustion counterparts, often not being needed at all.
There is no need to carefully manage internal explosions, and alternative materials such as carbon fiber are being used to lighten the vehicle resulting in improved performance, longer range, greater energy efficiency and improved reliability. Energy is recycled through the braking system, and the time between servicing has been increased. Electric vehicles tend to have a lower center of gravity compared to their fossil fuel alternatives. This has the effect of increasing cornering grip, and hence safety.
To complement vehicle optimisation, the OpenWeather Road Risk API gives detailed current, forecast and historical weather information as well as national alerts for any number of specified location points along a route. This information helps reduce delays caused by weather conditions, and makes route planning more consistent and reliable. For example, haulage companies can be warned of areas of high wind speeds that might hinder high sided vehicles.
The Bigger Picture
As we have shown in our previous articles, the road to global sustainability is multi faceted, and requires both the adoption of new technologies as well as greater understanding of our overall environment.
Building a new infrastructure based on renewable energy requires manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and finance to work in synchronization with the natural variabilities in the primary source of energy, namely our climate and weather.
In our next article we will examine our urban environment, and how we can adopt a coherent approach to designing cities and transport networks that work in synchronization with our energy sources.
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The OpenWeather Road Risk API update gives detailed current, forecast and historical weather information as well as national alerts for any number of specified location points along a delivery route.
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