When we think about what the transportation concepts of tomorrow might bring, we quickly see that there seems to be a broad consensus in society that the electric car will shape the future of travel. When we press the topic, people appear to have rather simple ideas about how this will all play out: The combustion engine will someday be replaced by an electric motor, and the need to put fuel in a tank will be made obsolete by batteries, and everything else can more or less stay the same. Is there anything to this thought? That is the question that Prof. Dr. Peter Neugebauer asks himself. He is the director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Automotive Testing.
These oversimplified notions underestimate the profound changes that converting to “electromobility” will have on our society as well as our natural and technical environment. In other words, the transportation of the future is by no means a simple matter of technology. Many other challenges will have to be overcome, including energy storage systems, urban infrastructure and primary and secondary costs.
Engineers who work in automotive and mechanical engineering more or less agree that the power unit of the future is an electric motor, but the question about energy storage remains unanswered. The reason is that sources of fossil energy are incomparable in terms of their power density: Fossil fuels store over ten times as much energy as the best batteries. To compensate for this imbalance, research into new batteries has to yield more than gradual improvements. It has to lead to substantial new technologies. We have to assume that within the near future, hybrid vehicles will come to prevail on the market. They use electrical motors to propel the wheels, but they rely on conventional energy sources. One important source of energy could be hydrogen, although storing it in a vehicle is a highly complicated process. Especially if it comes to wider-scale use of renewable forms of energy, the focus will be on technologies which convert electrolytically obtained hydrogen into a substance such as methane – a main component of natural gas. This is still relatively ineffective, but it would be offset by the practically endless availability of solar and wind energy.
Nowadays there are some 14,000 conventional gas stations in Germany but fewer than 100 hydrogen stations, and the latter figure includes both the ones that have already been built and those planned. An extensive network of electrical charging stations is not yet in sight. Within Europe, charging a car by plugging it in is becoming standard practice, but at the same time the technology of inductive (wireless) charging is nearly ready for serial production and achieves an output that is nearly as good as using a charging cable. The conversation is turning more and more toward the idea of using battery-powered vehicles as energy storage devices themselves at peak times. But we have to keep in mind that our electricity grids are designed for power to be distributed from a central source to a (decentral) consumer, and not the other way around. In this context, setting up “smart grids” still remains a pipe dream: both the necessary technical innovations and the wide-ranging restructuring of our infrastructure would entail major expenditures. The automotive supplier Bosch estimates that the overall costs of operating an electric car will amount to about one and a half times that of driving a conventional car. The infrastructure needed would entail extensive excavation work and would fill our cities with new construction sites for years to come. If nothing else, however, a certain trend has become well established when it comes to car ownership: Fewer and fewer young people have a car of their own. Instead, they rely upon local transportation and car-sharing concepts. Perhaps travel in the future will become a product unto itself. And maybe we will be able to buy ourselves transport from A to B, just like we can now book trips via the Internet.
Professor Dr. Peter Neugebauer is director of Steinbeis Transfer Center for Automotive Testing at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences. His enterprise offers services ranging from the installation and operation of HiL HiL test benches to the design and construction of diagnostic systems, ECU software development and ECU test routines and programs.
Professor Dr. Peter Neugebauer
Steinbeis Transfer Center for Automotive Testing (Reutlingen)