Our transportation future. Is it all hot air?

Electric vehicles are beginning to make their presence felt. In 2018, the International Energy Agency estimated there were around 3.2 million electric cars globally. In the same year, 70 million conventional cars were manufactured. In New Zealand, we have 10,000 EV’s with a government target of 64,000 by 2021 – just 2 years away.

The UK and France are planning to have no petrol or diesel vehicles on the roads by 2040. Volvo will manufacture no more petrol or diesel cars from this year and other car manufacturers are rapidly increasing their EV output of the three options namely; standard battery electric vehicles (EV’s or BEV’s), hybrid electric vehicles (HEV’s), and plug-in hybrids (PHEV’s). A BEV has charging time and range issues, and the HEV and PHEV has space issues, two motors and thus more to go wrong. All EV’s are expensive – too costly for the average motorist – so why is the world blindly going down this track and gambling on future battery technology improvement? It is not because there are no alternatives – in fact there are – one of which will be discussed later.

We are desperate to seek an easy solution, or at least a part-solution or slow-down of CO2 emissions and thus, global warming. One of these is to just eliminate the internal combustion engine. Not so easy though, particularly as transport is only one of the major contributors to emissions. The burning of fossil fuels in factories and generation of electricity are huge contributors, with lessor emissions from landfills, grazing animals and the loss of forests that would otherwise store CO2 . Since 1990, there has been a 20% increase in yearly emissions – a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.

The average man and woman has an in-built reluctance to change. The “good things in life” are for us to enjoy so why let go of them – even if we are damaging the future – we are living the good life. Someone else will make the necessary sacrifices – won’t they? And why is our government not doing more? The answer to that is easy; voter loss. The essential, serious issues just don’t get addressed for that reason. The recent riots in France are an example of government action, made with the best of intentions for the country’s economy and welfare, falling foul with the public. The diesel price increase was intended to fund investment in renewables as a strong response to global warming, in conjunction with the closure of all coal-fired power stations and 14 of the country’s 58 nuclear reactors by 2022. President Macron, despite back-tracking on the diesel price, may not now have any political future. And what lead does this give to any country in the world, serious about tackling global warming?

Such measures that France endeavoured to take would be political suicide in anything other than a dictatorship. It is apparent then, that the only politically safe route is by taking very small steps, like the banning of single-use plastic bags in New Zealand from 1st January this year. This is but a very minor move towards the plastic ‘problem’, but hopefully a beacon to light the way forward to further bans on other plastics. Sadly though, the small steps are not enough. Time is running out to fix the problems before it is too late.

We now have to ask the question of whether oil prices will be a determining factor in the continuation of fossil fuel use, including the use of plastics, being a by-product of the petroleum industry.

Since shale oil production ramped up in the USA, the oil ‘balance of power’ has changed. In late 2015, the U.S. exported the first crude oil since the 1970’s from the port of Corpus Christi to Italy. Other exports followed. The International Energy Agency have stated that “U.S. shale in the past decade is one of the biggest game changes in oil production history.” It is the largest addition ever, to world energy. So much for the Peak Oil scenario. The U.S. is set to become a net energy exporter by 2022. With President Trump a skeptic of global warming, and the massive amount of fossil fuel in his back-yard, it will be difficult to convince the U.S. public to get serious about electric cars. And oil prices will remain at levels that are not going to encourage alternatives.

A further determinant is the way Saudi Arabia views the future of oil. The country proposed an IPO of their state oil giant – Aramco, recently. This has now been put on hold despite a huge spend on preparation of a prospectus for a listing that has been estimated at US$1 to $2 trillion market value. The Saudis had seen the listing as a fast way of generating billions of new dollars for domestic programmes. Were they earlier of the opinion oil was a resource with income moving to the downside? And now, in this world of rapid technological change, have they decided all the oil revenues from Aramco for the foreseeable future, will provide them with sufficient income for those domestic programmes? Does this mean they do not now fear electric vehicle expansion of the scale that will interfere with their goose that lays their golden eggs?

