Mobility has always enabled humans to conquer the world. People had to always travel great distances in the quest for food or to escape floods, droughts or other dangers. Walking or running was a tiresome business until they invented the wheel. The wheel was, however, useless without motive power to move it. Simple carts pulled by cattle or slaves were a great improvement, but the horse was able to move much faster. This quickly changed history because kingdoms with horses could easily conquer their slower-moving neighbours.
In 1760, James Watt made the steam engine that revolutionised transport and industry. Many people were terrified by their speed and had little inkling that petrol or diesel internal combustion (IC) engines would soon begin another revolution just a century later. People had now begun to love their steam engines and did not welcome this development, but their sentiments could not stop progress. The early IC engines, though a huge improvement, were slow, heavy and polluting. But new materials and technologies have made them increasingly efficient during the past century.
Today we are now on the cusp of another revolution and will soon see our cars, busses, trucks and tractors being replaced with electrified vehicles. An IC engine generates less than 30 per cent efficiency as it wastes most of its power in compressing and exhausting the fuel as well as in their cooling and transmission systems. By contrast, an electric vehicle does not need a gearbox or cooling system and allows almost all its energy to go from the motor to the wheels. This results in a roughly 75 per cent reduction in energy compared to an IC engine.
These technologies are not perfect, however. Though improving fast, they are still very expensive and though the costly battery packs can now last for about 1,000,000 km, they are still heavy and slow to charge. Buses or trucks that have to travel long distances on highways or regular routes will, however, be easiest to electrify as they would stop at switching (instead of charging stations) where the complete battery pack can be slid out and replaced in a few minutes instead of having to wait hours for a full charge. Buses can be similarly serviced.
The world now accepts that electricity will be the motive power of the future, but fear that their very efficiency will result in great unemployment. Vehicles with IC engines have nearly 10,000 parts as compared to about 100 in an electric vehicle that has no engine, gearbox or cooling system. This will spell disaster for the huge auto ancillary industry. It will also dislocate the service industry as the powerful little motors need very little repairs or service. It will also disrupt the gigantic oil industry when electric charging stations begin to replace all fuel pumps.
There may, however, be some other technology option. Hydrogen is a very powerful and nonpolluting fuel where a small tank can take a vehicle very long distances. Hydrogen can, however, be explosive. But once the safety issues are tackled with a small crash-proof fuel tank, it can be used like LNG in conventional engines. Hydrogen can also be converted directly into electricity by the new ‘fuel cell’ technology, completely eliminating the engine. The technologies have been proven and all companies are doing huge research to make them viable. We have to get used to the fact that there will soon be many new technological challenges.