You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate electric cars

I have an interesting angle on the topic of electric cars being that I play with gasoline powered engines for a living. You would think someone as involved with gasoline would be totally against a new form of competition that may well totally replace it one day, but in fact the exact opposite is true with me. An engine tuner’s job is to make the engine as efficient as possible. As efficient as possible in terms of mileage at low rpm and low throttle, and as efficient as possible in terms of heat energy transformed into horsepower when the go pedal is down. Having a mindset for efficiency naturally transpires to all other parts of one’s life.. so when you compare the electric drive against the heat engine and all that goes along with it.. well it’s a pretty compelling case against the heat engine.

Hey look, most of it is wasted! (Photo credit: Nissan Global)

Hey look, most of it is wasted! (Photo credit: Nissan Global)

Don’t get me wrong. The sound of a flat-plane V8 with small bores and short stroke is absolute bliss. A V12 is even better. The passion and emotion of the fuel burning engine cannot be matched by any electric motor. But in terms of efficiency, they are an absolute embarrassment. Look at the efficiency of gasoline heat energy converted to power at the wheels. Call it about 28% for an average size car (it’s actually usually much less than that in most conditions). That means for 100,000 BTU’s of heat we burn, we get (at best) about 28,000 worth to the wheels (that’s like having an optimal lap time of 1 minute and taking 4 minutes to complete the lap). Horrible. It gets even worse. Keep reading.

When we look at the complexity of the engine, we see how inefficient the entire process of poorly converting all of this potential heat energy into motion is – not only in the lack of conversion of heat to power, but in the complexity of the machine and how much work needs to go into designing and building one! First of all, to turn this heat into forward motion we need some 500-1000+ parts to make the damn thing function! Then, after we finally have a complete running engine, we need to build a gearbox because the horrid thing is only efficient in a rather narrow speed range! And then of course, us humans for the most part do not want to operate a manual gearbox. So torque converters and automatic transmissions need to be developed and adjusted and manipulated until they drive perfectly smoothly – similar to say, an electric motor.

But it sounds so damn good... (Image Credit: nighthawkwill7)

But it sounds so damn good… (Image Credit: nighthawkwill7)

Here’s the worst part of it all. We finally build this super complicated heat engine drive-train and as we drive about town we waste about 50% of this energy we have burned BACK INTO HEAT THROUGH THE GOD DAMN BRAKES! I mean.. this is the definition of madness. This has been accepted as best practice for almost 100 years!

Ok, so then there is the electric car. Less parts and easier to build, cool. No gearbox required, cool. Efficient conversion of electrical input power to power to the wheels of ~75% (this will likely increase significantly – unlike the heat engine which has been struggling for 1% gains for some time now), and the best part? We can capture some (or most if you’re a decent driver) of that energy back when we have to slow the vehicle down by using the electric motor as a generator. Our quickly moving vehicle has all kinds of potential energy, and by simply reversing the load on the motor we can capture energy back into the batteries using the same parts. No extra widgets and solenoids and vacuum lines and air pumps and actuators and canisters here. Just simplicity.

Sick electric car bro! Sorry about that electric starter they just developed... (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Sick electric car bro! Sorry about that electric starter they just developed… (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

If you understand the engine tuner’s mind by now, you are starting to realise how these two comparables should not even be in the same category, much yet the same universe. I mean think of it this way. Say, somehow the electric car had been the chosen one since the beginning (circa 1912 when the electric starter was developed for gasoline engines – say that never happened). Assume we are all driving electric cars and someone proposes the idea of the current gasoline powered vehicle. What do you think people would make of it today? More complex, dirtier, requires more maintenance, significantly less efficient. People would literally laugh in the guys face. They may even take him out back and beat him for being so frigging ridiculous.

Yet somehow, humanity has managed to mess it all up. What did we do? We took the complex, inefficient thing, and then added the electric drive to it. So now we have a vehicle that not only has the complicated heat engine, the complicated automatic transmission, it now also has electric motor(s), charger, inverter, etc. So no wonder the hybrid was doomed to fail. It is almost the worst of both worlds, its value coming from the fact that we can now at least shut the heat engine off when it is doing absolutely nothing useful (i.e. idling), and we can recapture some energy when slowing down. The fact that the hybrid has had even some success goes to show just how much potential the electric drive has.

Now though.. things are changing. We seem to finally have the technology to be able to build batteries large enough to give us capacity for long distance driving with a pure electric drive. The simplicity of the vehicle allows for a much larger battery, since there is no more heat engine mess everywhere. The simplicity of the drive and battery makes the design of the vehicle so much more elegant and simplistic… it’s like tuning a Motec rather than an OEM ecu that has been hacked open by some open-source tuner that only figured out 10% of the tables.

