You may have just taken delivery of your new car. You may have just ordered one for delivery next year. If by “car” you default to a prett...
You may have just taken delivery of your new car. You may have just ordered one for delivery next year. If by “car” you default to a pretty much universal definition in existence since 1885 – personal transport powered by an internal combustion engine (petrol or diesel or hybrid) into which you’ve pumped fossil fuel and then exploded it – then, congratulations, it might be your last.
A revolution is coming. After 130 years the piston engine is entering its twilight. Your next car after this one may well have batteries and an electric motor in place of a fuel tank and a piston engine. The one after that almost certainly will. It will be more spacious, quieter, cleverer and, on the basis of the first tranche of electric luxury cars due between now and the end of the decade, much better looking.
Don’t believe me? Well, stop reading for a moment and take a look at the cars on these pages; the Jaguar I-PACE that’s coming in 2018, the Porsche, the Mercedes-Benz and the Aston Martin over the 24 months after that. Look much further ahead at the Maybach and Rolls-Royce concepts for 2030 and beyond to see just how big a change is coming.
The I-PACE was launched in November in Los Angeles. I can’t say it wasn’t a surprise; at the launch it was announced that deliveries will start as soon as 2018, meaning Jaguar – tiny in size compared with Mercedes or the Volkswagen Group – will be next up after BMW in launching a new-from-the-ground-up luxury electric car to bring the fight to Tesla (the first and biggest modern-age electric-car company, and the brainchild of Elon Musk). The I-PACE is a looker too, with an entirely unfamiliar silhouette that’s part supercar, part SUV and an interior that takes a vaguely steampunk approach in the way it merges new technology with classic machine-shop craft.
Ian Callum’s signature designs for Jaguar (and Aston Martin before that) have been defined by their classical form – short cabins and long bonnets shrouding magnificent V12 and V8 piston engines. For the 63 year old, the I-PACE project was rejuvenating. “The sheer freedom of the electric platform is something you really have to absorb,” he says. ‘The I-PACE was an extremely cool project to work on. It’s rare to have a chance to just reset, recalibrate and set off in an entirely different direction, to go out there and discover something new.’
Electric cars are indeed cool, and not just because they are clean – though heaven knows I don’t think I’m alone in being more aware than ever of just exactly what it is I’m breathing in these days. If the prospect of leaving behind the bitter taste of metropolitan air was the sole reason to go electric it would be argument enough; I am very certain we will rapidly come to look at piston-engined cars the same way we do steam trains now.
But there are other, even more self-centred reasons to embrace this revolution. The characteristics and engineering of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) make them a hoot to drive and the perfect platform on which to build a luxury car. Remember it is torque and not power that gets a car moving and electric motors don’t need to spin up to speed, nor do they need complex gearing to deliver all their torque. Just switch on, press the pedal and go. It’s why YouTube is full of videos of Teslas rinsing Lamborghinis in drag races.
And the necessity of carrying a heavy load of batteries is easily converted to a virtue also. The best place to put the battery pack is under the floor of the car, thereby moving its centre of gravity closer to the road, which is one of the reasons why your Lamborghini is more fun to drive than your Range Rover.
These compact “skateboard” chassis (where the battery pack is the “deck” of the skateboard and the twin electric motors at either end, the ‘trucks’) have other benefits. Electric motors are not only much smaller for an equivalent output but need less stuff to function, so there’s more space for passengers.
And BEVs are not only cool and quirky and quick and comfortable – they’re quieter too. Significantly so; one ride in a upscale BEV is usually enough to convince you that this is the future of luxury motoring.
So far so good then. But why is all this happening now and happening so suddenly? Electric vehicles have, after all, been around for a while now although the early G-WIZ, such a favourite with eco-warriors with wanton disregard for their own welfare, hardly merits mention here so primitive was its ‘engineering’. There is of course no single overriding reason why now. Car makers are under considerable pressure to reduce the average C02 emissions of their ranges and throwing in a vehicle with none helps, especially if, like Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche and Aston Martin, that range includes some very heavy smokers.
There is of course the little issue of Volkswagen’s deception last year, which, if it has achieved anything, has made us all focus a little more on the local – the air we are breathing – and less on the loftier aims of carbon-emissions reduction. The fact that there is not a major city in Europe that isn’t now prioritising air-quality improvement to some extent only aerates that issue further.
Then of course there’s Elon Musk. No one is pretending that Tesla didn’t catch the traditional motor industry offguard. Tesla has sold over 130,000 of its big Model S saloon, and now offers the SUV Model X alongside. Driven by strong sales in the eco-conscious Californian market, the Model S is the best-selling luxury car in the USA.
