Fuel economy – why the hell are cars still doing 40mpg?

I’m fuming. I’ve just driven a new Toyota RAV 4 the 340 mile round trip to the London Boat Show and back. It only managed 40 miles to the gallon (roughly 10 miles to the litre). My 11 year old Ford C-Max does exactly the same. Over 11 years you’d expect some improvement in range, wouldn’t you? The problem with fuel economy lies in the hands of auto industry executives. As I will show here, they seem to have a problem with improving range per litre.


Toyota RAV 4 – gadgets to beguile – still guzzles gas

It seems the car industry doesn’t give a monkey’s cuss about fuel economy but blinds buyers with gadgets.

I hate driving to London. On the M25 that encircles the UK capital you have four lanes of traffic with people changing lanes randomly and speed cameras ready to catch the unaware. You get into the conurbation and it is an urban hell I have rejected to live in rural Dorset. Speed cameras that some drivers seem to know aren’t switched on (or don’t care), traffic lane changing three lanes to leave a road. Puts you right on edge.

The Toyota RAV 4 left me oddly relaxed. Its Satnav got me there in one piece. Countdowns to known speed cameras had me adjust my speed (except where I knew them to be off – few are when the speed limit is at 70mph). The comfort of the driving seat, and the air conditioning combined with the DAB radio playing my favourite radio station added to this odd sense of relaxation that enabled me to get to the hotel at the London Excel exhibition centre absolutely ready to go. After a hard morning schmoozing the next day I got into the car and it wafted me via a friend’s house in East London back home. The only thing a Tesla could have done better in terms of gadgets is physically drive me home while I pretended to pay attention in case the police saw me allowing it doing the driving for me.

I was ready to fall in love with the RAV 4. I couldn’t though. I got to the gas station in Bere Regis, ten miles from home, and put in 30 litres of fuel. That puts its economy at slightly better – by a mile or so – than my 11 year old Ford C-Max. While the car has lower Nitrogen oxide emissions than my old rocket (in which I might have had to pay a £10 Toxicity Charge to go to that part of London but not the RAV 4 due to its leaner burn) it falls well short of the economy I would expect from 11 years of automotive evolution.

Fuel prices are obscene. £1.22 a litre for diesel will cost you 12p per mile. Over 5000 miles you will be paying £600, which is going to be a similar cost to the insurance you pay annually. You’d have thought that car companies would be trying to sell a car of the same size that costs half that by now, wouldn’t you?

Why aren’t we being sold EVs?

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are the answer to the fuel economy problem. Hybrids are a half step towards that. According to the New Motion website the Nissan Leaf BEV will travel 100km for £3.15 in fuel while the Honda Civic will cost £15.35. That’s about 1/5th  of the cost per mile of the gas powered engine. Assuming that a BEV SUV is also going to cost 20% of the gas powered RAV 4, over 5000 miles that would be £120 in fuel. Now you’re talking automotive evolution!

The facts behind this seem to suggest that the auto industry is to blame here. I know investment in better engines will cost the industry billions. By comparison a few cow hides for the seats and some fun gadgets to make driving comfortable is a lot cheaper. These gadgets appeal to the heart not the head, and from what I can gather car salesmen are trying to make you fall in love with a car. I’ve loved cars – it isn’t hard to do. These gas guzzlers certainly don’t appeal to your head.

BEVs and hybrid electric vehicles are seen by many as the answer to the obscene fuel economy problem. Let’s look at some of this cynicism toward EVs. A December 2017 report by KPMG showed that “Even though battery electric mobility is ranked as the most significant (#1) key trend, the key issue with pure battery electric vehicles seems to be setting up a user- friendly charging infrastructure leading the majority (62%) of executives to believe that BEVs will fail.”

In many parts of the world the infrastructure IS being put in place. Though there have been bumps in the road, it is currently reckoned that there are as many charging points for BEVs are there are BEVs on the road today in the UK. China is spending billions on infrastructure, while the likes of Tesla are building their own infrastructure to match their car sales. Interestingly, the energy giant Shell is investing in putting charging points in its gas station forecourts around the world. The argument from the execs holds no real ground.

While the industry is being regulated by governments into going over to ever more economical vehicles, the auto industry’s heart isn’t in it. They generally believe that EVs are just a fad.

This reticence is reflected in their sales approaches. In the US, you will be lucky to find a dealer who wants to sell you an EV. Green Tech Media reported on a secret shopper investigation by the Sierra Club: ““Ranging from not carrying electric vehicles on the lot, to insufficiently charging them for test drives, to not featuring them prominently, to not informing customers of charging capabilities or tax incentives, it’s clear auto dealerships and automakers need to be doing much better to promote and sell electric vehicles,” said Mary Lunetta, co-author of the report and the Sierra Club’s Electric Vehicles Initiative campaign representative.”

A word on hydrogen

The KPMG report above also suggested: “In contrast, a significant amount of 78% of executives believe fuel cell electric vehicles will be the golden bullet of electric mobility while also ranking it under the top 3 key trends. The faith in FCEVs can be explained by the hope that FCEVs will solve the recharging and infrastructure issue BEVs face today. The refueling process can be done quickly at a traditional gas station, making recharging times of 25–45 minutes for BEVs seem unreasonable.”

In my EV journalism I have spoken to experts who will honestly tell you that hydrogen fuel cell technology is pie in the sky stuff. The major problem is capturing and storing hydrogen at the purity required without using more carbon to capture it than would be burned if you just used the carbon as fuel. In cost at the moment we are talking roughly $1 of carbon fuel for every $1 of hydrogen stored. You will need to get to get down to $1 of carbon for at least $2 of hydrogen at the purity fuel cells need to make it economically viable. We are nowhere near that.

Fuel Cell EV (FCEV) cars are on the road that can be fuelled in similar times to a gas tank. The infrastructure that the auto industry execs whined about regarding BEVs just isn’t even a microcosm of what will be needed for FCEVs to be the answer to car use in decades ahead.

Batteries beat FCEVs

Battery technology however is forging forward. You have car batteries that can take an 80% charge in five minutes being developed and that should be on the road by 2023. We have the fast charging infrastructure being rolled out, while Chinese automotive startup Nio is about to launch a car where its entire battery pack can be swapped in five minutes so you will be able to get a new battery pack every 300 miles of a drive.

The answer in short to cynical auto industry execs is that they are woefully wrong. BEVs are the future, not some future invention no one has yet managed that allows hydrogen to be the answer.

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