Petrolheads and pistonheads, make way for electrode-heads


Pop the bonnet on a Nissan Leaf, a Renault Zoe or a Tesla Model S, and you wont find any carburettors, plugs, sumps or turbochargers. No, these are fully electric cars without a piston in sight.

You can still talk torque and effuse efficiency, but you can’t discuss displacement or exclaim over chrome exhaust manifolds. But the electric vehicle industry is certainly breeding equally enthusiastic proponents who will wax lyrical about range, cost of ownership, and electric charging networks.

Oddly enough, the UK used to have fleets of electric vehicles roaming the streets early each morning almost half a century ago. These were milk floats, whispering around neighbourhoods on defined rounds before breakfast, returning to be plugged in each day ahead of the next trip. Their Achilles’ heal was the lead acid car battery that was needed in sizeable arrays that added weight, cost and range anxiety.

Today, the new breed of electric vehicle have replaced lead for lithium; a considerable weight saving, an improved energy density, and a better form factor. But still electric vehicles take time to charge, have a limited range, and come at a price.

Yet the advantages are also plain to see. The mechanics are much simpler with motors on each axle or wheel hub, thus dispensing with gearboxes, engines, differentials and exhaust systems. No more engine oil changes, no more oil filter changes, and significantly reduced brake disk wear as much of the stopping can be done regeneratively using the motor as a dynamo with its integral resistance to rotation.

Having recently attended the unveiling of the Tesla Model X in Birmingham, and travelled there as a passenger in a Model S, I have to say the real excitement with electric cars is the paradigm shift in how new arrivals in the automotive industry are turning the concept of motoring on its head. The idea that your car is an extension of your world of mobile apps, basically another Thing of the Internet, is intriguing. We’re starting to see integrated navigation with your calendar of meeting appointments, the ability to have a defrosted and warmed car autonomously prepped at your front door as you step out to leave, and the a system that receives updates, tweaks, improvements on your driveway without the need for costly product recalls.

Eventually it may only be fanatics that own cars; the rest of us will simply treat them as rentable pods that arrive on demand, drop us at out destination, and disappear off to recharge and transport someone else.  Of course, cars don’t need to be electric to do this, but the change of mindset around range, charging and cost models is driving innovation in how we will own and use vehicles. Tesla may be the vanguard at the moment, but expect Apple, Google and Microsoft to be in this space soon too; electric cars will just be hardware accessories built around software applications rather like an office printer or mouse.

In the future, the electric vehicle power plant may well be a lithium battery, a hydrogen fuel cell, or a biofuel jet generator. Pop the bonnet and you might catch sight of a gold plated cathode or a silver coated anode. Polished and pimped, this will herald the age of the electrode heads…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder



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