The EV-only goal of 2035, unrealistic expectations

Updated: December 2, 2023

If you're wondering what I intend to say here, this article is about the relatively new legislation by which the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines (ICE) will be (supposedly) banned in the EU, the UK and some US states by 2035 (before it gets changed, pushed, delayed, or canceled). Now assuming this date is valid, let me continue. And first, by saying that electric cars are ... okay. Neither good nor bad. Cars are cars to most people, except the purists. The manner of propulsion is not really important. What matters is the overall value. Driving experience, handling, comfort, running costs, resale value, and so forth. The way the wheels are spun is irrelevant.

What I do want to write about is my gentle amusement and a certain level of disdain to this proposal. Not because it's morally wrong - clean air and whatnot, fair deal, whatever. I want to talk about it, because it's utterly impractical. Let us ponder then.

The one big problem with EV cars - ultra-slow charging

I am not going to focus on the "green" aspect of this proposal. I don't care. I am also not going to go into superfluous details on lithium batteries, the enjoyment of petrol explosions inside engine block cylinders and all that. Nope. You know my stance on this, and it's not relevant. What I do care about is the simple question of recharging bottleneck that will not be solved in the next 12 years. A crucial, even critical factor considering the disruptive nature of the proposal.

All other things being equal, a typical EV car has a range of about 300-500 km. A typical petrol or diesel car will easily do 700-1,000 km, roughly double. It takes about 5 minutes to refuel a standard car. It takes about 45-50 minutes to fast-charge an EV vehicle to 80% capacity. You can search for these numbers anywhere online. In the future, the technology may improve and change the equation completely. At the moment, it's like that.

Charging

From my Tesla Model S review; back in the day, me friend would park at a dedicated charging center and spend about 40 minutes every morning fast-juicing up his vehicle, for free. Now, multiply that scenario by 1,000. Free electricity? Sufficiently powerful grid? Who knows. Available space? Not likely.

If we look at a typical petrol/gas station, it has 6-8 refueling points, meaning it can refuel 6-8 cars every 5 minutes. This means, we get a capacity of about 70-100 vehicles per hour. That's the reality today, pretty much anywhere in the world.

Now, all other things being equal, if we just want to provide the same level of "resupply" capacity with EV vehicles that we have today with ICE ones, we need 20x more refueling - or rather, recharging - points. Why? Simply math. It takes 10x longer to recharge an EV car (to 80%) than your ordinary petrol or diesel, and with half the range, you need to do that twice as often, hence the factor of 20x.

This means, if you don't want massive, massive traffic jams and total chaos once "everything" goes EV, the transport infrastructure grid needs 20x more fast-charging points than fuel hoses currently available.

The problem is, most petrol/gas stations are already built and have a given footprint. Now, we need to accommodate 20x more capacity. If you need 6-8 "parking" spots for ICE cars during the refueling, you now need 120-160 parking spots for EVs. Each car needs at least 10 square meters to park (and this is being generous). Now imagine an average, busy Western city with an already extremely crowded infrastructure and rocket-high real estate prices. Where will one be able to suddenly provide, physically and financially, a fresh footprint of 1,200-1,600 sqm per petrol/gas station?

Now, I need to challenge my own assertion, of course:

Why home charging is an even bigger Utopia

Look at your own town or city. My guess is that you will observe the following scenario. Lots of new development and modern houses, but also lots of old buildings and homes, built before 1970. Especially in the Western Europe, you will find lots of old infrastructure. If you need convincing, just look at how shoddy the Internet connectivity is in most highly developed countries. You are more likely to have cheap and fast broadband in Bulgaria or Romania than you are in say the UK, Germany or the Netherlands.

So, now, we need to figure out:

Let's go back to the paradox of modern cities, again especially in Western Europe, where people actually have time and money to discuss EVs. New developments all over the place, but ... no parking. Big cities are trying to be cleaner, and one of the ways to achieve this goal is to "punish" homeowners by not providing sufficient parking. You are expected to use inefficient public transport, walk (okay) or be annoying and cycle.

