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by John Cadogan

If someone had told you 25 years ago that we’d all be carrying around little computers in our pockets that were also telephones, which held all our music collections as well as being able to access maps of any place on Earth (except the White House and the Pentagon) and which could also access millions of computers all around the world, wirelessly, and tell us exactly where we are, you’d be quickly calling for a van with padded walls in which to pack such a crackpot forecaster off.

Of course I’m talking about the days before the word ‘friend’ was a verb. And yet here we are.

Reason I’m thinking about this stuff is that I just handed back the keys to a Mitsubishi i MiEV. It’s my third excursion in an i MiEV, my fourth in a plug-in EV, and it’s hard not to be impressed.

Inevitably, comparisons with petrol-burning cars will be made, but these are unfair. The internal combustion engine has had 100 years or more of R&D behind it, inclusive of several profound oil shocks to spur the egg-heads along. In comparison, EVs have only just blipped on the radar. My impression of EVs currently is they’re at the equivalent of where an Commodore 64 computer sits, when internal combustion is more at the approximate level of your iPhone 4 – in R&D terms.

What’s abundantly clear is that there is a future for mobility just like, or even better than, the mobility we enjoy today, even after oil runs dry and prices itself out of the picture.

Even a vehicle like the i MiEV, at the steep part of the EV R&D learning curve and probably just one step removed from the prototype phase of EV development, can do 90 per cent of what I need a car to do (maybe not what I want it to do, but what I need it to do). Take excitement out of the picture, and the i MiEV keeps up with the traffic and has sufficient (though not excessive) range to get me where I’m going. And, okay, it does take eight hours to recharge, and you do need a 15-amp powerpoint to get the job done but even this is a fairly painless process while you’re asleep. And yes, most of the electricity you use in Australia is made by burning coal, which is a crime against humanity.

Frankly, the i MiEV is a ‘beta’ version of a first generation EV. Here in Australia it’s too expensive to sell, and needs to be as light as possible just to have acceptable range. But it’s better than, say, the first generations of plenty of common technology available today – take, for example, cameras. And the price will soon jump into the express elevator and dive into the basement.

There are a host of advantages that aren’t too hard to spot: the heavy stuff gets packaged really low, so the dynamics can, theoretically, exceed those of a conventional car. There’s no need whatsoever for a multi-speed transmission, seeing as how the torque production of an EV is exactly in line with the requirements for a car across a wide envelope of speeds. And they’re super-quiet – so much so that you realize just how noisy wind and tyres can be when not attenuated by vibrations from the engine, transmission and exhaust.

Faster recharging is around the corner. Eighty per cent of a full charge in half an hour over lunch is a 15-fold convenience improvement in one hit. Super-capacitors could replace batteries in the future. When that happens, re-fuelling will be comparable with today’s liquid fuels.

A New Zealand hi-tech operation called HaloIPT is developing wireless recharging technology using inductive power transfer (like those little pads you can wirelessly recharge your Blackberry with) that could, potentially, be embedded in the road and allow recharging as you drive. Forget range anxiety; Think, range: infinity.

The range ‘problem’, in so far as there is one, might be solved with hydrogen fuel cells – I had the pleasure of driving one of those in South Korea inside an Hyundai R&D operation a few months ago. Like battery powered cars, fuel cell motivation is eerily quiet, but doesn’t mean making the car as light and compact as possible. Torque delivery is fat. Even in asn SUV. (A fuel cell is, essentially, a battery that you keep tipping fuel into so it never goes flat. Chemistry laureates: this is a gross over-simplification to illustrate a point.)

The elephant in the room is infrastructure. The smaller problems are electric recharging infrastructure and hydrogen delivery infrastructure. The former of these is just the public sector dragging the chain. At least we already have a functioning electricity grid – so most of the hard work has been done there. Car companies are so far ahead of Australian government infrastructure on EVs that it’s just not funny. Hydrogen is more problematic – the infrastructure doesn’t even exist, from manufacturing to distribution to retailing. Both the chicken and the egg are so far over the horizon on hydrogen that we’ll be watching this space for some time.

In fact the manufacture of hydrogen gas in Australia is a filthy process – we strip the hydrogen from methane (think: filthy) instead of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen (think: clean).

The filthiest problem is, of course, coal. Western society needs to wean itself off the black teat of coal as an absolute priority. It doesn’t make a great deal of long-term sense to eschew more convenient, polluting, liquid fuels and move to less convenient, even more polluting, coal – even if the electricity that emerges from the power point seems pretty clean by the time you consume it.

The kooky thing about humans, the thing that sets us apart from the animals if you like, has nothing to do with the positioning of our thumbs. It has nothing to do with the size of our brains, or the fact that we’ve learned how to litigate. It’s all just down to energy. Our position on the food chain is pretty much pre-eminent because we’re the only species on the planet that can burn more energy than we derive from our food. It really is that simple. Any other species that tries that would quickly go the way of the dodo. It’s why we’re on top.

It’s a fantastic trip, being on top of the world, burning more energy than you take in. But it means our existence is leveraged against having a cheap supply of energy. And that supply is extremely finite. So the party can’t last for ever. When you look at, for example, what electricity actually does for us, when you look at what petrol allows us to do, it’s inconceivable that people actually think it’s expensive. It’s not. We don’t like it when the price goes up, sure, but that doesn’t mean from a value perspective that energy still isn’t cheap.

The bottom line on the numbers is this: the hydrocarbon power consumption of Planet Earth is currently about 10 terawatts – that’s 10 million megawatts. That’s rather a lot. But every day the incident sunlight on the surface of the earth delivers 20,000 times more energy than we currently derive from hydrocarbons. In other words, the Earth is awash in sunlight – many more times than we need to balance the books on an energy basis.

If we use sunlight to electrolyse water to make hydrogen to power the generators and the cars, we’ll be leveraging our mobility and our way of life off an energy source that will never run out. Sounds like a plan! The cars then, in time, won’t just be as good as the ones we enjoy today. They’ll be better – just look at what the Commodore 64 computer evolved into.

The big question is will we get it together with sunlight and hydrogen in time … of will there be a bleak trough of several decades before we get ourselves into gear? Crank up the comments – interested to hear what you think on this.