The electric revolution: What's next for motoring?

Neil Briscoe 15 December 2021

Battery power for motoring seems inevitable now, but what form will the car of the future really take?

The future of motoring is electric. Isn’t it? Certainly, the current orthodoxy is that batteries are the way of the future, driven by the need to slash the carbon emissions of transport. It is, though, a lot more complicated than merely taking out an engine and replacing it with an electric motor.

30-something years ago, I was sat on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, with a stack of old Reader’s Digest in front of me. In one, I found a piece on the 100th anniversary of Mercedes-Benz. In this feature, a senior Mercedes engineer (and alas my memory fails me when it comes to his name) was asked what cars will we be driving in 20 years’ time? “Well…” he replied with the confidence only a German car engineer can display; “We design our cars to last for at least 30 years, so we will be driving the cars we are making today.”

In many ways, the man from Mercedes was right—some 35 years on from me reading those words, we are for the most part still driving around in cars that are not fundamentally different from those then coming off the production lines in Stuttgart, in Tokyo, in Detroit, in Turin. In the next 20 years, though? Even the most confident engineer might now baulk at being too precise in their predictions. The rise of the electric car is going to change what the very word ‘car’ means. 

One who thinks that we’re on the cusp of just that is Stephen Bayley. Bayley is a founder of London’s Design Museum, an art and architecture critic, and as the vernacular would have it, a petrolhead. He’s long been a correspondent for motoring magazine Octane, and has just published a collection of his essays from the same, entitled Age Of Combustion. It’s an age which Bayley reckons is about to come to a screeching halt, and not merely because we will be driving cars powered by batteries.

“There's no doubt in my mind that it's sort of five minutes to midnight for the motorcar, as we know it It's probably not going to go away entirely, but its form is going to be so different. We can now see the past century of the car as a finite historical period. When we get autonomy, if we get autonomy, cars would come very different. They would no longer be expressions of status, power desire, privilege, and that may be a very good thing.”

Autonomy—the idea that control of a car can be turned over entirely to computers, radars, laser sensors, and cameras, allowing you to be driven rather than driving—has grown up more or less in concert with electric cars, and the two combined could—probably will—transform the literal landscapes of our lives in the next 20 years. Bayley’s vision has it that cars that drive themselves cease to become a symbol of our own personal success, and instead become mere disposable transport

You generally don’t care which badge is attached to the boot of the taxi that picks you up and drops you off, after all. “Electric cars are just functionally useless” says Bayley. “They’re fine over a short distance, but you can’t do a long journey in them. You can’t just jump in your electric car and say I’m going to head for the hills. It feels as if the car is driving me.”

The car driving you is critical to the electric motoring plans being made by some of the largest car makers, not least Volkswagen. The German giant’s new board member for sales, marketing and after sales, Klaus Zellmer, told me that VW will, in the future, be more of a transport provider than a mere seller of cars. “We have a trend in society where people, younger people especially, are less willing to commit to purchasing a car. Why would they purchase a car, they ask, and deal with all the consequences of that—such as resale value, insurance, tax and so on—when they can let us take care of all that?” says Zellmer. “‘You give me a car and I pay for it when I need it’—that is the societal trend.

The new aspect will be autonomous driving, because once we have that, then you are doing different things inside the car. You can talk with your family, you can play games, or watch a movie, you can work, you can even sleep. So we have to create this environment that differentiates our car of the future from other cars, and that gives you the sense of something that you might even call a mobile home. And I think that's where the new competitive environment will be.”

"Bayley’s vision has it that cars that drive themselves cease to become a symbol of our own personal success, and instead become mere disposable transport"

Electric power is critical to the potential of autonomous control—already cars are being banned from city centres across the world if their emissions are not low enough, so the demand, led by both legislation and consumers, will push us more and more into electric cars. Ford, Jaguar, Fiat, VW, BMW, Renault, and many more have already pledged to have only electric cars on sale in Europe by the end of this decade. Audi has said it will launch its last petrol-powered car in 2026.

While the technology now exists to give even relatively affordable electric cars ranges of more than 250-miles (400km) on a single charge of their battery, much more need to be done in the coming years to improve the ability to charge those batteries. Fast chargers are becoming faster, but they are still sparse on the ground in many places, and their reliability is suspect. Charging at home, overnight, is the most sensible and most affordable option, but it’s difficult-to-impossible for those living in apartments, or even terraced houses.

Charging up at a Porsche electric station

Oliver Zipse, chief executive of BMW, has said: “European automakers are driving the transition to e-mobility but the success of this huge effort is seriously threatened by the delayed installation of charging infrastructure in the EU. The EU Commission quickly needs to take action and set binding targets for the ramp-up of charging infrastructure in the member states. Otherwise, even the current reduction targets in fighting climate change are at risk.” 

William Todts, executive director at Transport & Environment, told me: “If we're serious about global warming we need to go electric fast. To speed up the transition we need ubiquitous and easy charging not just in Norway and the Netherlands but all across Europe. EV charging targets per country are a great way to make that happen and the Commission should stop dragging its feet over this.”

"If we're serious about global warming we need to go electric fast"

However, are we all so focused on perfecting and promoting battery technology that we may be missing out on other ways of keeping our cars but cutting our emissions? Toyota, currently the world’s largest and most successful car maker, is still betting heavily on hydrogen as the fuel of the future—it can be used in a hydrogen fuel cell (essentially a big chemical battery that you fill up with hydrogen instead of charging it with electricity) or even burned in highly-modified combustion engines. Equally, Porsche is currently working on e-fuels, which mix hydrogen made from renewable electricity with carbon dioxide taken from the air to produce an alcohol-like liquid fuel that is, in theory, carbon-neutral. 

One man who possibly has a better idea, than most, of what future cars will be like is David Twohig. The Irish-born engineer has been instrumental in creating two of the most important cars of recent years—the Renault Zoe, currently Europe’s best-selling electric car, and the Alpine A110, one of the most critically acclaimed new sports cars of recent years. He reckons that the cars of the future will be, just as that Mercedes engineer said so long ago, quite a lot like the cars of today. 

The car engineer David Twohig

“It’s a huge challenge” Twohig tells me. “We can do amazing things with electric in terms of straight-line acceleration, and even cheat physics a bit with true twin-axle torque vectoring and clever software, but the effect of mass on lateral acceleration—when you’re cornering—is unsolvable until batteries become a lot lighter. Which they will, but it won’t happen tomorrow. I’m very interested in the work being done on ‘clean’ combustion engines—such as Porsche’s work on synthetic fuels, which is fascinating, so I can easily imagine a trend towards lightweight cars, with perfectly-clean internal combustion engines, developed for the enthusiast market, nicely complimenting the electric cars that we will all be driving Monday-to-Friday.

I’m a huge optimist about all this. We can address the environmental issues that we’ve created, and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it.”

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