Electric driving & hydrogen cars are changing mobility
Remember when an electric car was still pure sci-fi? It’s not even that long ago; in 2010 only 17,000 electric vehicles (EVs) were on the global roads. At the start of 2020 7.2 million EVs are on the road and sales are booming. Companies supply electric vehicles to their employees and install charging stations at their homes. Power grid charging points are everywhere, and the improved range and lower costs have made EVs attractive alternatives to traditional vehicles.
Environmental legislation prompts a general push towards more sustainable forms of mobility, which is rapidly transforming the automotive industry, particularly in China and the emerging Indian market. It’s also changing how we use our cars, the way the interiors look, and the importance of interior materials like leather.
Electric driving and changing mobility interiors
Most EVs look like regular cars, but in new (native) electric cars effective battery placement is increasing their range. Interiors also have up to 10% more space and car interior designers are rethinking how our cars will look. Due to environmental concerns, weight reduction is key. Connectivity and modern technology take away clunky, heavy dashboards and manual controls (including the manual clutch). Touchscreens, voice control, and smart technology take over. That means more room, but also more silent travel for drivers.
However, consumers want to feel the classic vibe of car interiors (but healthy, so VOC-free). Leather fits this idea as a luxury material in a futuristic interior. Smart surface coatings help the material remain non-squeaky, yet retain its familiar, natural look. Innovative tanning methods have already yielded very light leather materials, and leather works very well with integrated technologies. Key benefits for a new age of mobility, where other trends like autonomous driving, connectivity of mobility ecosystems, and shared mobility will converge in our car interiors. But where is the EV-revolution coming from? Let’s look into that in this article.
Though electric cars are quiet, pedestrian safety is in question. That’s why a new EU mandate requires all e-cars to have audible ambient sound emission from 1 July 2020.
EVs and alternative fuels
Since the inception of mobility, the search for the best kind of fuel has been ongoing. After the introduction of the internal combustion engine, this soon turned into a search for alternative fuels that are less polluting. Did you know electric driving is not as new as we think? By the 1880s early electric cars were emerging and retained their popularity until the early 20th century. That’s where the much more powerful and efficient internal combustion engine (ICE) took over. Since then, there have been alternatives, like autogas, but up until the last couple of years ICE cars have been the norm.
In the 1960’s, concerns about the environmental impact, new developments and likely human curiosity led to new experiments in car fuel options. The 1977 oil crisis raised concerns about the longevity of fuel availability and perhaps may have been what led to numerous launches of EVs by American and Japanese brands. A conservative car manufacturing industry was not ready to take the risk, as market viability and technological limitations made the EV an unlikely success. The legislation also hampered further development.
Revenge of the Electric Car: BEV, PHEV and HEV
Electric vehicles are on the rise and numerous types have become available in the last years. Many earlier EVs, for example, partly relied on an ICE (internal combustion engine), where today more and more full EVs are launched. This has led to a number of terms that tell you what drives the car. These are the most important ones:
- BEV – Battery Electric Vehicle
Fully electric driven vehicles with a battery, charged by plugging it in to the power grid.
- PHEV – Plugged-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle
A hybrid electric vehicle, that drives partly on a battery (charged on the power grid), but also comes with an internal combustion engine which mostly does the driving.
- HEV – Hybrid Electric Vehicle
Hybrid vehicle with a self-charging battery. The battery usually only supports the internal combustion engine or drives the car at low speeds. Can’t be charged on the grid.
At the moment, the BEV is taking over the largest market share of EVs (BEV:PHEV ratio was 74:26 in 2019), making fully electric driving a reality that innovators have long since dreamed of.
Environmental concerns and electric vehicles
Though on the face of it, electric driving has great environmental advantages. The idea is that they use renewable energy instead of exhausting the world’s fuel resources, have no emissions, and they’re renewable. That may be true partly when ‘green’ electricity is used, but a lot of power is generated using the same fossil resources. Another point is in the batteries themselves, which use various rare mineral sources (cobalt, nickel, lithium, graphite) to be produced, incurring a carbon debt before driving their first kilometer. Sustainable sourcing is a must, and many of these resources come from unhumanitarian mining projects. While Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) emissions of EVs may not be significantly lower than traditional engines, battery efficiency offers much room for innovation, where ICEs are approaching the limits of their potential.
Hydrogen strikes back: Hydrogen driving or HFCV (Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles)
EVs are not the only innovation in the quest for alternatives to fossil fuels. Many have for years set their hopes on a second project for mobility: hydrogen driving or fuel cell vehicles. With some questioning the level of sustainability EVs offer, hydrogen cars are stepping to the front. Fuel cells are devices that produce electricity when fed with oxygen and sustainable fuel, in this case, hydrogen (conveniently the most abundant chemical substance in the universe). Sourcing the chemical is another matter and requires quite some energy. Refueling is much faster and investment costs are much lower for hydrogen vehicles, making them half as capital intensive as EVs, according to McKinsey (2019). The big challenges: there’s no fueling network with easy access like the EV power grid. Though it was long ago, the crash of the Hindenburg still makes people nervous about hydrogen.
Both technologies are still more expensive than traditional cars, but environmental legislation, financial benefits, and simple commonality already make EVs a convenient choice. Fuel cell technologies are compatible though, and it’s probably no sci-fi story that we’ll see an electric/hydrogen hybrid shortly.
- Hausfather, Z. (2019) Factcheck: How electric vehicles help to tackle climate change. Carbon Brief. Retrieved from: Carbon Brief. [Accessed on 16 July 2020]
- International Energy Agency (2020) Global EV Outlook 2020. Retrieved from: IEA Global EV Outlook. [Accessed on 16 July 2020]
- McKinsey Quarterly (March 8, 2019) The trends transforming mobility’s future. Retrieved from: McKinsey. [Accessed on 16 July 2020]
- United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (2020) Commodities at a glance: Special issue on strategic battery raw materials. Retrieved from: UNCTAD. [Accessed on 16 July 2020]
- Hydrogen Council (2020) Path to Hydrogen Competitiveness. Retrieved from: Hydrogen Council. [Accessed on 16 July 2020]
- Kasilowski, A. (2019) Hydrogen was the fuel of tomorrow, so what happened? Digital Trends. Retrieved from: Digital Trends. [Accessed on 16 July 2020]
- European Commission (2019) Electric and hybrid cars: new rules on noise emitting to protect vulnerable road users. Retrieved from: European Commission. [Accessed on 16 July 2020]