The automotive sector both in the UK and abroad is investing heavily in these technologies.
The UK has declared that the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles will be prohibited after 2040. After that time new vehicles must be powered by alternative fuels. The number of alternative fuelled vehicles (AFVs) on the roads of the UK has increased substantially over recent years, now making up nearly 6% of the market according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Hybrid petrol electric vehicles are the most popular AFVs, followed by plug-in hybrid electric and then plug-in pure electric. All these categories of electric vehicle use batteries to store electricity.
Although currently not widely available, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are becoming increasingly important. Hydrogen is used to power an electric motor, and these are therefore also electric vehicles. Hydrogen from the fuel tank reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce electricity, and the only byproducts are water and heat. Batteries are commonly used as an energy storage device.
Neither plug-in pure electric nor hydrogen fuel cell vehicles produce any tailpipe pollution, and both are known as ultra low emission vehicles. Despite the fact that pollution results from both the production of the electricity that powers plug-in pure electric vehicles and from the production of hydrogen, both produce significantly less harmful emissions than conventional petrol and diesel vehicles.
Whereas the charging time for plug-in electric vehicles is at least 30 minutes and can be considerably longer, refuelling of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is similar to that of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles, and takes about 5 minutes. However the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is currently the greatest constraint in the UK, with insufficient refuelling points to cover the country. The number of charging points for plug-in electric vehicles is growing, but many homes in the UK do not have off-street parking, and so recharging at home is likely to be impractical for many people.
And an increase in the numbers of plug-in electric vehicles is expected to place a strain on electricity generation in the UK. Peak power demand is the main concern, particularly if owners charge their vehicles at similar times of day.
Another current issue for plug-in pure electric vehicles is range. In real-world driving the range of many current models is little more than 100 miles. However some manufacturers claim 300 miles for their vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have a range of 200 – 300 miles.
Driverless, or autonomous vehicles, will potentially eliminate human error and so reduce road traffic accidents. It is also claimed they will reduce congestion and pollution.
Sensors and software combine to control, navigate, and drive the vehicle. But truly autonomous vehicles are a long way off on UK roads, and will be seen only after millions of miles of testing. There are many hurdles to overcome. The software has to be able deal with an almost infinite number of highly complex situations that will arise from the humans who will interact, such as pedestrians and cyclists. In March 2018 a pedestrian in Arizona was hit and killed by a driverless car in what was the first reported fatality involving a driverless car and a pedestrian. Insurance and accident liability issues also have to be resolved, and consumer resistance overcome.
The UK ranks highly in its preparedness for autonomous vehicles, scoring highly in technology & innovation and policy & legislation but less well in infrastructure.
Recent years have witnessed considerable progress in the development of both alternative fuelled vehicles and autonomous vehicles but there is still a long way to go, and the coming years will be exciting for those working in the automotive industry. Talented men and women across a variety of disciplines will be in high demand.