Suck, squash, bang, blow – what I’ll miss when EVs rule the world

Black Porsche car with smoking tires

My niece asked me on Saturday whether I thought I’d bought my last petrol-engined car. I had to stop and think. Of course I haven’t. But then I thought again: well, maybe I have.

I’m not a big fan of electric vehicles (EVs) – not because of the technology, per se, but because – as we have discussed before – EV designers seem incapable of designing anything that doesn’t look like it belongs in a 1950s science fiction series. Whey they can’t just adapt some of the really brilliant designs they’ve already come up with the accommodate batteries and electric motors, I’ll never know. I understand that an electric motor doesn’t need to be cooled like a petrol engine does, so you can dispense with grilles and radiators and so on – but its those things that I think really give a car its personality – they’re its “face”, if I can put it that way.

I also have reservations about manufacturing and recycling batteries. Sure, they last for years and are theoretically recyclable, but currently that seems to involve incinerating them (or soaking them in acid) and hoping the toxic stuff can be captured. They’re full of serious chemicals and if you’ve ever seen a big battery catch fire, it’s horrendous. And naturally, it seems pointless to recharge an electric car and claim some sort of environmental benefit when the electricity you use comes from a coal-fired power station.

‘EVs seem to be soulless; the whine of an electric motor leaves me as cold as any Robert Patterson movie.’

But hydrogen? Hydrogen is something I can get behind. Once I put behind me the nagging sense that a hydrogen-powered car might be a bomb on wheels. They made bombs from hydrogen, didn’t they? As far as I know they’ve never made a bomb out of electricity.

But in any case, hydrogen vehicles, or HVs, strike me as a much better solution to our climate crisis.

Now, I speak as someone for whom the sound of a car is almost as important as how it looks and drives. EVs seem to be to be soulless; the whine of an electric motor leaves me as cold as any Robert Patterson movie. I was taught the four-stroke engine cycle went suck, squash, bang, blow, and it’s the banging that makes the noise. That’s something that’s stayed with me since I was little.

I think the EV vs HV battle is going to be a bit like the infamous Betamax versus VHS wars of the way-back-when. Readers of a certain age may recall there were two competing technologies for producing home video recording machines. Both used tape cassettes. One – VHS – was simple and robust but iffy quality; the other – Betamax – was a bit more finicky but considered to produce pictures of a much higher quality. Consumers being consumers (and therefore a bit dim), the simple, robust version won out commercially and Betamax was consigned to the rubbish bin of history and car articles written by ageing columnists.

Just to confuse things. I’ve been using the terms EV and HV here but as we’ve already discovered, they’re both ultimately just electric vehicles. Our boffin-shaped friends at the CSIRO helpfully refer to EVs as battery electric vehicles (BEV) and HVs as fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV).

It’s a helpful distinction for those of us still a little disquieted by the thought of turning coal into electricity. As things stand it’s really difficult to know what’s at the other end of the power cord you plug into your BEV. It might be green, it might be spewing vast qualities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Hydrogen, on the other hand, is the most plentiful element in the universe. You pump it into a tank in your car, and there’s a process of combining it with oxygen to create electricity to drive an electric motor. The only waste it produces is water. The technology is more complex (it’s the Betamax in the analogy above) but FCEVs have the advantage of being able to go further on a “charge” (eg a tank fill). Plus it takes about as long to fill the tank as it takes to fuel up with petrol.

I’m certain there are other really good arguments both for and against the competing technologies that will power our cars in future, which I am just not fully across, but for the time being it seems BEVs have the edge. It makes sense: that technology is simpler, we already have pretty good batteries and electricity is readily and freely available. I just remain a little sceptical about it being the best long-term approach. And in any case, the infrastructure supporting both technologies remains pretty rudimentary.

But let’s not forget that when Henry Ford began mass-producing his Model-T drivers still bought petrol in 10-gallon tins from hardware stores. There were no service stations as we know them today but demand for the car convinced others that investment in the refuelling infrastructure was worthwhile.

I have no reason to suppose it will be any different this time – demand for BEVs and FCEVs will run ahead of investment in the infrastructure, but the minute there’s a dollar (or a billion) to be made, just watch charging stations proliferate across the globe.

So have I bought my last petrol-engined car? I really hope the answer is no, and obviously any pre-loved cars I add to the garage in future will be petrol-powered. But the longer we go, the greater that chance that I have bought my last new petrol-engined car. And it’s the banging that I’m going to really miss.

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