New Cars, New Fuels
By Christoph Watterott, Underwriting Manager Property Switzerland / Italy
Even though smart-city development will make mass transit, shared mobility, and bicycle networks more efficient and convenient than ever, plenty of commuters will still find it easier to drive to work. So, we have to make private cars more ecofriendly, if we want to solve our pollution problems.
The EU will set more stringent transport emission targets for 2015. That’s also when the UN expects to raise global emission standards.
The automotive industry is already working hard to get there ahead of legislation. After two decades of experiments, the new generation of electric/hybrid cars is making a giant eco-leap.
Today’s lithium car batteries deliver power and speed comparable to standard combustion engines. Huge bonus: they can also be charged using standard, household electrical outlets. We can drive our electric cars, and charge the batteries overnight in our garages. This is crucial, because until speed-charging plugs are standardized, governments won’t waste money installing charging stations en masse.
Designed to last about 10 years, lithium batteries now also partially recharge themselves en route. When the driver’s foot leaves the accelerator, the battery captures kinetic energy from the wheels to recharge. In the next five years, we should also see electric city buses, without cable lines, which use the same idling recharging technology.
This idling recharge also improves safety, since the cars slow down and stop with no effort. But what happens if automatic braking malfunctions? Drivers may become so accustomed to automatic braking that they panic and hit the accelerator instead of the brake, causing an accident.
E-cars drive up to 426km on a single charge. Hybrid cars add a diesel tank. They convert diesel to electricity to double the driving range. Standard e-cars are carbon neutral—zero emissions. Hybrid passenger cars still emit only 13 to 30kg/km, compared to the EU standard of 130kg/km. Of course, until the power grid is fossil-fuel free, charging our cars still causes indirect emissions.
Are Electric Cars Tougher?
It may be surprising that puny-looking electric cars have proven safer in crashes. The US government awarded the Tesla Model S the best safety rating of any car currently on the market. When their machine pressed down on the roof of it with four times the force of gravity, guess what broke? The car roof? Nope, according to the manufacturer, it was the testing machine. Also, in models like the Tesla Model S, the electric motor and battery are in the back, the trunk in the front. This creates a protective crumple zone. The batteries also sit low and make up one-third of the total car weight. E-cars are nearly impossible to roll over.
Electric cars have fewer moving parts, so potential malfunctions are fewer. Fewer parts also mean fewer fires, since most car fires are caused by mechanical failure. Fire risks are further reduced, because there is no spark or gasoline.
Of course, the lithium battery has earned a reputation for explosion risk. But by now carmakers have devised battery casings which are virtually impenetrable in a crash. Still, risk engineers and insurers will need to examine test records before assigning risk scores and pricing capacity for carmakers and battery producers.
The e-car’s virtually silent drive is a double-edged sword. It would seem like a new urban dream—the noiseless vehicle. But an inattentive e-car driver could be a menace to pedestrians and cyclists who have no warning of his approach.
Radar in some cars already alerts drivers to cyclists—why not to pedestrians, too? This silent danger might be partially removed, once our infrastructure communicates with cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. The infrastructure could also warn pedestrians of approaching vehicles. Still, should technology fail, accidents can occur. Until the driving, cycling, and pedestrian cultures become accustomed to these sneak approaches, accidents are likely to be more frequent. The question of liability arises again: who will be blamed?
Legislators should consider this carefully. Carmakers, too. Some electric cars carry deliberate noisemakers—like whistles—to warn of their approach. Perhaps whistles will be sufficient, perhaps not. Auxiliary training courses may be necessary to make e-car drivers safer. Before electric cars become the ubiquitous standard, insurers may insist on special driver training for electric cars, or demand higher premiums for drivers without it.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
The hydrogen fuel-cell car is another alternative. Several are on the market, and the EU plans to include hydrogen fueling as part of its renewable station network. That’s because hydrogen packs more energy into a smaller space. This makes it a high-power, long-distance alternative, especially suited to trucks and other high-mass vehicles.
These haven’t quite taken off as passenger cars, however. The cost of fueling the cell with hydrogen is at least as high as for gasoline. Although emissions are 25% lower than in hybrid cars, hydrogen is also usually extracted from natural gas, a fossil fuel. Finally, fuel efficiency is only 25%, compared to lithium batteries at 80-90%.
Heat is another factor. Fuel cells run at very high temperatures, and hydrogen itself is highly combustible. However, car manufacturers have installed casings, sensors, and other safeguards. The fire risk is actually lower than it is for traditional combustion engines. Still, firefighters and emergency response teams should be trained to handle these hydrogen fires.
Risk engineers and insurers will also need access to test records and physical specimens to establish the probability and potential magnitude of fuel-cell fires. Capacity pricing will need to balance the potentially large scale of a hydrogen fire with the measures taken to prevent it.
Vigilance in Transition
As electric, hybrid, and fuel-cell cars become more common, carmakers, suppliers, brokers, and insurers will have to monitor legislation and check contracts carefully. Otherwise they could find themselves operating in gray areas, or unknowingly subject to defaults which cause surprise liabilities.
Car manufacturers and suppliers are rolling out innovations rapidly. They will need to work closely, first, with risk engineers, to help them understand these technologies, so that risks can be analyzed and quantified. Then they will need to work with insurers, to be sure that risk exposure is covered with sufficient capacity. Should one of these innovations backfire, in addition to property and liability insurance, product recall insurance and expert crisis management will be crucial.
Clean and Safe
These amazing eco-breakthroughs are converging with equally astonishing automation and IT. Cars are becoming easier than ever to drive and park. They will communicate with city command centers and other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians for urban traffic efficiency. Finally, they will be carbon-neutral.
E-cars will be a major feature of smart-city mobility, answering the demands of society while satisfying the desires of commuters.
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