Age of the electric car finally here

Tesla Model S at a charging station


Listening to Hollywood’s clan of movie superstars gush over South African electric-car entrepreneur – and erratic showman – Elon Musk, one would think that the electric car is a brand new innovation in the transport sector. One would be wrong: electric cars have been manufactured since the 1890s, and outnumbered cars with an internal combustion engine (ICE) until Henry Ford’s Model T arrived in 1908. From then on, the lower cost and superior range of ICE cars quickly became a dominating factor. In 1912, a petrol-powered car cost $950 (Sh96, 000), while an equivalent electric car cost over $1,700 (Sh171, 000). Petrol was far cheaper than electricity, diesel was even cheaper still, and electric cars quietly faded away into obscurity.

Until now. Over the past three decades, world concern has begun to focus on environmental degradation. Alongside this has been an observed trend of slowly increasing average temperatures on earth, with many scientists and activists attributing this increase to man-made industrial and related activity. The consensus among the most vocal scientists and activists has been that emissions of carbon dioxide and related gases produced by human activity – including motoring – is to blame for the observed uptick in global temperatures.

This position has achieved “fact-on-the-ground” status in most of the West, with dissenting opinions on the causes of warming temperatures not tolerated by the political and academic institutions of the West, with the odd exception here and there.

Where politics in the West goes, economics in the world follows. The West is the world’s cultural and political leader and has dominated the world economy over the last three centuries. Western consumers have made it clear that they want cars which do not produce emissions of carbon dioxide and similar gases, and the responses have generally been of either electric or hydrogen-powered cars. Because of the difficulty of maintaining liquid hydrogen at a working temperature in a car, though, electric cars are winning this battle.

Elon Musk has been running his electric car company, Tesla, as a bit of a giant Ponzi scheme. Electric cars work on the same principle as mobile phones: charge the battery, drive it for a given range, the battery charge depletes, and then the user must charge the battery again, and so on. The problem is the time it takes to charge: The Tesla Model S, Musk’s most expensive offering, takes over 9 hours to charge its battery. That 9-hour charge gives the car a range of just over 480 km at average cruising speeds. The ICE rivals to the Model S would include cars like the Audi RS6. With a petrol tank capacity of 65 litres, one full fill of the RS6 gives a range of just over 620km – and filling up the tank takes minutes. The weight of electric car batteries has always been an issue. 65 litres of petrol weighs 49 kg. The Model S battery weighs 540 kg. The Model S does not have to carry around a full engine, but it still weighs 2,250 kg, compared to the RS6, which tips the scales at 1,950 kg. The safety of electric car batteries is also a major problem: Tesla car batteries have a habit of randomly bursting into flames, cremating their unfortunate occupants alive.

The weight and fill-up disadvantages aside, the biggest issue with electric cars has always been their cost. Battery technology is at a stage in development where batteries are still extremely expensive. It is currently not financially viable to deploy a fleet of electric cars without some form of taxpayer subsidy: in European countries, buyers of electric cars are given massive rebates by the government, in some cases as high as US $ 15,000 or more. This still leaves electric cars significantly more expensive than equivalent ICE-powered cars, which is why most electric cars are purchased by very well-off people looking to make an environmental statement, a practice derisively called “virtue-signalling” in western media.

All this is expected to change significantly very soon. Germany’s top carmakers – Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen – have all announced all-electric car models hitting the market in 2019. The European car giants have massive budgets and excellent research and engineering teams, and are run as professional businesses, unlike Musk’s subsidy-gobbling one-man show, Tesla.

As the Europeans get into electric cars, expect ICE cars to slowly but surely reduce in numbers. Governments around the world are expected to subsidise electric cars across the board, and some forward-looking countries are increasing their electricity generation and making their electricity transmission grids more resilient in preparation for the coming deluge of subsidised electric cars.

Electricity prices will have to fall further if electric cars are to be as ubiquitous as ICE cars are today, but the politicians and activists of the West are determined to end the era of the fossil-fuelled car. Third-world countries like Kenya will probably hold out a little longer, since we tend to buy second-hand cars from Asia and the West. But over the next decade, expect the numbers of electric cars on Kenya’s potholed roads to steadily creep up. Is Kenya’s electricity grid ready for that?