Can E-fuels save traditional mobility?

Readers of this blog know of my scepticism towards EV’s, not as a concept but as a solution to climate-related issues. I wrote about this in a recent post you can find here, so I won’t repeat myself. To be fair, things are moving in the right direction at least with regards to some of the issues raised, as I also highlighted in my recent post about Mercedes’s new EQS (see here). It does however remain the case that even if EV manufacturers become climate-neutral in their production, as long as the country they produce in is not 100% based on green energy, what they achieve is basically nothing put pushing the dirty energy consumption on to the next guy.

Even the steel is said to be climate neutral in a few years in the production of the EQS and other MB EV’s

There is however another BIG issue around EV’s that no one seems really keen to talk about, namely what on earth we’re supposed to do with the millions of fully functional cars we currently have on our streets, if the plan is to roll out EV’s for all? Don’t laugh, the question risks becoming very real as various European governments start fixing end dates for the sale of new combustion engines. A logical next step is then to start discussing bans on existing cars. But what is the plan for millions of existing and fully functional cars, and even more, what is the carbon footprint of destroying millions of existing cars and building new EV’s? Funnily, this is an aspect that is completely absent from the discussion.

I’m of an optimistic nature so I’d like to think that realism will prevail in the end – a realism that for me needs to be based on a future for traditional mobility – especially (and I’m finally getting to the topic of this week’s post), since traditional mobility doesn’t necessarily mean traditional fuels going forward. The development of so called e-fuels is progressing rapidly, and this week we’ll look at whether they are the solution that will allow for a more reasonable solution to the issue of traditional, personal mobility.

A new 12-cylinder will never be built, but it would be nice if we could still save the old ones!

Electrofuels, also called e-fuels or synthetic fuels, are produced exclusively from renewable energy. Without going into the technical details, in the case of car fuel it means producing hydrogen from clean energy, to which CO2, extracted from other sources, is added. The result is emission-free hydrocarbon, and the resulting synthetic fuels are no technically different to conventional fuels. They can thus power the same cars without modifications and also use the existing fueling infrastructure. A further big advantage is that e-fuels don’t compete with food production, a big problem for example with ethanol production that isn’t very compatible with the world’s need to feed another 3bn people until 2050, using less resources. Disadvantages? Unfortunately, there are a few, and they’re rather big.

Firstly, e-fuels don’t solve the issue of clean energy going to its use as long as the full economy doesn’t use clean energy, as you’re basically just pushing the emission onto someone else. As we’ll see below the clean energy used for e-fuels is produced very far away and thus not cannibalizing on anything else, but this is not a viable, long-term concep. Secondly, e-fuels offer far less efficiency than electricity, as long as electricity production is local. This is however an important point given that, as noted, most countries are still not 100% green in their energy production. So either you push the emission problem onto the next user as noted above, or, and this is not unrealistic, we’ll start importing for example solar energy from a sunny place such as the Middle East. If that becomes the case, then hydrogen all of a sudden becomes very competitive in terms of efficiency as it can be transported much more easily. Thirdly and lastly, as you will have guessed, the production process for e-fuels is far from cheap, and it will still take time and probably also some further technological innovations to solve both the cost and thereby also the required scale issue.

Wind turbines of Project Haru Oni off Chile’s coast

A number of automakers are looking into e-fuels as an alternative or complement to EV’s, none more than Porsche which currently runs a project called Haru Oni off the coast of Chile (where it’s very windy). They do so together with notably Siemens, and the logic for Porsche is that because of the points above and others, conventional electricity alone will not be enough to move to a clean car fleet fast enough, in view of other – rising – electricity needs in the world. The project is still in its early days but by removing CO2 out of the air through wind power and combining it with hydrogen, it aims to produced 130.000 litres of fuel next year, and 550 million litres in 2026. As a reference, around 23bn litres of fuel were consumed in Germany last year so although a lot, it would take many more such installations to get anywhere near the volume required to make this a viable alternative on a larger scale. The cost so far remains a mystery, but it’s clear that it’s nowhere near being a reasonable consumer alternative at this stage.

So at least for now, it remains at best unclear whether e-fuels will give a future to combustion engines. It’s however good to see that some thinking around fuel alternatives is going on and who knows, as so often before, maybe there will be other innovations along the way that allow for even better solutions in the end. It would however be high time for some realism to enter the discussion around EV’s and our future mobility. It would also be desirable with some political willingness to engage in discussions on where the electricity is supposed to come from in the emission-free world, when many countries in parallel wish to phase out nuclear? This can’t possibly be something only a few engineers at Porsche have thought about? And finally, perhaps someone can tell us what the plan is for the many millions of fully-functioning cars in the world? Reality is slightly more complex than what the current debate would have you believe and the sooner we’re mature enough to engage in a difficult but highly necessary discssion on it, the better.

The EV market takes off for real

Ten days ago, in a flashy, high-tech online show that you can watch here if you missed it, Mercedes-Benz presented the new EQS, the fully electric version of the S-class. I would claim that rather than just another car launch, the EQS is a real game-changer in the EV market, and likewise the last confirmation needed that the big guys are now entering this segment for real. Interestingly, it’s also a (positive!) game changer with regards to environmental factors and sustainability. This week we’ll take a look at the new EQS, which even without considering the drive train looks to be one hell of a car, and talk a bit more about why it’s important and how it will influence the market going forward. If your love for traditional cylinders (to which we’ll return next week) runs so deep that it prevents you from reading any further, in summary I think you can say that whereas the planned Super League in European football came to a very sudden death this week, there will be nothing stopping the EV Super League from taking off in 2021!

