Gasoline Still In It For the Long Haul

Fossil fuels continue to dominate mobility despite automakers and tech start-ups striving for alternatives, primarily relying on electricity or fuel cells to shift away from gasoline.

It’s been a slow process, particularly with higher prices, a weaker infrastructure and technological limitations that currently prevent other energy sources from replacing gasoline as the easiest mobility option. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, so the real answer could be determining which energy sources can properly serve each market.

“I think it depends a lot on the duty cycle,” said Ken Stewart, chief strategy officer of Karma Automotive. “The smaller, last mile technology is already seeing pure electrics. I think hydrogen and fuel cells have a place for some vehicles in the medium duty category and, perhaps, long-range category. These are also electric cars because a fuel cell creates electricity. Ultimately, it’s an electric motor that drives the wheels and, chances are, you have a battery on-board. So it’s another way to get range. I think all of those technologies are going to sort themselves out and make the best economics possible for the given type of usage that the vehicle has.”

Alternative energies are not just for powering a car’s motor, however. They can be used to generate cleaner energy to begin with, which can then be converted to a format that’s suitable for automobiles. “There’s the ability to have renewable sources create the electricity,” said Stewart. “Certainly you see that in some areas of the world. A great example – an unusual one, but a great one – is Iceland and other countries that have the ability for geothermal or some other way to create electricity. Now you’ve got a true virtuous cycle of renewable energy. That’s something to work for.”

Even then, gasoline isn’t likely to go away any time soon. “In our lifetime we are still going to see gasoline cars,” he said. “They may have electrified powertrains to assist, but this whole idea of gasoline going away is a false proposition. It’s going to be around for many, many decades because it is such a good fuel. It’s highly energy dense, it’s low-cost, the infrastructure has been improved for 100 years. As the incumbent, it’s pretty well entrenched but electrified powertrains are going to continue to find their way into this.”

Electrifying future

One of the biggest challenges electric car owners face is the risk of range anxiety. While this issue has yet to be eliminated, Stewart doesn’t believe it’s as problematic as it seems. He pointed to a friend who drives a Tesla despite living in the ultra-rural, small town environment of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “He likes it and it can be done,” said Stewart. “You obviously need to look at it and say, does it fit my needs profile or not? Then you make the best choice.”

For now many electric car owners rely on home charging units and free public charging stations (when available) to keep their vehicles in top form. Certainly more options are needed but future technologies could allow for a more convenient alternative. Wireless charging, a technology currently reserved for small mobile devices, could make it possible for automobiles to energize their motors while driving.

“I think it’s real-world but it’s not yet happening,” Stewart explained. “Inductive charging was used in electric cars 20 years ago and now you can buy a charger that will fit at the base of your garage and charge your vehicle without you having to connect. Can we do that on the fly? I think someday we’ll find a way to do that. The panacea could be, if you go on the highway and keep moving to the left lane, through the HOV lane, the autonomous lane and then to the charging lane. Now you’re perhaps along the center island where there is a charging network that can charge your car while you’re driving. That would be terrific. We’re not there at all today but I think the possibilities are there for the future.”

Then the question becomes: who pays for that energy? Many malls, office parks and even movie theaters are willing to share their electricity to attract patrons but that isn’t likely to last forever. “Who pays is still getting sorted out,” said Stewart. “Sometimes it’s government funds that are gathered through taxes or diesel settlements or other things. Other times it’s the customer that pays for something in their home. So, I think we’re going to see a smattering of everything. The short answer is, everybody will want the other guy to pay. In that environment we’ll see various models take shape.”

Stewart is also keeping a close eye on the development of clear solar panels. He envisions a future where they could be wrapped around an entire vehicle to add an extra bit of juice to the battery. “The idea of a clear solar panel is it gathers the light spectrum to make electricity without interrupting the light spectrum that you see,” he said. “You can see through it, like a window, but it’s making electricity from the sun. It will not be enough to power the car perpetually but it will offset things and is very doable.”

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