Are electric vehicles part of the Science-Fiction lore do they have a chance to become the standard for transportation systems, be it on ground, in the air, or on water ? After all, the internal combustion engines are supposed to be polluting, yet, every year, they get better filtering systems. Tesla is a good example, yet, in terms of distance covered, 400 km with one battery charge, it still cannot compete with the 1000 km a traditional car with a 50-60 liter tank can travel. I say still, because Tesla has been in the business of batteries for a very long time. And while I thought Hyperloop to be an utopia, it is no longer just a dream. I expect Tesla to produce better and better batteries.
Electric vehicles have existed for a very long time, more than a century. Trains and subways are the first transportation systems to use engines powered by electricity. The third rail or the overhung wire successfully replaced the tender. Today, the vast majority of the train engines are electric, with some exceptions, mostly in isolated areas like mountains, or the lines which don’t justify the investment in electricity.
The first to imagine electric boats, ships, and submarines was the father of science-fiction, Jules Verne. Again, and again, his ideas proved to be revolutionary. While some might argue that electric boats existed before the publishing of his books, Verne added the small to the ships. Capitain Nemo’s Nautilus and Dr. Anterkirtt’s Electric 3 are the first large vessels to use electricity instead of conventional fuel. Today, Norway experiments with ferries powered by electric engines. And due to their large displacement, ships are likely to be the first commercially successful mean of transportation powered by batteries.
The last category of vehicles powered by electricity are the planes and helicopters. Because of the limited carrying capacity and because batteries are heavy, much heavier than kerosene, so far, the only airship who flew for several dozens of minutes are the drones. Not the big ones, but the toys. With the exception of Solar Impulse, which was a trade-off between weight and mileage, all the so-called drones are limited by the capacity of their batteries. Most of the time, their carrying capacity is virtually zero. In the vast majority of the cases, the drones carry a small camera and their purpose is aerial photography. Amazon fans please have patience.
Now we arrive to the category of vehicles that will most likely be the first to become commercially successful on roads: the electric trucks. Not unsurprisingly, the pioneer of it is the same guy who created Tesla. That’s right, Elon Musk. Trucks have some advantages over the small cars. And when it comes to disruption, a small is all that it takes to be sustainable. After that, it is just a matter of time to reach a certain level of maturity, to conquer the market, to become the market leader and so on.
So, why the electrical truck ? There are three factors that must be taken into account:
- engine power
- battery capacity
- dead weight carrying capacity
It is possible today to manufacture batteries that could power a vehicle for several thousands of kilometers. In other words, the end-to-end trip across a continent. However,there is a trade-off: the weight. Batteries in Tesla cars amount to more than one third of the weight of the car. In other words, one third of the engine will struggle to carry just the weight of the batteries. The more power needed means more batteries needed.
Trucks are best suited for electric batteries: they are big, so big that one ton of batteries doesn’t add much to the load of the engine. The electric engine can use adaptive power, for example when ramping up a road. The noise of the truck, so load today, would become a whisper. Given the level of noise of the existing electric cars, trucks should follow the tracks, so to speak.
The single most important problem would be the charging of the batteries. With huge sets of batteries, the loading time is important. So important that it could be a limiting factor if the truck is on road every single second. That is not the case. The law makes sure that the drivers get enough sleep and it is during that time that the batteries can be recharged. Even more, when applicable, the trucks can get on board freight trains. During the train time, the batteries could be charged. More charge, more autonomy. After all, the future of transportation is electric.