Battery power – is that the best we can do?

What on earth is the point of a battery-powered motorcycle?

The Observer’s tame eco-zealot is banging on, today about battery-powered bikes. Again! Look, I know we have to get away from dependence on the petrochemical industry, but so far, nobody has come up with an alternative power source which is as affordable and easily refuelable as the internal combustion engine. And trust me, batteries sure as hell are not the answer. While we’re on the subject, I was around in the fifties, I know what was predicted, almost promised, so I have a question – where the hell is my personal jet-pack?

The problem is, for anything other than commuting electric vehicles suck. And for commuting, an electric scooter will get the job done. Bikers, though, are very different people to scooter riders – always have been, always will be.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s take it as a given that no biker worthy of the name would be seen dead on a scooter, no matter what powers it. I’ve been tempted, the twist-and-go simplicity appealed, as I became increasingly disabled, but I never succumbed. I did, though, buy a Russian Dnepr combination, and stashed my manual wheelchair in the sidecar. That was cool, until my leg muscles finally called time (no electric start).

The whole point of a bike is liberty – the freedom to go where you will, when you want to, and to go as far as you want to. I often used to pop over to the Yorkshire Dales – from Liverpool – on a Sunday but, hey, petrol was affordable then!

Not on the motorway – way too boring on a bike, unless you just want to pack away the miles – I’d head out up the A59, hitting the edge of the Dales just northwest of Skipton. Then up Wharfedale, over the top at Oughtershaw, then down a staggeringly steep road to Gayle, and thence into Hawes – a tad under 100 miles. Lunch and a few pints at the Crown, and home again, via Sedbergh, and the M6.

But imagine trying to do something like that on an electric bike – I’d have to turn back before reaching Preston (37 miles).

A biker, obviously then, might get the urge to ride several hundred miles out into the country just for the hell of it; for no other reason than the sheer joy of being on the bike. You can’t do that with an electric bike. You simply can’t. It’ll leave you stranded because – and this is where all purely electric vehicles fail – you can’t refuel the buggers en route. And that’s before we even get to the horrendous cost of battery replacement.

And bikes under discussion (ha! discussion my backside – that would imply an even-handed approach to the subject), also have regenerative braking systems (actually, they probably don’t – they have regenerative deceleration systems). On what would be the over-run on a petrol-powered machine, the motor, with a little electronic juggling, briefly becomes a generator.

Regenerative “braking” has been around for decades, particularly on mobility scooters –  the technology is far from new. The power this puts back into batteries, however, is negligible compared to what the electric motor(s) suck out. The difference it makes to the range of the machine is minimal. If you depend on such a system to usefully extend your range, you’ll wind up pushing the bike.

Battery power, for all practical purposes, should be regarded as a total-loss system.

Then we have the problem of assessing the range of an electric vehicle. This is never done under real-world conditions for mobility vehicles – stick it on a rolling road, or a flat indoor track, run it til the batteries die – that’s the range. No hills, no wind, no frost (to suck power out of the batteries), no stopping and starting – nothing that will screw up the figures.

In the real world, I reckon to get, at best, 75% of any claimed range, if I’m really, really lucky –  often a lot less depending on the route and the weather – and my experience over the last 18 years has done nothing to change that view (except for my poxy Pride Quantum 6000 powerchair – blog, passim – which was in the red at 7 miles!).

The future of personal motorised transport – whatever it turns out to be – is not going to be battery power for anything other than relatively short-distances, simply because, to be viable, a vehicle has to have an effectively unlimited range. Or, put another way, it has to be capable of doing whatever its owner demands of it, whether that’s popping down to the corner shop or tackling a trans-European journey (something quite a lot of bikers do), and that demands that it is capable of being easily refuelled pretty much anywhere, at any time, and affordably.

That totally rules out battery power. And no, swap-out battery-exchange stations, which have been suggested, would never work, because, even now, there are too many different styles and types of battery in use. And, in many cases, the batteries can’t be changed without full workshop facilities, and they’re pretty much built into the vehicle, especially cars.

Filling stations are universal because the equipment is of a universal standard – you can top up with equal facility pretty much anywhere in the developed world. With rather more hassle, you actually can top up almost anywhere.

Let’s see you do that with batteries.

Given the current state of battery technology – if any country had a half-decent space programme, you’d see battery technology progress faster – you’d be better off buying a Stanley Steamer, from almost every point of view. Fuel to power the boiler (with the vaporised petrol burner), and water to refill it, can be had from any filling station.

Actually, you wouldn’t be much better off, you’d still be burning fuel. Would consumption be as high as with an i-c engine, though?

However, in Harry Harrison’s novel “A transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!” he has a nuclear-powered steam train. Not really much of a stretch, as all a nuclear power plant is, is a glorified boiler, providing steam to power turbines. Scale it down, and you have a steam-generator to power a train. Or maybe a car. OK, not a car – way too heavy – but what about trucks and trains? Seriously.

Futuristic? No. Impossible? No. Dangerous? Er, yep… But not insurmountably so, I don’t think. So is anyone looking at baby nuclear plants to provide vehicular power? If they are, they’re keeping quiet  about it.

Ditto the hydrogen fuel cell – that never gets any closer to a real-world application at a sensible price either.

Really, if the best we can do, in the interests of the future of this planet, is battery power, we’re seriously screwed.