EVs vs ICE: a letter from history and the future of mobility

image is ROBIN MAY Evs Vs ICE Image V3 (1)

Circa 1908

As the minister in His Majesty’s government for railways, roads and canals in this year of 1908, I have been asked whether I believe the new-fangled motor car will ever replace the horse and cart. I can assure Parliament and the British people that I see no sign of its doing so.

Consider the advantages of the horse-drawn carriage. It is trusty, well-known and reliable. The neighs and whinnies of the horse, the Englishman’s bond with his animal, are parts of our national tradition. A truly noble person would not replace that for the use of a soulless machine.

The benefits of horse sense

The motor car breaks down often, and only a few skilled mechanics can repair it. Through literal horse-sense, the carriage can find its way, where the chauffeur of the motor car may drive recklessly, causing accidents. The damaged motor car is in most cases unrepairable and worthless.

Once watered and fed with oats, the horse will patiently draw all day. Drivers of the motor car, however, will suffer from range anxiety. When their stock of petrol drops low, they will search for a shop to replenish it, which are few and far between. The British government is not minded to spend millions of pounds to establish a network of petrol depots for a small number of motor drivers.

Predicting the impossible

The motor car is made from steel and rubber. We must question whether there is enough manufacture of steel to supply every British household with such a vehicle. That would mean an unthinkable quantity of mining of iron ores.

Rubber we obtain from Malaya or from the Congo. In the first case, we must cut down ancient forests, then transport the material through long sea voyages, which despite the excellence of our Navy, may be menaced by a hostile power. In the second case, we must consider the rights of the Congolese, who are oppressed by being forced to gather the rubber from the jungle.

We have many excellent carriage-makers in this country, who would be thrown out of employment by the adoption of the motor car. Instead, Mr Daimler in Germany or Mr Ford in America will benefit, two of our great industrial rivals. Mr Ford, who has just announced his “Model T” motor car, is a loud and vulgar man of unsavoury political opinions.


Circa 2024

Reviewing my predecessor’s opinion in 2024, I understand why some doubt prospects for electric vehicles (EVs) to surpass petrol and diesel cars in the near future.

This year has begun with negative headlines. The share of EV sales in the UK has slipped, and, at about 15 percent, is below the government’s 22 percent target. In September, the British government put back its intended ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035. The share of EV sales in the EU also dropped in the year’s first quarter. A range of major carmakers, including Mercedes-Benz and Ford, have scaled back their EV plans. Industry darling Tesla, along with competitors, has had to discount its vehicles to stay competitive. Its share price has more than halved since its high in late 2021.

Resistance to EVs

Objections to EVs combine a jumble of reasons. Are they unattractive to a majority of motorists, because of high up-front cost, lower resale value, higher insurance premia, limited range, slow charging, a lack of charging points, or poor performance in cold or hot weather?

Are they not as good for the environment as claimed, because of the high carbon footprint of their manufacture (particularly in China), because the electric grids that charge them still use large quantities of fossil fuels, and because mining for their nickel, lithium and other minerals is environmentally destructive?

Are they a bad strategic bet for Western countries, because they introduce dependence on unstable providers of critical minerals, or because China will outcompete established German, American or Japanese brands?

Outdated views and inaccurate calculations

Some of these are outdated views or based on inaccurate calculations, and often promoted by opponents of policies to limit climate change, or representatives of the conventional car lobby. Under almost all conditions, the carbon footprint of EVs overtakes that of the petrol or diesel equivalent after a few years at most, and this will improve as electric grids in general clean up.

Some will be solved with time or with intelligent action by government and companies. For example, “range anxiety” will diminish as more charging stations are built, and as the capacity and recharging time of batteries improves. The price war, although symptomatic of lagging demand, should at least bring EVs into the affordability range of many motorists, even as government subsidies are scaled back. Chinese-made EVs are highly price-competitive. Car-owners themselves, insurers and repair shops will get more familiar and comfortable with electric cars as the norm.

Clear destination

Some are genuine worries. If German carmakers cannot adapt quickly, and produce popular EVs, that will either devastate a key sector of the national economy, or instigate high tariffs which erode world trade, saddle European consumers with expensive cars, and further raise tensions with China.

But the destination is clear, even if, like a bad Google Maps direction, the journey takes longer than advertised. EV sales worldwide in the first quarter of this year were up by about 25 percent on a year earlier; by 2030, almost a third of cars on Chinese roads, a fifth in Europe and the US, will be battery-powered. Environmental policy and the cost and convenience of electric motoring are converging. My ministerial predecessor has long since gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage, and so will his modern-day counterparts.

  • Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis


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