Even Mercedes, which first patented the car as we traditionally know it, admits Musk started something. “Tesla has achieved something great and innovated the electric-vehicle market,” says Jürgen Schenk, director of electric-drive integration at Mercedes. “They were the first ones to offer a full-size vehicle, whereas up until then everyone else was focused on smaller, city vehicles. They took bold steps and it is a great story, but let’s see – we have great products in the making and I’m very confident we’ll be a dominant player in the luxury electric-vehicle segment in the future.”
Schenk’s confidence is justifiable. Mercedes is one of the great brands and is on track to retake global leadership in luxury cars sales in 2016. In September in Paris it launched a concept for a medium-sized electric luxury SUV and also launched the brand name under which it will sell a whole fleet of electric cars by the middle of the next decade – EQ.
“The EQ portfolio will encompass all future battery-electric cars as well as the associated products and services from Mercedes – not just a car,” says Schenk, alluding to the very different relationship all car makers believe we will have with our cars once they are electric. “There will be an electric-vehicle campaign that will gradually include vehicles from the compact to the luxury segment. Looking to the future, we will thus offer our customers all-electric vehicles to suit their needs in every segment. By 2025 there will be more than 10 fully electric vehicles on the market.”
Pressed for numbers, Mercedes believes it will be selling one million electric vehicles a year less than a decade from now. Volkswagen, which launched its own electric sub-brand at the same trade show in Paris in September, believes it too will be selling one million of its VW I.D. range, rumoured to include an all-electric, born-again Microbus called the BUDD-E, which will surely not struggle to find buyers in California. The launch of the I.D. concept included some new thinking around the marketing of electric cars – the ‘associated products’ and services that Mercedes alluded to. The I.D. cars will for example be sold with different-sized battery packs depending on a customer’s perceived demand for range and access to recharging.
Range of course is the elephant in the room when it comes to BEVs, though if you have off-street parking and vaguely 20th-century wiring, then there is no reason to fear an electric car running out of juice. You should be able to have a domestic charging station installed, so come home, plug in and forget about the 20-minute queue at your local BP/M&S Simply Food station. Unless you have a simply enormous commute (bigger BEVs like the Tesla Model S and the Jaguar have a ranges between 300 and 350 miles) you should be good.
I lived with a BMW i3 – by far and away the most sophisticated BEV money can buy right now – for four months and even with no off-street parking and living in a town with no on-street charging at that time, I soon discovered
that the time spent planning where to park in a place with a plug was considerably less than that spent waiting behind the chicken-kiev-and-budget-Sauvignon brigade. Nonetheless, manufacturers are aware that they are the catalysts for the development of an expansive and reliable charging network.
Elon Musk – of course – is light years ahead on this one. All those Tesla owners get access to the company’s network of Superchargers for free (though register your new car after the end of this year and you will have to pay a charge of “a lot less than a tank of gas,” per fill up in the typically vague words of Musk). Even in Europe where the network is less developed, it’s still possible to drive from London to the South of France on the Supercharger network.
Tesla has no plans to open up its network to the other car makers following in its zero-emission wake but confidence is high that the network will only grow and the company has every incentive to ensure it does. These projects don’t come cheap though are less expensive than developing new piston-engines and transmissions.
At least one major car maker has confirmed its new electric platform will come at the expense of developing a new internal combustion engine; “You look to the future,” one motoring industry insider told us, “and you see the lifespan of internal combustion engines getting shorter by the day. It’s almost impossible to imagine giving the green light to a new internal combustion engine, especially if it’s a large-capacity one.” Norway has already announced plans to ban internal combustion engines by 2025, and nations across Europe – including Germany – have publicly discussed following suit.
Jaguar, Mercedes, VW, Porsche with its beautiful Mission E concept, Aston Martin with its radical DBX and others such as Audi’s Q6 E-Tron (due to make its debut in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas) will all launch new BEVs in the next three years. The sector is also attracting newcomers from the US like Faraday Future and China’s NextEV. Each and every one will be on sale before the end of the decade, joining BMW’s best-selling i3 and hybrid-electric i8 and the Tesla range in the growing fleet of vehicles designed from the ground up to be electric.
Legislation, clean-air awareness, Tesla… the real answer to the ‘why now’ question is possibly just that revolution is in the (clean) air, especially when you throw in another burgeoning technology – self-drive cars – which can only further improve efficiency. Batteries are of course getting better – lighter, quicker to charge – all the time.
Ironically the internal combustion engine was developed because at the end of the 19th-century batteries were so poor, it was simpler to store energy as fuel. Before that cars had electric motors. So if you feel yourself mourning the death of the petrol engine, look at it this way; the past 140 years were only ever a diversion.