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Battery electric vehicles are like Concorde

Today I want to compare the life story of Concorde – the world’s first commercial supersonic airliner – with the story to date of battery electric vehicles (BEVs), and to suggest a possible future for the latter. Concorde turned out to be a technology too far, and I suggest that BEVs are heading the same way.

In the 1960s and 1970s the French and British Governments invested heavily in the development of Concorde to provide supersonic flight for everyman. The Soviet Union did the same, building the Tupolev-144. It is salutary to recall, however, that American developers cancelled their own supersonic airliner, the SST, early on, as they could not see a commercial return.

Once British Airways and Air France started using Concorde to provide supersonic flight on routes to the US and Far East, environmental problems quickly emerged. The aircraft’s very loud take-off noise was disturbing, and the sonic boom it generated in supersonic flight was so invasive that it was forced to slow down over land or stick to routes that were mostly over the oceans, a severe setback to its economics.

Concorde remained in service until 2003, a service lifetime of just 27 years. The Tu-144 was even less successful: crashes meant that it only ever made 55 passenger-carrying flights. During Concorde’s operation the costs were so high that only the rich could afford the tickets, and it was soon recognised as a beautiful piece of engineering that could never be a commercial success.

But what about BEVs? Over the last decade and more, billions of dollars have been invested in the area by commercial car makers around the world, often with Government subsidies as sweeteners. The situation now is akin to that of Concorde in its first years of service.  Most of the early BEV sales were to the wealthy: people who were rich enough to purchase a BEV as a second vehicle, keeping another car with an internal combustion engine (ICE) for longer journeys. More recently, company car fleets have been the backbone of sales, with buyers enticed by the generous tax treatment.

There is a push to end the sale of new ICE cars in the near future. The deadline was set, not by those who are developing the vehicles, but by political fiat: Boris Johnson moved it forward from 2035 to 2030 at the COP27 meeting in Glasgow, and it has been returned to 2035 again just recently. However, over the last few months, BEV sales appear to have stalled in many parts of the world, and unsold stock has started piling up at ports and on sales forecourts. Since improvements in performance continue year on year, these unsold vehicles will probably have to be dumped or scrapped.

The man in the street has failed to embrace BEVs for the same reason he failed to embrace Concorde nearly 50 years ago: the extra cost – of order £10,000 per vehicle – represents an insurmountable barrier. People might pay the extra if they were getting something better in performance terms, but range anxiety and the lack of convenient recharging infrastructure remain formidable hurdles. Insurance costs are high too, with figures as high as £6000 quoted in the media. This appears to result from concerns that even minor damage to batteries might cause them to spontaneously combust. Even if, as seems to be the case, BEVs catch fire less often than ICE vehicles, the consequences are far worse, because lithium-ion battery fires are intense, very hard to extinguish, and may happen spontaneously when the vehicle is parked, particularly if it is charging. A BEV that catches fire in a carpark, especially among other closely packed vehicles, could lead to disaster. As a result, insurers are replacing scratched batteries, at a cost running into thousands of pounds, rather than risking the costs of a catastrophe.

There are other cost pressures on EVs. While oil and gas are widespread commodities, with numerous suppliers around the world, the materials for BEV batteries are mostly controlled by China. Expansion of the EV market will reap rich rewards for Beijing (while simultaneously causing immense environmental damage): and limited supplies combined with rising demand will push up prices still further.

Another source of cost inflation is human resources. We will need 40,000 professional engineers for the next 30 years just to expand the electricity supply industry – generation, transmission and distribution – to cope with the 170 per cent increase in demand required by the planned transition to all-electric transport and heating, both industrial and domestic. Staff to repair BEVs already appear to be in short supply.

Better technology will help, of course, but not enough. In 1974, when I bought my first electronic calculator, the AA battery had a carbon rod core and an outer casing of zinc. Intensive research and development since then has provided us with the lithium-ion battery, which can store six times as much electrical energy in the same volume. However, the energy density is still 40 times worse than petrol. Experts suggest that the best we can hope for is an improvement by a factor of two over the next 50 years.

None of these problems will be solved in the next few years, and there is now evidence that many car manufacturers are having second thoughts about involvement in the sector. The most likely outcome is that BEVs will be a rerun of the Concorde story, ending up as a short-lived plaything for the wealthy few, and for a similar complex set of reasons.

There is a difference this time. Once developed, Concorde was forced to stand or fall in the commercial marketplace, but the Government has decided that the public are going to take up BEVs whether they like it or not. But compulsion may not work: the example of Cuba, where existing ICE vehicles were carefully maintained for decades after the US cut off supplies of new ones, suggests that public resistance might be determined. And even if people are compelled to accept BEVs, the engineering problems of generation and charging infrastructure may be insurmountable.

In a decade’s time, if we have many more electric cars but not enough new electricity (green or not) to run them, the public will surely make their feelings known. I suspect the results will look much like the aftermath of Mrs Thatcher’s Poll Tax, with deep public dissatisfaction leading to widespread public protest.


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