Blog

Short blog posts, journal entries, and random thoughts. Topics include a mix of personal and the world at large. 

Where's the EV infrastructure?

The past few weeks I’ve been writing about automotive industry quickly evolving to mass electrification. The annual Geneva Motor Show confirmed that is indeed where auto manufacturers are heading, and very rapidly. Fairly soon we’ll be seeing electric vehicles all over dealership lots, hoping to find a good home that will hopefully be fitted with an appropriate charger.

And there lies my only contention with electrification: the charging infrastructure, or lack thereof. Lots of automakers are talking up plans for electric vehicles on a massive scale, but none I can see are discussing the other side of the equation. Gasoline-powered cars have gas stations; where’s the convenient equivalent for electric power?

Some will point out “refueling” stations will be obsolete because owners can charge at home; but what if you don’t have a home? My apartment certainly does not have any sort of provisions for charging, and neither does my workplace. You can give me an electric vehicle for free today and I’d have no practical way of using it. Driving to a charging lot to then wait many hours to “fill up” a car seems like a tremendous waste of time.

Owning a home isn’t in my future, not with the historically astronomical homes prices in the San Francisco Bay Area. Basically, I won’t have the ability to charge an electric car at the place I’m living in, and if manufacturers want to sell me one, they – or someone – need to build out a charging network facsimile to the traditional petrol station. Ideally I should be able to visit a charging station, and fill up the batteries in less than 10 minutes.

Automakers are coming in hot on the supply side, but without a proper infrastructure, will the demand side be there? Up until now, most people who have purchased electric vehicles own a home, therefore capable of installing home chargers; that’s certainly the case with owners I know personally. If electrification of the automobile is indeed the future, then those of us not lucky/rich enough to own a home will need a different solution.

Perhaps this massive infusion of capital by automakers into electrification will be one huge waste of money. I don’t think we can yet know.

Then on some days you just want to pig out.

Then on some days you just want to pig out.

Verdict from GIMS 2019: electrification

Media day for the 2019 Geneva Motor Show was yesterday, and there’s plenty of exciting stuff to see. I’ll leave you to peruse the major media outlets for an outline on each and every new model; rather I’m going to touch on the major theme I see at this year’s Geneva show: electrification.

Dread it, run from it, destiny arrives all the same (thanks, Thanos); the automotive industry is rapidly shifting from internal-combustion to the electric motor, and it’s all readily apparently when looking at what’s being displayed and talked about in Geneva. Super cars have a need for electric power in order to achieve ever lofty performance numbers: both Ferrari and Aston Martin will be turning to turbo V6 engines with hybridization for their next generation products. Normal city cars are converting to full electric to satisfy increasingly stringent emission standards: German manufacturers are promising massive electrification of their portfolio in a very short timeframe.  

I don’t suppose in any of our lifetimes we’ve seen such a paradigm shift on the motive power of vehicles. The combustion engine has been de rigueur for the longest time, and it’s only rather recently the industry have changed from natural aspiration to small displacement turbocharged motors – for the sake of efficiency and lower carbon outflow. It appears this ‘turbo era’ will super short-lived: full and partial electrification is quickly arriving.

Let’s look at the brilliant Honda Civic Type R. The latest generation have only just made the switch to turbocharging after a long history of fantastic atmospheric engines, and now Honda is already announcing the next Type R will be an electric hybrid. We can thank tight emission requirements for this one: Honda could easily squeeze more power out of the turbo engine, but adding an extra electric motor instead makes it far easier to achieve that extra power, but with zero penalty at the tailpipe.

The automotive landscape is transforming right before our eyes, and the rate of change is something I did not anticipate to be so swift. My 911 GT3 is 2015 model year car, yet it’s already feeling like a relic of the past: a gas-guzzling sports car with a non-turbo engine.

To be clear, I am not against electrification: I think fully electric vehicles are fantastic for dense urban commutes. Once the powers at be figure out the technology to deliver “refueling” technology for electric at the same speed as the ubiquitous petrol station, electric cars will be a good fit for suburban and rural communities, too. For the sake of cleaner air and a healthy populist, the switch to electrification is a worthy process.

