Making the case for electric vehicles. Round-the-world EV pioneer Wiebe Wakker at Coober Pedy. Source: Twitter/@WiebeWkkr

At the turn of the 20thcentury, three types of self-propelled vehicles were competing (in roughly equal numbers) for the consumer’s attention. These three were (a) steam, (b) electric and (c) internal combustion (petrol/diesel) vehicles.

It is now history that by choosing the internal combustion engine (ICE) for mass production, Henry Ford set the agenda for the next 100 plus years. But the ICE age is now ending, and this time we have four competing types of EV to choose between.

So, will one dominate (as per what happened last time) or will all four ‘live happily together ever after’?

Figure 1: Types of EV available today

As explained in one of our many FAQs – there are four main types of electric vehicle available. These are summarised in figure 1.

So can each take up their own niche, or do they have inherent flaws that will result in them falling by the wayside? Let’s have a look and see what evidence there is for dominance (or otherwise) for each of the four EV technologies.

1. Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV).

HEVs have both an ICE and a battery electric drive system. As such, they are more costly and complex to build than either an ICE alone or a BEV.

Whilst HEVs do not include the additional componentry and need for electric vehicle charging via an external charging system, this is also their Achilles heel. HEVs cannot ever get off the fossil fuel treadmill.

At best, they only save 20% of the fuel they use by utilising the energy saved through regenerative braking.

Furthermore, trying to replace fossil fuel with biofuel for the majority of vehicle use has already been shown to be problematic. (This is due to the displacement of food crops to allow for the land needed to produce biofuels).

HEVs have been used as the first stepping stone for mass manufacturers to experiment with EV construction and consumer acceptance of EV tech.

However with governments around the world making the dual push to reduce both the tailpipe pollution AND CO2-e emissions from vehicles, the HEV’s days appear to be numbered.

2. Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV).

Like HEVs, PHEVs have both an ICE and a battery electric drive system – plus they include an external charging capacity. As such, they are even more complex & costly to build than a BEV, HEV or ICE vehicle.

PHEVs can be driven for the majority of the time as a BEV, meaning their fossil fuel use is much reduced compared to an ICE alone, or even a HEV – BUT they too have a floor to their CO2-e emissions. Also (like HEVs) they have the downside of having two propulsion systems to maintain.

Until now, PHEVs have filled the cost & range gap to offer a type of EV whilst BEVs mature/reduce in cost – but this competitive advantage is rapidly reducing with the release of the next generation of longer range, cheaper BEVs. (For example the Chevrolet Bolt, the Renault Zoe or the 2018 Leaf).

So, whilst PHEVs have been doing some of the flag-bearing for EVs – their competitive advantage is reducing to the point that by around 2024, it is forecast that the price of BEVs with long-range batteries and fast charging systems will be roughly equivalent to that of an ICE vehicle.

So my prediction is that 2024 will mark the beginning of a terminal decline in PHEV sales, as they are inherently more expensive to build and maintain and won’t then have any material advantage over a BEV. (Just like steam powered cars died out in the early 1900’s).

3. Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV).

FCEVs are very similar to a BEV, but swap out a sizeable chunk of the battery and replace it with a hydrogen fuel cell. This fuel cell uses a hydrogen reaction to generate electricity for the motor.

The battery still does the heavy lifting though: both in terms of regenerative braking (fuel cells cannot be ‘recharged’ except by adding more hydrogen), and in terms of acceleration (fuel cells do not cope with sudden heavy demands).

As such, FCEVs are more complex than a BEV, more expensive to build than a PHEV, HEV, or ICE vehicle, and currently have next to no refuelling capacity anywhere in the world.

Additionally, hydrogen refuelling still has trust issues to get over that have made rolling out the infrastructure difficult (remember the Hindenburg anyone?) and FCEVs effectively require three to four times more electrical energy per kilometre than directly utilising the electricity to charge a battery. (See figure 2).

Figure 2: FCEV vs BEV grid electricity use efficiencies

Another current weakness with developing hydrogen as a vehicle fuel is the main feedstock for hydrogen production so far has been natural gas.

Sadly, rather than developing renewable sources of hydrogen (such as the hydrolysing of water), plans are now afoot in Victoria to experiment with using brown coal to produce hydrogen.

Summing up – FCEVs rely on a fuel source that is inefficient to produce, inherently more expensive per km travelled than either of electricity for a BEV or fossil fuels, and are more complex to build than any of the other three contenders.

However, they are widely touted as a ‘green’ vehicle as their only emission is water vapour, plus FCEVs have strong proponents within the auto industry.

My suggestion is they are likely to outlast HEVs and PHEVs for cars, but their economics will eventually result in them fading away as consumers select cheaper, easier to refuel and greener alternatives. (Much as the electric vehicle faded to a corner as the ICE via the Model T Ford became dominant).

4. Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)

So we are down to one. Does the BEV have what it takes to win out? One pointer is the phrase “follow the money”. Vast sums are currently being spent on lithium battery factories and development: much more than what is going into fuel cell or hybrid technologies.

Another is that EV recharging networks are being rolled out in ever increasing numbers (overseas that is – Australia is still lagging way behind), unlike hydrogen.

Yet another indicator is the speed advantage that hydrogen refuelling currently offers over electric charging is disappearing. A 150kW DC recharging standard has recently been agreed and is being rolled out – and soon to come is a 300 or 350kW DC fast charge standard.

By the time any serious hydrogen network could begin to be rolled out – the fast charge electric system will be ubiquitous and just as quick.

This not to say that the BEV will have it all its own way. Some pundits suggest that fuel cell technology is better suited to long distance heavy haulage, and/or off-grid applications.

However, when it comes to trucking – Tesla are doing their best to prove that wrong. Tesla is proposing to begin production in 2019 of a 36 tonne capacity BEV truck that will have a range of 800 km, and an 80% recharge time of 30 min.

Those figures (if realised) would put paid to the idea of hydrogen becoming a player in that market. In relation to off-grid applications for hydrogen (such as farm machinery or shipping) – these will still have to contend with the hydrogen availability and cost issues. (Which, in an ever decreasing range of possible uses for hydrogen fuel, are unlikely to be easily solved).

Perhaps PHEV or HEV technologies running on biofuels would be more likely contenders for such off-grid uses?

In conclusion – I foresee a future that plays out in much the same way as what happened in the early 20thcentury.

The manufacturers will follow the lead of the foremost player (last time – Ford, this time – Tesla) and HEV, PHEV and FCEV technologies will fall away as the economics of mass producing BEVs overwhelms the others.

HEV, PHEV and FCEV may still end up as niche players somewhere (just like steam did in trains, and electric vehicles did in minor applications throughout the 20thcentury).

And who knows: perhaps in the 2080’s or 90’s, a film will be released entitled “Who killed the hydrogen car”!

Bryce Gaton

Bryce Gaton is an expert on electric vehicles and contributor for The Driven and Renew Economy. He has been working in the EV sector for 10 years, and also is editor of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association newsletter.

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