Put the pedal to the metal

Frank Massey looks at the practicalities of future transport with an engineer’s eye, and points out some potholes in the road ahead

By Frank Massey | Published:  14 May, 2018

I have spent most of my life repairing things that are broken and the rest of it trying to prevent it happening in the first place. This year, June to be precise, will be my 50th year in the automotive industry; I have witnesses and have embraced incredible advances in technology.
 
This article may appear somewhat negative, perhaps even misinformed and out of touch. Have I lost the plot? Before judging my motives let me explain how I think and react to change. I think I have already proved my ability to embrace technical evolution. Fixing a problem for me should be a well thought out long term positive step forward; Understanding the immediate challenges whilst focusing on the cause and not reacting to the symptoms. I would like to think of myself as a thinking engineer.

Developments
I am referring to current automotive developments, specifically autonomous and battery powered vehicles. We have just witnessed the first death by an automonous vehicle, the litigation should be interesting. Who is responsible? The driver? He was in full autonomous mode! The vehicle manufacturer? How about Microsoft? and we have all just witnessed how software companies respond to problems! Back to the driver then.

If you genuinely believe this is a step forward ask your self this question; would you take your family on holiday with no pilot in the cockpit? After all, aircraft have some of the most comprehensive and competent automonous systems.
Second on my list are battery powered vehicles. Let me present facts that support my position. The problem- pollution of the atmosphere. The cause- hydrocarbon fuelled vehicles. Battery powered vehicles will drastically increase the requirement on electricity generation, with most countries using hydrocarbon fuelled power stations! Limited distance and the uncertainty of charging port availability, notwithstanding the unwelcomed journey delays, is in my opinion
not a sensible answer to flexible mass transport.
 
The UK has marginal spare capacity in power generation, imagine if 25% or more of the UK car parc plugged in at 6pm. The national grid does have strategies for sudden increases in demand. These include bringing old standby stations online and increasing imported supplies. I accept these considerations are partly personal
and emotional. However, look at a more interesting set of problems facing the vehicle manufacturers,
such as lithium reserves and the geo-physical locations.
 
Currently the average energy consumption of battery vehicles is 65kw/hr. This requires 10kg of lithium per battery. Tesla expects to produce 500,000 vehicles by 2020. This would require 5,000,000 kg or 5,000 metric tons, per year, of refined lithium. Discussions are under way for production of reduced performance vehicles requiring less lithium.
Research estimates global reserves of 365 years assuming the current 37,000 metric tons production per year. Current lithium demands are split 30/30% with battery and ceramic production. However, it is also predicted that around 100 mega capacity battery plants, like Tesla will be required to meet demand globally.  Global EV estimates of 100,000,000 vehicles by 2040 would require 800,000 metric tons of lithium per year. Divide this by the estimated 40,000,000 metric tons global reserves leaves a timeline of 18 years.

Demand
Demand is a variable that cannot be accurately predicted. For example, China’s population of 1.3. billion, already has 50% of the vehicle ownership of the USA. With India and other emerging economies coming on-stream, vehicle growth could exceed all predictive estimates.

Where is the electricity going to come from? Greece for example has a EU emission get-out clause as all its energy production comes from vast open cast coal mines.

Recycling cost is around five times  that of new production cost, with around a 20:1 lithium recovery ratio.
The lithium atomic symbol Li is the third lightest solid in the periodic tables. Highly flammable, it is also used as solid fuel rocket boosters and torpedoes. It is also used as an initiator for triggering nuclear weapons. With more down to earth requirements, lithium is used in heat resistant glass, grease, ceramics, and iron steel production. These requirements exclude all other uses of lithium, from your mobile phone battery to those nice kitchen tiles your wife has chosen. So back to my proposition, dealing with the problem and not the symptoms! Batteries are not the answer. I’m no physicist, but I see the hydrogen cell as the only current hope on the horizon for flexible mass transport.

A much-improved public transport infrastructure, a more realistic vehicle operating tax structure will all play a part in vehicle ownership within the developed economies. We cannot expect emerging nations such as China and India, with around two billion people, to follow suit any time soon.

As a keen cyclist from the age of 15, with a mild asthmatic condition I’m as focused as anyone on reducing global emissions. Judging by the way so many motorists still drive their vehicles, the reality shock of what’s coming cannot be far away.


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    So where does this leave our industry and what are the immediate threats and challenges? In my view, these can be summed up as ignorance, arrogance, complacency, and the biggest of all; technical and political evolution.

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