Season 8 - The electric car

Episode 2 - Can electric really replace the combustion engine car?

How do you explain the phenomenon of a much-hated piece of clothing which becomes the height of fashion? Like when stars like Rihanna or Zendaya started wearing socks and sliders, despite the years of mockery when tourists wore them? On the other hand, certain trend reversals can be explained by practicality. For example, the padded gilet. It's ugly, doesn't go with anything, but wow, is it practical to slip under a blazer or a denim jacket when the cold sets in. (As a reminder, the cold is that unpleasant and sleepy sensation you’d feel when temperatures drop). Once upon a time, Europeans experienced winter for several months every year.

Like the padded gilet, the electric car has had a long and painful rise. Despite its obvious technical and ecological qualities, it was shunned, neglected and left behind, before finally getting its moment of glory. In the same way that the padded gilet probably won’t erase the sweater from Earth, it’s unlikely that the electric car will replace the thermal car.

First of all, can electric cars adapt to all the uses of their thermal engine counterparts? Can they, despite their reduced autonomy and limited number of charging points, carry out the same missions? On this point, Bernard Jullien, an automobile specialist and economics lecturer at the University of Bordeaux, is very clear. “Until now, energy suppliers, electro-chemists and battery manufacturers didn’t necessarily imagine automobiles would be part of their key customer base,” he says. “Now they’ve accepted it, they will increase their investments, and their learning will evolve and performance improve quickly too.” So in terms of the quality of the batteries, and the way they’re used, progress is expected. “Without a doubt, there will also be progress on the BMS, the battery management system, thanks to which cars will have more autonomy and efficiency at equal power,” he explains. “If we add up all these improvements, the capacity can be multiplied by 25 or 30.”

As for charging points, they’re not as rare as people claim. “Regardless of the manufacturers and opponents of electric cars, we have more charging points than we need, compared to the electric vehicle fleet currently in place,” says Jullien. “It’s good that we’re ahead of the curve on this. On the other hand, some charging points are only used on average once a day, so we have to work on calibrating the network of terminals, which will change over time.” The issue is not having a large network, as having a relevant network that's capable of responding to its uses. The uses of which studies reveal, and somewhat paradoxically, that the autonomy needs of ordinary people are much lower than initially estimated. As for people who need to ride for a long time, without stopping and without recharging, there will always be other complementary technological avenues.

Finally, for electric cars to become the norm, two things are needed: ​​having more electric cars than thermal cars, and having enough carbon-free electricity. The first one requires a fairly simple calculation. “In France, for example, we renew between 3 and 3.5% of the stock each year, so the total renewal of the fleet, i.e. the eradication of thermal power, will take place in thirty years, not in fifteen years as has been said,” explains Jullien. “Patience is needed though, even if it’s a pretty low hypothesis, which could be accelerated by the fall in the price of electricity.” He warns of the risk of moving too fast. If we start making 20 million electric vehicles per year in Europe, we’d need enormous production capacities, which will no longer be of any use in a decade. Finally, on the question of electricity supply, Jullien believes that France, with careful planning, will be able to produce “relatively carbon-free” energy for its future fleet of cars.

However, he has doubts regarding other countries like Germany and China. And what about less economically developed countries? Even though it seems relatively simple to swap our fleet, it won’t necessarily be the case for others. To be effective, the ecological transition must apply across the board.

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