Starting with the EQS, In one simple sentence it can of course be described as an electric S-class, whis is perhaps what many people will do – but that would mean missing the whole point. Because by bringing an S-class to the EV market, Mercedes is also bringing a whole new level of luxury and car quality, where until now the only luxury has been Tesla’s giant infotainment screen.

The new EQS – notice the very long wheelbase

Starting from the bottom (literally), the EQS is built on Mercedes’s first EV-specific platform. So far EV’s not only from the Stuttgart brand but also from other large manufacturers have been built on traditional platforms, and this makes a big difference as one specifically developed for EV’s can take into account the absence of an engine and battery space far better. The new platform can also be adapted to different car sizes, something Mercedes intends to do as it rolls out an electric version of all cars in its current line-up over the coming years, some of them already in 2021. To those who know Tesla this is obviously not new, however what happens above the platform, inside the car, definitely is.

The EQS doesn’t look like an S-class and is actually a hatchback (without a frunk, as that space is taken up by various air-cleaning filters). At over 5.20 metres it’s a big car, with lots of interior space, and luggage space of around 650 litres (in addition to which you can fold the rear seats). If the design can be debated, what cannot is the fact that it’s the most aerodynamic car currently in production, with a Cw/Cd-value of 0.20. Also not open to debate is not only the quality, but also the innovativeness of the interior space, at or beyond S-class level. The most spectacular parts are probably the (optional) self-opening-and-closing doors and the gigantic so called hyperscreen (actually consisting of three screens) that extends over the whole dashboard and enables the passenger to for example watch Youtube whilst the driver has access to the navigation. Noteworthy is also that front and rear passengers are independent both in infotainment and speech commands, and chan thus address the car by “Hey Mercedes” independently of each other. The EQS also sets new standards in driver profiles and indiviualization, and the list goes on, and on, and on. Two interior design lines are planned, a more elegant and a more sporty one, and if the hyperscreen for some reason isn’t your thing, you can opt for the mid-mounted “iPad” of the new, “normal” S-class instead – a simple example of how a large car manufacturer can cross-fertilize various items between product lines.

The hyperscreen in the elegant layout version

The EQS is set to come to dealers this summer and will initially be available with 333 or 524 hp as rear- and all-wheel drive. An AMG version is set to follow later. The range will be up to 770 km WLTP, which should translate to something like 600-650 km in real life under pretty ideal conditions. This is a really important point, as no one has so far been able to compete with Tesla’s superior range – until now. Prices aren’t known, German media expect them to start around EUR 110.000 (with as always an almost unlimited upside…), which means pretty much on par or actually even slightly below the regular S-class. Mercedes have stated that they will earn less by car produced than for conventional cars, which in turn means they believe strongly in the growth of the EV segment. If pricing at this level is confirmed it goes against what has been the case so far, where EV-versions from traditional brands such as the Audi E-tron or the MB EQC tend to come at a premium to diesel or petrol versions.

The hatchback rear with the mandatory light bar

As stated previously on this blog, I don’t subscribe to the view that the big car companies have missed the EV train, quite simply as it hasn’t left the station yet. Although the amount of media attention it gets would make you believe it’s already a significant percentage of new car sales, the global EV market is still around only 2%, however with growth really starting to take off in selected markets in Europe, as well as in California and other places. Also, if you except small EV’s with a 150 km range, the market has basically been owned Tesla until now, as we know a three-model car company with only one of them, the Model 3, selling outside of the US, and with the exception of improved range and software, no significant facelifts or updates since the models were launched. I’m sure most large car brands have watched the market carefully whilst preparing in the background for the day growth takes off, and nowhere more so than in Germany. From that perspective, Mercedes’s timing looks pretty impeccable to me. The VW group is about to introduce its new EV platform with notably 20 electric Audi models rolled out over the coming five years, and others will follow close behind. Given the expertise all of these have in building not only cars, but also real luxury cars, the fundamentals of the market are probably about to change, which in turn will make life hard for Tesla, especially in Europe.

Last but not least, let me come back on the sustainability of EV’s that I was very critical of in my post back in January (see here), and that indeed still deserves to be looked at critically, notably in terms of the “CO2 cost” of battery production. If you saw the introduction of the EQS, you may have noted Mercedes CEO Ola Källenius saying that the battery train of the EQS will be produced in Germany in a carbon-neutral way. This sounded a bit too good to be true, so I was in touch with Mercedes’s customer relations this week to have it confirmed, and very impressively, they came back to me in 24 hours. Not only did they confirm that from the first car built, the EQS’s battery pack will be produced exclusively with fossil-free, CO2-neutral energy. They also said that every Mercedes factory in the world will be carbon-neutral by 2022, with some of those in Germany already being so. This is obviously very good as it resolves one of the main issues around EV’s, and will hopefully influence both the public and competitors..

The car can still charge quicker than most stations, but Ionity has really taken off!

EV’s have a lot going for them, and resolving some of the issues with the battery production adds to the positive list. I believe that what Mercedes now starts with the EQS will be a game-changer for the direction of the EV market, as others can be expected to follow close on their heels. In parallel, the European Ionity charging network is growing quickly, already providing a far better coverage than could be expected a few months ago. So whereas I still don’t think you should take your 10-year old car to the car scrap, it definitely looks like the future is electric, and that it may happen quick than I would have thought only a few months ago. Thus, if I were in the market for a new S-class, I would probably think twice about which one to get. In a couple of years, maybe that won’t even be the main question for the typical S-class buyer, but rather if an S-class can really be a hatchback…