Printing motors, killing Tesla and whether EVs are innocent

The latest news and views from the world of electric motoring

Hello and welcome back to The Fast Charge, the newsletter that will plug you into the latest in electric motoring. My name is Tom Riley and I’ll be your host.

In today’s edition, technology is a central running theme. From huge tech companies like Baidu and Apple trying to muscle in on car manufacturing, and then how new developments in 3D printing could help us produce better car parts.

For my in-depth article, I’ve tried to answer an often recurring controversial question: are EV’s actually cleaner than cars on the road today? In short, the answer is a bit Vicky Pollard (yes but, no but, yeah).

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In the news…

SEARCH FOR PROFIT: China’s search engine Baidu has announced it will partner with carmaker Geely to make electric cars. Baidu will provide “intelligent driving capabilities”, while Geely will offer design and manufacturing expertise. Geely is one of China’s largest carmakers, and also owns Volvo and a stake in Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler. The partnership comes as Baidu struggles to sustain itself. They have previously tried to enter numerous other businesses, such as live streaming, food delivery and gaming. However, to no success. They hope this deal will be profitable, though they'll need to fight off the increasingly competitive Chinese EV market first.

ANOTHER LOGO: only days after KIA publicised a new ‘modern’ logo have General Motors done the same. Their new ‘GM’ design is blue - to signify the sky full of zero emissions - and in lowercase lettering. It is one of the most desperate examples of a corporate behemoth trying to be relevant I’ve seen. Not only that, but it also looks remarkably like the Adobe photoshop logo. You may recall from last Thursday’s Fast Charge that GM’s CEO has committed some $27 billion of investment into developing EVs. Their ambition is to overtake Tesla. An ambition many believe is foolish.

THE APPLE OF HYUNDAI: since before even electric cars were invented, it’s felt like there have been reports about Apple making a self-driving electric. Those reports have got a lot more serious in recent days with news spreading of a potential partnership between Apple and manufacturer Hyundai. According to Reuters, if a deal is agreed cars could roll off the production line - possibly in America - from 2024 with a demo being ready in 2022.

DOUBLE DOWN: sales of electric vehicles in the UK could go over 200,000 in 2021. That’s almost double what it was in 2020 and nearly 5 times more than were sold in 2019. The claim has been made by Drive Electric, a car leasing firm, who have conducted analysis into what the future holds. Perhaps not surprising given the 2030 ban, but that would still be an incredible amount of growth this early.

PRINT A PORSCHE: can you imagine going up to your local garage and, rather them telling you they don’t have the part in stock, that actually you can have a cup of tea while they print one? Well, Porsche is showing that this idea could become reality. They’ve recently started 3D printing all sorts of bits for their cars. Most recently, they have been 3D printing the housing for their electric drive units. The result has been that the housing is 100% stiffer, 10% lighter and still more compact than a conventionally cast part. And it’s passed all Porche’s stress tests too. While this may not be useful for mass-producing vehicles, Porsche believes 3D printing could enable them to make electric supercars.

THE TESLA KILLER: the popular Chinese EV firm Nio is launching a car that they hope will challenge the Tesla Model S - the latter is very popular in China. The new saloon ET7 (image below) is due to be released next year and the best version of it boasts a 150kw battery capable of doing 600 miles! And if you’re thinking ‘man, I bet that takes ages to charge’, think again. Nio has set-up a number of ‘swap’ stations for their vehicles, meaning you can take out your dead battery and replace it with a charged one in minutes. The ET7 looks gorgeous too - probably because it looks like an actual car - and will come with some hardcore features. For example, enough brain power to process 8GB of data every second, so its on-board AI can handle driving itself, and also an engine that packs 644hp. Watch out Tesla. Read more.

Are EVs as eco as they make out?

Whenever I’ve posted a story about electric vehicles, there’s always been at least one person that tried telling me they’re not good for the environment. Today I thought I’d try address this question.

Before I dive in, though, let me just say that I’m still learning - as we all are - about this new industry and I don’t believe the people that do have concerns are stupid to ask the question or challenge.

I’ll start, therefore, by trying to answer the question: why could electric cars be bad for the environment?

Well, as it turns out there are lots of times throughout an EV’s life-cycle when it could be damaging the climate it was created to protect.

Firstly, production.

When an electric car is manufactured, there’s a general opinion that the emissions and ingredients that go into it are much worse than creating an internal combustion engine (ICE). And they would be right.

Batteries are obviously a key part of an electric car and their creation is by no means clean. Firstly, you need to mine finite resources from the ground like lithium and cobalt. Not only could the surge in EVs mean we nearly take all this stuff out of the ground - much like the oil it’s set to replace - but in the process, whole countries could be torn up. And in the case of cobalt, found mostly in the Democratic of Congo, it might cause a rise of slavery and child exploitation that’s already rampant.

When you finally do get an electric vehicle, many will probably believe they're being 100% green. I have no doubt every day Tesla mums will be texting their yoga buddies about how they’ll definitely get a Nobel Peace Prize, darling. But the truth is electric cars use something which still isn’t totally clean: electricity.

Here in the UK, there is an ambition that one day we’ll be run entirely on wind turbines floating around the North Sea but, until that time, we’re stuck still relying upon ‘dirty fuels’. For example, while last year 47% of UK electricity came from renewables, 53% came from gas, coal, nuclear and oil. These are all come with an emissions price.

And, finally, once you’ve had your EV for a few years and fancy an upgrade, what happens to all that clean investment? According to Chemical and Engineering News magazine (based in Washington), about 5% of lithium batteries are currently recycled. Batteries have been around for decades and we’re still terrible at recycling them, what hope is there then for the future?

Given all this, it could be hard to argue your saving the planet by going to and from the shops in your Renault Zoe.

The fact is…

Buying an electric vehicle is better for the environment. However, admittedly, maybe not as much as the braided eco-warriors would lead you to believe.

More than a third of the lifetime CO2 emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to make the car itself, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). The good news is, as more manufacturers invest in this growing sector, we are seeing improvements every day.

From battery efficiency to better standards amongst the actual mining of materials, soon producing an EV will probably be similar to the number of emissions used for an ICE car.

And, while an ICE car produces emissions as you use it, this isn’t the case with an electric. Therefore, the ICCT has said the higher emissions during the manufacturing stage are paid off after only 2 years compared to driving an average ICE, a time frame that drops to about one and a half years if the car is charged using renewable energy

But, we’re not at full renewable energy consumption yet. However, while Tesla mums probably shouldn't gloat to the yoga group right now, nearly every major country has signed the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Meaning over the long-term we’re heading towards the decarbonisation of our global energy grids. Therefore, when you stop to charge your car in the future, that energy will probably come from clean energy, not a crushed dinosaur.

Lastly, if eventually you do get bored with your current car, you will be able to buy or trade-in for a new one without ruining your clean record either.

The batteries being produced for EVs already last increasingly long times - the average is meant to be around 150,000 miles according to the ICCT - and once they’ve degraded, most manufacturers are expecting to recycle them. Batteries are 100% recyclable and companies like Northvolt have started-up to capitalise on this market.

While internal combustion engines have increased in efficiency over recent years, they are still finite products using finite resources. Electric vehicles are not yet deserving of a halo, but they will in the future, and that’s ultimately why they are a good investment for humanity now.

By Tom Riley