However, for the weekend sports car type of vehicle, electric motivation just doesn’t stir the soul. Once you get pass the accelerative prowess of an electric car, what’s leftover is, to me, immensely dull. I want an engine that speaks to me: a thundering howl as the revs climb, pops out of the exhaust on a throttle ease, and the clattering of the mechanicals. This is the sort of motoring joy I grew up with, and I’m going to cling to that ethos for as long as possible.  

I intend the GT3 to be my ‘forever car’, and the electrification of the automotive industry isn’t helping to convince me otherwise.

Here we have the Golf GTI in its natural habitat.

Here we have the Golf GTI in its natural habitat.

Are we sure about electric vehicles?

Somewhat surprising news from Porsche today when it announced the next generation Macan sports-utility vehicle will be entirely electric. The current lineup of petrol engines will be no more. It seems the Taycan sedan is but the first salvo in an all-out assault on electric vehicles for the company in Stuttgart.

The announcement came as a surprise to me because the current Macan is the best selling Porsche car by some margin - 1/3 of all Porsches sold annually, a veritable money printing machine. To switch the motive power of their most popular model to completely electric within one generation is quite a strong bet: that our immediate motoring future is electric.

My question is: are we sure about this?

Due to marketing forces I can’t understand, much of the auto industry is shifting focus to electric; the upstart Tesla have really started a revolution (pun fully intended) indeed. Manufacturers are either already producing fully electric cars (Jaguar i-Pace, Audi e-tron, BMW i3/i8, etc) or are actively gearing up to make them (Mercedes Benz, GM, Honda, etc). The discussion doesn’t include hybrid powertrains anymore - that is so early 2000s. Rather, the industry is poised to ween itself off the internal combustion engine.

There is one marketing force I can understand: money. Innovation brings customers to the showrooms, and for better or worst, Tesla have made electric cars the glamorous thing to own. Much like television makers jumping from 3D to 4K and soon 8K, enticing people to upgrade for no practical reason (3D is dead, and 4K programming is not the least ubiquitous), automakers are seeking a similar splash in a super mature industry. They see Tesla causing Apple-like frenzy with each vehicle launch, and they want in on that action.

Outside of money, where is the impetus for electric vehicles exactly? People want to make the argument of zero emissions, but don’t batteries need to be mined and produced? Energy generation in cities and countries - to charge the cars - surely isn’t free of pollution. Even if I were to grant that electric vehicles are cleaner in aggregate than the petrol counterpart, the massive infrastructure overhaul required to accommodate this new mode of “fueling” isn’t going to be inexpensive, either.

Not to mention charging times have yet to even come remotely close to that the traditional gas station. And plenty of people don’t live in quarters that can easily integrate vehicle charging. My apartment of no parking garage sure isn’t one.

Obviously a huge part of this is me simply being a curmudgeon about electric cars. I grew up on and adore the petrol combustion engine, and it will be a sad day indeed when that technology is left to the history books. These latest wave of news just makes it seem like that day is right around the corner. Automakers have switched attention to electric at a much faster rate than I had expected and wanted. Porsche plans to have half of their vehicle lineup be electric by 2025, and that really isn’t that far away.

It’s good to see, then, not all manufacturers are abandoning the petrol engine: Mazda will soon mass-produce a compression-ignited gas engine - the Japanese company have yet to produce even one hybrid model. Meanwhile, Toyota isn’t yet convinced on the idea that electric vehicles are the bright future other automakers are so dumping R&D money into.

Wouldn’t it be hilarious if electric cars turn out to not be the future of motoring.

Ah yes this is much better.

Ah yes this is much better.

The combustion engine is here to stay

The internal combustion engine is forever… at least until the electric motor proliferates fully and take over the automotive landscape. For now, like fervent NRA gun owners, you will take the gasoline engine from my cold and dead body.

An enormous factor to driving enjoyment is the sweet sounds emanating from the engine bay (preferably from a natural-aspirated motor), and as we all know, the electric motor merely hums; it’s so quiet that the government have to implement in sound regulations just so blind persons on a sidewalk are able to detect an oncoming vehicle.

