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Matt O'Keeffe

Is the drive to battery power running out of road?

We may well be nearing the demise of the internal combustion engine (ICE), but not just yet; if for no other reason than the drive towards electric vehicles (EVs) has been a premature departure with the cart being put before the horse. We have driven the promotion of battery-powered transport before the infrastructure is fully in place to recharge the batteries. For some, this is not an issue. If you commute over long distances, however, it is very much an issue and will remain so for the foreseeable future. What does not seem to be fully realised is that time and peace of mind are precious commodities for most of us. Even the establishment of as many charging points as there are fuel pumps is unlikely to sufficiently shorten the time it takes to recharge to the extent that most road users will be willing to commit to battery power for some time to come. Not only is battery power too reliant on extended recharging periods, with too few charging points, the internal combustion engine still provides a trustworthy alternative mode of dependable transport. Recent reductions in sales of battery-powered cars may be just a hiccup on the journey or it may signal something far deeper and more important. Once those who can readily afford the additional upfront expense of a battery-driven car are on board, the real challenge will be to coerce or persuade the rest of the road-commuter population to switch to EV – a far bigger challenge. 

Battery technology is moving towards higher power capacity, ultimately (it is hoped) removing the range anxiety that is a barrier to more widespread adoption of EVs as the transport mode of choice. Toyota has committed to bringing potentially revolutionary battery technologies to the market within the next two years. If the advance predictions are delivered on, then the age of the battery car may finally arrive. The development by Toyota of solid-state batteries is expected to provide a twenty per cent increase in cruising range and a charging time of 10 minutes or less. Further down the R&D line, the auto company is developing higher specification lithium-ion solid-state battery technology with 50 per cent more driving range than existing performance batteries.

Meanwhile, ICE-powered tractors will remain the modus operandi on most farms for some time to come. Gradually, methane, hydrogen and other renewable fuels may replace diesel as the main fuel source. Battery-driven high horsepower tractors are a long way off, unless or until novel battery technologies eventually reduce the size and weight required. For farmyard operations, electric-powered loaders and small tractors are a viable option, though initial purchase cost remains a challenge in competing with diesel-powered models. Where the operational hours are relatively short with idle intervals available to recharge, battery power becomes a viable option. On the contrary, where the machine is at field work for long hours at a remove from a farmyard charging point, there is no possibility, using current battery technology, that electrical power can replace the current dependence on the internal combustion engine. 

What has gone almost unnoticed are the revolutionary changes that have taken place in power tools and machines. Automated lawnmowers are an increasingly popular, if costly, option for lawn cutting. Drills, saws, angle-grinders and screwdrivers have been have been available with battery power for several years. The flexibility of operating a battery-powered drill compared to one with a cable attached to an electrical power source, makes one wonder how we ever managed without it. Will our reflections on EV cars be the same in twenty years’ time?