This diagram is confusing, but supposedly it shows us roads charging cars while they are moving quickly. (Photo Credit: Global Spec)

This diagram is confusing, but supposedly it shows us roads charging cars while they are moving quickly. (Photo Credit: Global Spec)

When we look out 10 years or so into the future, you can really see how the electric car will fit in and work. Charging will be done either in 10 minutes at a rest stop, or literally on the highway as you drive via in-ground inductive chargers. This could allow battery sizes to shrink, which would help the cars be the same price and weight as current gasoline cars today. All with significantly more room than current heat engines. Hybrids will continue to be a very common theme however, but that is mostly just due to humanity’s reluctance to change, and our very understandable love affair with the gasoline engine – the sound and experience are hard if not impossible to match with an electric drive.

There is also the the common argument of the overall “greenness” of electric cars based on how the electricity is generated that charges said e-car. Coal of course, supposedly burning dirtier than gasoline (there are arguments that by the time you do all the work to get the oil out of the ground, refine it and transport it that it is dirtier than coal, or something. I don’t care). I don’t know the details of this, but all I can say is that this is an absolutely stupid and ridiculous argument. Sure, in the short term we may see coal power being used, but it is quite clear that in the next 20-30 years (hopefully sooner) renewable energy generation will become significant if not standard, and coal will be phased out since it is obviously not the way to go (let’s not get into that right now). So the fact that we are able to power our vehicles with 100% clean and free energy (did you know that energy from the sun is FREE?) is obviously better than drawing on old refined dinosaur guts. All you need to do is pay for the solar panels, or wind turbine, or whatever you prefer. Then, any energy they produce is free! No fuel needed! It’s like building a coal power plant, and not needing any coal. It just magically keeps running and running and running.

So there is another thing that pleases the engine tuner. This whole full circle completeness approach. Like when your ECU perfectly integrates with your Dash and PDM and everyone is in perfect harmony.

Bill Caswell ripped this electric E36 and seemed to like it. Click for link. (Photo Credit: Jalopnik)

Bill Caswell ripped this electric E36 and seemed to like it. Click photo for link to story and video. (Photo Credit: Jalopnik)

So what happens to our gasoline racecars and hobby cars, in my imagined future you ask? Well, nothing. If the majority of the world switched to clean power and electric transport, the earth would have a good buffer to absorb carbon, so a few drift cars frying tires and some road racing here and there would be totally fine. I do not believe that we should all be forced to a certain lifestyle, however we are all responsible for leaving this place at least as good as we got it – ideally better. We could all drive some pretty awesome electric road cars the majority of the time (The Tesla P90D is pretty well one of the fastest accelerating cars in the world), yet still have a gasoline/alcohol powered hobby car to use here and there. Plus, we could be racing against some pretty cool electric cars. For sure there will be some very neat technology applied to our gasoline powered vehicles – the first example that comes to mind is the electrical motor generator turbo unit seen presently in Formula 1. It is only a matter of time until you can buy an off the shelf turbo, motor controller and small battery that will allow you to use an obnoxiously huge turbine with instantaneous spool. 

To take this article one step further, the entire outlook on energy efficiency is one that we can apply to our entire lives. I think that to some degree we have all taken energy for granted, but the amount of energy we waste/consume each day is astonishing. One litre of gasoline contains 8,325,818 calories. Think about how far you can drive on one measly litre of fuel. Now think about how long it takes you to eat 8.3 million calories (the answer is approximately 3070 days if you’re an adult male. Maybe 2500 days if you’re Jesse Tong who eats five eggs for breakfast, unscrambled). That is one litre. For one car, of which our world has millions. If you just imagine the absolutely insane rate at which we are going through energy, you’ll instinctively know that it is not sustainable and that it is our duty to strive towards being balanced, now.

It’s getting easier and easier with each passing year to do that too, with LED lighting becoming ridiculously cheap, really efficient heat pumps to replace fuel-burning heating sources in the winter, internet connected devices that manage our energy usage more efficiently, solar and wind power dropping in price like it’s gone out of style, and even more ideas to harness the natural power of the earth, like tidal energy and tons of other niche ideas to improve efficiency for different industries and capture free energy.

If you’re like me, with a mind for tuning things to make them as efficient as possible, try using that mentality on your every day life. Imagine energy as if you had to bicycle on a generator to produce it all. You’ll be amazed at just how wasteful and shit many things are. Each small thing we improve is an improvement that wasn’t there before.

Here are just a few examples of some ridiculously in-efficient, energy wasting things we do and consider “normal” despite having the technology to easilly correct it:

  • Buildings that both heat and cool different parts at the same time
  • Heating a pool with natural gas/propane while cooling a building with air conditioning
  • Using incandescent lighting while air conditioning a building
  • Heating / cooling a building that is un-occupied
  • Paying to shut off solar / wind farms when demand is low, while still running dirty power plants
  • Driving vehicles many times larger than what is needed for the application
  • Millions of vehicles idling and burning fuel while not moving (think traffic jams every day)

I leave you with those thoughts my friends… Tune.