So, there's a fair chance you may have to actually park your car on the side of the road. This means, even if everything is electrified (somehow miraculously), your car will have to charge from a public charging point. So if you're one of the plebs without a private parking, fresh questions arise:

If you are a relatively "rich" person, and you have a private parking spot, there are still problems. Indeed, let's address the issue of private home owners WITH their own luxurious parking - which, on its own is another huge socioeconomic problem related to EVs, but I don't want to discuss that.

In the south of Europe, where cold isn't such a major factor, households usually have less electricity capacity. Most households will not exceed 5-6 kWh consumption, and the usage will be 10-15 A at best. I have witnessed, in more than one warm climate country, the mains breaker tripping when more than three or four appliances are powered on simultaneously, even in relatively new and modern buildings. Now, add EV cars to the equation, and the overall grid load easily doubles the current usage model. Who will pay for redoing the electricity for each and every home? And have it completed in about 12 years time? AND we're assuming the national grids CAN actually support the requirements.

Infrastructure

Note: Image taken from Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported.

In the east of Europe, you get anything from brand new and modern to totally shoddy. Not much to add here. In the west (and north), cold is more of a concern, so homes will usually have a more robust electricity supply, and you will be able to sustain higher loads without tripping the system. But then, this is mostly true for newer homes, designed to be powered by electricity only. In the homes that use central heating (water, steam) or gas boilers, the system will be stressed for much less, and you have a scenario somewhat similar to the one described for southern European countries. By and large, most houses built before 1970 will not be able to charge an EV car without having their electricity wiring renovated and improved. What's the percentage of such buildings? Not sure, but it's not negligible.

So even if we assume there's limitless supply of green energy from the country's infrastructure, which there isn't, by any measure, we are probably talking about only 50% of houses being EV-ready. This means we can halve our charging factor from 20x to 10x, but we're still left with a need for a whole order of magnitude more charging points than fuel pumps. And they will need to be distributed, because the current gas station infrastructure cannot be easily changed to suddenly accommodate 10x more vehicles, physically.

Infrastructure, more

Note: Image taken from Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic.

The distribution will bring problems, like digging cables and wires all over, setting up charging points where they used to be innocent sidewalk or grass plots, and then adding a complex payment system. Otherwise, public electricity will be free, and no one will want to use paid systems, like dedicated charging centers or their own home electricity (which costs money), and we go back to the bottleneck problem. Now, payment will be the easiest part really. The availability and the guarantee of service will be far trickier, for a million reasons, from random vandalism to faults to grid load to bad weather and so on.

And all of this needs to happen in just 12 years.

I will be amazed and pleasantly surprised if any government of this world manages this. Some level of success will be possible in smaller, richer or more sparsely populated countries, though. So, if Norway or Luxembourg manage to pull this off, it won't be a total shock. But big, over-crowded countries with shoddy, polluting grids and barely sufficient supply of electricity? Call me skeptical.

Conclusion

If we look at history, EV cars are one of the rare examples where you get a far less efficient model trying to usurp an existing one. Typically, you get like for like, or even better. Here, you have your old car, and you can refuel it in minutes and go, and now, you have this new car, and it takes ages to recharge. Such a usage model will face an incredibly difficult uphill battle, even without any other considerations.

EV cars resemble smartphones in a lot of ways. Daily charging, stupid touch interfaces. This whole approach is bad, and needs to change. Practically, it is possible to restore battery capacity in just a few short minutes, but it's not something that can be implemented in cars ferrying living humans. And I don't see any easy way by which we develop and safely implement new battery technology in cars within just a decade. Regulations, safety, testing, you name it.

This means that, price and affordability aside (and EVs aren't cheap), short of rebuilding countries from scratch, the 2035 goal will either be moved, or we will end up with total chaos. Either way, it will be fun, in a rather farcical, tragic way, just as we cynics like it.

Cheers.