The lack of noise is not a knock against electric cars: having ridden in a Tesla I think they are fantastic, and crucially far kinder to the fragile environment. For a car enthusiasts however, electric is a bit of a one trick pony: its accelerative properties are face-tearing and world-beating indeed, but in terms of driving fun, that’s really about it. Until they’ve engineered more energy density into the batteries, these two-ton electric cars can’t possible dream of handling like a traditional sports car.

Not that that matters to the general public. It’s been reported that in the last quarter, Tesla outsold the venerable Mercedes-Benz in America, so there’s proper appetite for these lumbering electric barges. Mercedes-Benz have taken notice, and will soon produce the EQC, the company’s first ever completely electric car. Audi will be entering the market as well with the e-tron SUV. BMW isn’t likely to delay much longer in delivering an electric SUV in its “i” family of vehicles.

Jaguar is wondering why isn’t anybody noticing their all-electric I-PACE that’s on sale now.

No surprise the big three German luxury automakers have elected the SUV as platform of choice for their respective EVs. It’s a smart move: sports-utilities of all shapes and sizes are flying off dealer lots, leaving the traditional sedans in the rear-view. Also important is that Tesla currently hasn’t got an SUV in its lineup (the Model X is a glorified minivan), so that’s a market opportunity to capitalize on.

With mainstream auto manufacturers joining the Tesla market, does this signal the beginning of the mass proliferation of electric-vehicles? Will the combustion engine soon be relegated to the halls of automotive museums? I reckon it is indeed the beginning of the shift, but the trajectory will be immensely long. The technology and infrastructure is not yet competitive against the typical gas station. Until a car can be fully charged from empty in less than 10 minutes, and one doesn’t need to strategically plan just to find a station, the electric car will remain a very nice novelty.

Because there’s also the matter of entry cost: the current crop of electric cars capable of going beyond 200 miles on a single “tank” (sorry, Nissan Leaf) are beyond the reach of the typical customer. Over 17 million cars are sold in America each year; it’ll take quite some time and effort before electric-vehicles will show up on the pie-chart.

My beloved internal combustion engine will be here to stay for a long time.

Weekend recreation.

Weekend recreation.

Volkswagen shatters Pikes Peak hill climb record

This past weekend was the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, and Volkswagen shattered the overall record by some 15 seconds. The German marque built a bespoke all-electric race-car just for the event, utilizing the power advantage in high-altitude to great effect in beating Sebastien Loeb’s time that had stood since 2013.

You can color me thoroughly unimpressed. 

For sure I think VW has done a tremendous achievement of engineering. Pikes Peak's immense elevation meant it was only a matter of time before electric power would come to dominate the hill climb event. Suffering none of the symptoms that ail combustion engines in super thin air, electric motors gives full, consistent power, limited only by the size and store of the battery.

So kudos, Volkswagen, but it hardly moves my needle. 

Electric cars are wonderful and will supposedly save the planet from climate ruin but for me it’s a type of vehicle I would not own personally. I’ve felt the searing acceleration of a Tesla before and while it’s an amazing party trick, the novelty of a Model S ends there.

I fell in love with cars because of their sheer mechanicalness: the miracle of formed metal and coupled gears harnessing thousands of mini-explosions per minute into motivative drive. The cars that stir the soul are those that reveal its mechanicalness to the driver: the constant shake of a connected gear-lever, the whine of a supercharger, the hiss of a turbo waste-gate purging, and the pops and bangs during an off-throttle lift. 

An electric car have none of those qualities. A plush Mercedes S-Class sedan doesn’t have them either. I’d never purchase the latter so why would I entertain buying former? Indeed electric vehicles can handle and turn a proper corner just as well as an internal-combustion car - VW now owns the Pikes Peak record after all, but more than astonishing numbers and stats it’s how a car makes me feel behind the wheel that ultimately determines its value. A Tesla Model S and a Porsche 911 GT3 occupies stark opposite ends of that spectrum. 

I predict as electric vehicles proliferate in the coming decades, purely internal-combustion cars will be relegated to the expensive segments like super sports-cars - akin to fine handmade mechanical watches and their cheaper quartz-movement counterparts. The discerning few of us will seek those out and keep the analog spirit alive for as long as possible. 

Waiting for dinner, waiting for sunset, waiting for god. 

Waiting for dinner, waiting for sunset, waiting for god.