We may conclude then, that the world oil price will not be a major determinant to a wholesale change to EV’s. However, local taxes on energy may assist the process, though this, as we have seen in France, can be fraught with problems too.

Not enough of us are concerned sufficiently about global warming and have the wealth to purchase that expensive Tesla at $100,000-plus or even a family Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in for $61,000. Solving the global warming problem will not come entirely from government intervention. Ruling parties must therefore just lead the public gently in the right direction. Incentives to reduce emissions from factories and power plants and legislation to minimise plastics use and maximise recycling are the obvious ways forward.

Oil consumption is forecast to continue to rise. Cars and heavy transport – shipping too – will not see a wholesale conversion to other forms of propulsion in the near term. And with the popularity of air travel rising, aviation fuel will be in hot demand. You can bank on it that lithium will not replace aviation fuel to propel A380s and Boeing 787s.

Electric vehicles have their downsides, many of which are common knowledge but worth repeating and enlarging upon here. They are factors that work against purchase and ownership and include; lack of public charging points and the time taken to charge. Fast charging can cause battery harm. There is also the range anxiety problem. Imagine taking a BEV to an outback New Zealand farm only to find the battery is flat on the way home due to excessive aircon or heater use. A local farmer may tow you to his homestead and plug your BEV in to his power supply but there would be time enough to carry out the shearing of his entire flock of 200 ewes before your BEV was fully charged. Like the battery-powered scooters on our streets, electric cars can sneak up on you quietly and cause bodily harm. EV batteries are, for the most part, lithium-ion, in modules. Tesla Model 3 has 7,104 battery cells in 16 modules weighing 540kg. Lithium-ion batteries pose a disposal problem and have an environmental impact. Millions of depleted batteries in landfills WILL eventually, be a major environmental problem. Another worry is that two thirds of the world’s supply of cobalt – an essential component in these batteries, comes from the politically unstable country of Congo. The demand for lithium and cobalt will increase in tandem with any surge in EV production. Prices could rise accordingly and/or supplies could fail. For plug-in hybrids, there is the need for two engines thus adding to complexity. Finally, the large capital cost of replacement batteries will seriously depress the sale value of a high-mileage vehicle.

An alternative, with fewer downsides than those attributable to EV’s and which emits zero pollution, has been under development for some years and is close to market release – energy from compressed air. The leader in this technology is Motor Development International (MDI). Mono and dual energy engines have been produced for a number of new car models, trucks and other commercial vehicles. The technology uses safe compressed air tanks as “batteries” with the ability to refill 20,000 times at 2 to 3 minutes per fill. There are no manufacture and disposal problems as with conventional batteries. There is a Mode 1 motor that uses nothing but the compressed air in the air tanks and a Mode 2 dual energy system with a burner capable of heating air from the tanks to triple the available range.

MDI have already licenced the manufacture and sale of vehicles and power generation equipment and storage in various parts of the world. The idea is that turnkey factories are established in the licensed areas to utilise local labour. The ultra-compact factory model then produces and sells direct to the end-user, resulting in a very low-cost vehicle compared to those produced conventionally. Around 80% of the vehicle is built on site thus reducing import taxes and the remaining 20% is sourced from the central purchasing office for cost economies of scale.

In addition to vehicle manufacture, MDI have developed power generation equipment and storage batteries called Airwalls – tanks that will last 30 years. Like the cars, compressed air tanks act as energy storage, are cheaper than lithium batteries, have no disposal issues and can take thousands of fills. Solar, wind power or power from the grid can be utilised to fill either large or small energy storage tanks for commercial or domestic applications.

MDI, based in Luxemburg, have a number of partnerships including with Tata Motors, India, who have committed to produce an air-powered vehicle within the next 2 years, KLM, Texilis and Veolia who have been trialling a 7Kw motor in innovative waste removal vehicles for some years. The Luxemburg company might also be the only vehicle manufacturer with such an intense commitment to ecology – from manufacture to recycling.

For more information on the compressed air revolution, see:




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