Electric cars are considered carbon-free. Although, strictly speaking, this is not correct, since their production requires a substantial amount of CO2, we may nevertheless consider them a more carbon-friendly alternative to the classical motor vehicle.
One of the key issues with electricity-driven vehicles is their competitiveness with regard to conventional cars. And here the prospects are not too shiny, at least for the time being. Clearly, there is room, plenty indeed, for development. The Achilles´ heel of the electric car is its battery which is heavy, takes a lot of space in the trunk and enables the driver to go about 150 km before recharging again. The latter process takes several hours, but may be speeded up to something like 20 minutes or so. Comparing this to the respective data for a classical vehicle is no incentive for excessive optimism. A gasoline or diesel driven car may go easily up to 1000 km without refuelling, and stopping at the gas station would normally take not more than 5 minutes.
Obviously, with these performance data the electric vehicle is no serious competitor to the conventional one. How to overcome these difficulties? Apparently, everything depends on the battery, its weight, its capacity and the time needed to recharge it. One may, however, question if it ever will be possible to go 1000 km before approaching the next plug? Surely, nobody knows what will be the state-of-the-art in 10 or 20 years from now. Or has anybody thought about the performance of an iPhone ten years ago? So there is indeed room for surprises, but also for disappointments. An example for the latter is the continuous research effort on nuclear fusion which, although ambitiously driven for several decades, has not led to any viable economic output so far.
One possibility to get rid of the drawbacks of excessive battery weights is changing the supply mode altogether. Instead of carrying a heavy battery on board one might think of electrifying the road network. Via a special transmission mechanism the cars could get their power directly from a built-in electricity grid. For the time being it seems, however, exaggerated to electrify the entire road network. But what about having only the motorways with a built-in recharging facility?
In Europe, more than 85% of the population live within less than 50 km from a motorway. Thus, drivers would need the battery just for getting to the next motorway and then could connect to a specially designed supply system. This, in turn, could reduce the size (and weight) of vehicle batteries, thereby leaving more space for transporting items or people.
But what about costs? Implementing such a system would essentially mean rebuilding the entire motorway grid. And building motorways is expensive. A (very) conservative estimate says that each km would cost a minimum of 6 M€. Thus, electrifying the complete motorway infrastructure in Europe with a total length of 65 000 km would, according to our approach, amount to some 390 billion €. The real costs, however, might be significantly higher. In addition, due to its higher complexity, the new motorway network would certainly require higher maintenance costs, putting additional burden on public finances. In 2000 the World Bank estimated the average maintenance costs for paved roads to be somewhere between 20 000 and 200 000 USD per km. This figure is bound to rise for an electrified roadwork.
Is it worth the effort or might it be more sensible to use biofuels or fuel cells instead?