25 Jan 2018

Are we really ready to make the change from petrol and diesel to hybrid cars?

We are at an automotive crossroads. How we power our cars, and the nature of cars themselves is all set to change. Even the design of our cars is changing. But do we, the consumers, really want what our legislators and manufacturers tell us we will have?
I’m not convinced we do.

When I was very small, back in the 70s, my Dad drove a petrol car – an E21 BMW 320. My mate lived on a farm and his Dad drove a tractor which ran on diesel. Our milkman drove an electric milk float. If you woke up at 5am you might catch a glimpse of him trundling along at 5mph. It was perfect for short journeys at low speed and, crucially, it was quiet.

This situation carried on into the 80s and 90s – except by this point Dad had swapped the BMW for a series of Jaguars (he only broke the chain with a Lexus CT200h which was crap so he sold it and bought a new XE).

And still, in this era, petrol was for cars, diesel was for tractors and trucks and electric was for milk floats.

When I started driving in 1988 the only thought was of a petrol car. Diesel was not even an option. So I bought a Nova Merit 1.0. I started my first job later that same year, for an engineering company in Manchester, and 90% of the staff had a company car. Every single one was petrol, and the size of the engine dictated your position in the company – Orion 1.3LX (minion), Sierra 1.6GL (lower management), Sierra 2.0 Ghia (middle management), Granada 2.8 Ghia X (the boss).

I drove that Granada once and it was much slower than expected, and the leather creaked. Not a patch on Dad’s XJ6.

Fast forward to 2002 and the birth of my son. Thinking I ought to save some money and buy a practical motor I purchased a VW Passat estate 1.9TDi 110 SE. It was the first diesel I had ever driven. 110 meant it had 110 bhp and this was not enough. It was the slowest, most boring car I had ever experienced. I hated it, even though it returned 50mpg no matter how hard I drove it. I sold it and bought a Subaru Outback.

So that was my diesel experience until 2015 when I leased a Volvo XC60 D4 for two years. It was a lovely car and the engine was great but I much prefer the 306bhp petrol engine in my current Golf R.

And there we are – 2018. The car was invented in 1886 and became a transport solution for the masses just twenty years later. For over a hundred years the most popular engine has involved a mix of petrol and air being exploded to push pistons up and down. Nowadays diesel as a fuel is just as popular as diesel engines have almost caught up with petrol in terms of power and refinement.

For the vast majority of motorists the choice is still between petrol or diesel. For a small percent it also includes a hybrid. For a yet smaller group who don’t drive very much or very far the choice also includes electric cars.

Over the past decade or so the popularity of diesels crept ahead of petrol but when Volkswagen were found to have cheated emissions tests the UK press and government massively overreacted. Diesel was bad, taxes went up and people wanted petrol cars again.

But still nobody really wants a hybrid car. Hybrid cars have two power units – one petrol or diesel and one electric – and two energy storage systems – a fuel tank and a bank of batteries. This makes hybrid cars heavy and extra weight is inefficient.

According to SMMT in 2017 2,540,617 cars were registered in the UK. Of these 13,597 were electric and 106,189 were hybrids. So 4% of all cars registered were hybrids and 0.5% were electrically powered.

The most efficient hybrid car is a PHEV – Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle. But to use one of these you need access to an electrical point, which a great many households don’t.

Yet the government continues to steamroller us towards using them.

We have a massive network of fuel stations which deliver a tank of petrol or diesel in around two minutes. That’s between 300 and 800 miles of motoring. We do not have any kind of network of electrical chargers. Those that do exist often do not work.

My car is quite inefficient – if you consider fuel used for distance covered inefficient. It’s actually mighty efficient at converting fuel used to achieve incredible speed in a very short amount of time. Anyway, it does around 33mpg on a long run and last week I drove 380 miles in a single day. I left home at 8am, drove to a meeting 190 miles away, sat in the meeting for four hours and drove home. On the way home I stopped for fuel and carried on until I arrived into the welcoming paws of my dog, Kes, at 7pm.

If I had used an electric car I would have been 3 hours late for the meeting and poor Kes would have had to wait - alone, hungry and sad – until 11pm for me to arrive home.

This is why I (and many, many others) consider electric cars to be totally impractical and the weight penalty and requirement to charge them means hybrid cars are also impractical in 2018.

Oh and then there’s the issue of second hand cars. Hybrid and electric used car values are lower than the equivalent petrol or diesel cars. Servicing of hybrids by non dealers is almost impossible. Batteries reduce in efficiency over time and cannot be serviced. People on low incomes buy old cars and need to be able to service them cheaply.

But the government and manufacturers think we’ll all be buying hybrid and electric cars exclusively by 2040. This is daft.

Current battery technology means they do not store enough electricity, cost too much, weigh too much, take too long to charge and use rare earth metals (of which there is an impending crisis in terms of supply and cost).

Until there is a step change improvement in battery technology then battery cars will be silly and impractical – and so will hybrids.

So, bearing this in mind, how are we to reduce the impact of our cars on the environment?

The answer seems to be in a mix of things. For a start petrol and diesel engined cars need to become more and more and more efficient. Not just the engine but the whole car.

A fast, comfortable car can be built and designed to weigh 800kg yet the market dictates that our cars are becoming bigger and heavier. People now want SUVs and crossovers and they want all sorts of technological gubbins that they don’t need. SUVs require more height and more height means more weight in all areas. More height also means more drag. All of this means more fuel is used.

We should really be driving small, light, aerodynamically efficient hatchbacks and coupes instead of big, fat SUVs.

Electricity isn’t the only future fuel. Hydrogen is a really interesting one. It can be used to fuel an internal combustion engine, is the single most abundant element in the universe (around 75% of all mass that ever has or will exist) and the only emission from the exhaust pipe is water. Hydrogen engines currently cost about 50% more than petrol but with a few years R&D this cost will reduce. The biggest problem is fuel storage. As a gas it needs to be stored at 5,000 psi and as a liquid…well, it boils at -253°C.

Battery technology will eventually become the dominant force. This will come about through solid state technology but this is years away.

For now the only real solution that suits us ordinary people is petrol and diesel. Change will be needed as emissions regulations are tightened up – and these will become impossible to achieve if we all drive fat, heavy SUVs.

The government and manufacturers still reckon they will push us all into hybrids and EVs whilst we, the public are not ready for this.

The public have been pushed around by governments for years but this time I think the legislators will have a real fight on their hands. The public has a recent history of not doing what they are told to do by governments and bureaucrats.

How will this all end up? Who knows…

By Matt Hubbard