We have reached a decisive point in the journey towards sustainable mobility. While we already have various alternatives to conventional combustion engines available today – with the battery electric vehicle at the top of the pack, just in front of the fuel cell vehicle – the battery electric vehicle should have crossed the finish line a long time ago. But it seems that the industry has a small ‘obesity problem.’
Hydrogen loses momentum
Fuel cell technology, which converts chemical energy from fuel into electricity, offers certain undeniable advantages: it already offers a range comparable to a conventional combustion engine and can be rapidly replenished with fuel, whereas the battery charging process is still relatively long and tedious. However, compared to the steady increase in the number of battery-powered cars, sales of fuel cell vehicles remain modest and it is unlikely that hydrogen-fueled cars will challenge the popularity of battery-powered vehicles in the near future.
“Fuel cell technology has been expected to gain broader adoption for some time now, especially in the car market. But expectations have not been fulfilled and the hydrogen economy remains a distant vision,” says Norbert Rücker, Head Macro & Commodities Research at Julius Baer and author of the study Future Mobility – Evolution or Revolution. According to Rücker, there is a classic “chicken-and-egg” problem here: consumers will not choose a hydrogen-powered vehicle until more fuel stations are available. However, until there are more hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road, it is difficult to justify the cost of building this new infrastructure.
Fuel cell technology has been expected to gain broader adoption for some time now. But expectations have not been fulfilled
Riding the electric wave
Meanwhile, electric mobility is gaining momentum. Battery technology is evolving faster than expected and car manufacturers are introducing increasing numbers of electric models into their lines. Germany's leading car manufacturers have recently committed to ensuring that 15-25% of vehicles they sell will be pure electric by 2025. Volvo has announced that all of its cars will be either hybrid or all-electric by 2019. Wang Chuanfu, Chairman of BYD, one of China's largest automotive groups, is convinced that China will be fully “electrified” by 2030. BYD, the current world leader in the sales of electric vehicles, has already invested heavily in this market, a move that has been supported by Warren Buffet.
This momentum is mirrored in the increasing number of consensus predictions of future market shares, the announcement by a Japanese car manufacturer that it will start to develop a platform for battery-powered electric vehicles and move away from focusing solely on fuel cell vehicles, and the growing popularity of the Formula-E racing series, also supported by Julius Baer. This last point is of particular interest, as these racing cars are used as a "testing laboratory" for new technologies. If the tests are successful, the automotive companies involved can then transfer these new technologies to their commercial vehicles.
Once you have a super-light and hyper-efficient car, solar energy suddenly becomes an extremely relevant fuel
How green is green energy?
François Vuille, Director of Development at the Energy Center of the EPFL, is convinced that the era of electric mobility is here, but that it does face certain problems: “On a global scale, transport is responsible for a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions, while electricity production is responsible for almost half.” An electric car does not emit CO2, but according to Vuille, the CO2 balance of this type of vehicle must take into account the amount of CO2 generated by electricity production: “In Switzerland, where the entirety of the electricity comes from hydro- or nuclear power, there are almost no carbon emissions. But in China, where close to 80% of electricity is generated from coal production, the shift to electric cars is not really a viable solution if the aim is to decarbonise the transport sector.”
Reduced weight, increased efficiency
While Vuille is aware that achieving the goal of producing clean batteries and carbon-free electricity will take some time and requires structural changes, there is one area where he sees an opportunity for change that would have an instant impact. “If we look at the evolution of a VW Golf, we can see that it has gone from 600 kilos in the early models to 1.4 tons today. And now look at the bicycles that weighed around 14 kilos at the time of the Golf 1-model and today my bike weighs no more than 6 kilos.” He is convinced that the construction of a car must be completely rethought. “First of all, cars have to become hyper-fuel efficient, so we need to look at minimising the weight of the vehicle structure. This means no longer using steel, which is from another era. We have been producing steel-based cars for a hundred years, even though we already have lightweight composite materials that could significantly reduce the weight of our cars.”
That's when things really get interesting according to Vuille: “Once you have a superlight and hyper-efficient car, solar energy suddenly becomes an extremely relevant fuel. If you have a 2.5 ton car, the electricity generated by a solar panel installed on the roof of your car might just be enough to close the electric windows. But if you have a super-efficient car weighing 400 kilos, you may suddenly end up with a range of several thousand kilometres without having to recharge your vehicle.”
Simplicity is key
Jean-Luc Thuliez, CEO of SOFTCAR, agrees that the construction of the electric car must be fundamentally overhauled and simplified. His electric concept car relies heavily on bio-polymers and advanced composites, the majority of which are fully recyclable. Thuliez explains that the various elements can be produced at reduced costs without compromising safety or performance.
The SOFTCAR vehicle is an extreme example of automotive simplification: the car is composed of as few as 1,800 components, while a traditional car has about 45,000. “This will allow you to change the bodywork in just 5 minutes” says Thuliez. And this streamlining has paid off: the SOFTCAR weighs only 480 kilos, including the battery.
But the pursuit of efficiency does not stop there for Thuliez: “We do not want to build two-kilometre-long steel factories such as those in Wolfsburg in order to produce our vehicles. We are trying to reduce grey energy on all levels and therefore want to prevent the production of our vehicles from generating even more CO2.” The idea is as simple as it is brilliant: “One could say that we offer a recipe including all the right ingredients to create a ‘clean car’. We sell modular licenses directly to assembly centres, so that cars can be assembled near to our consumers who live in mega-cities around the world.”
With cars as lightweight as the SOFTCAR, Vuille's vision of a solar car suddenly doesn't seem so distant and utopian. We're almost there…we just have a few more kilos to lose.
Find more information on the Julius Baer Next Generation investment approach.