Professor Friedrich Indra is one of the most vocal critics of electric mobility. He started his career at Alpina and Audi before moving to General Motors in Detroit, where he eventually took over responsibility for advanced engineering in powertrain operations. He retired in 2005 but continues to work as a scholar and an advisor to the automotive industry.
We asked him for a take on the current discussion surrounding the move to electric vehicles, which has taken a sharper tone since Volkswagen Group CEO Matthias Müller recently called for fewer government subsidies for diesels and more for EVs. In Indra’s view, not only are EVs more expensive than and inferior to conventional cars, they also do not solve environmental problems.
Car and Driver: Professor Indra, at last year’s Vienna Motor Symposium you asked VW CEO Matthias Müller how he would manage to sell two to three million electric cars per year from 2025 and make money at the same time.
Friedrich Indra [laughs]: I remember that well. He had flown in from the auto show in Shanghai and said, in so many words, “There are so many young people who will buy them all.” And that was the end of the announcement. How can Mr. Müller say something like that? Maybe he did so because he has already has written off the German market. In 2020, after 10 years of campaigning, instead of the expected one million, [Germany] will not even have 100,000 electric cars on the road.
C/D: Surely China will drive the switch to e-mobility.
FI: I would not be so sure about that. China is starting to view the topic more rationally, because it is dawning on the politicians that they cannot solve their environmental problems with electric cars. Due to the large number of caloric power plants which generate dirty electricity, electric cars contribute nothing to improving the climate. Of course, China has economic interests as well.
The Chinese have secured extensive mining rights in Africa. In Congo, for example, cobalt is mined under the most brutal conditions. And carmakers need graphite, manganese, and lithium. With all of these raw materials, we are highly dependent on the Chinese, we have to buy a lot from them. We are talking huge amounts of raw materials. For example, with cobalt, the fairly small battery of a BMW i3 already contains about 25 pounds of cobalt. The whole affair is an indirect economic war, because for the millions of cars that are proposed by Mr. Müller and others, we will have to get the cells from China, as we do today, and pay a lot of money for them.
C/D: Won’t batteries improve in terms of energy density and production costs?
FI: If you want to build as many cars as VW and others announce, you will not get very far with lithium-ion batteries due to the scarcity of raw materials. Other battery technologies are being researched, but it is unthinkable that they will be ready for [large-scale] production anytime soon.
The battery pack from GM’s Chevrolet Bolt EV.
C/D: Aren’t electric cars—just by merit of their character—becoming more and more attractive?
FI: I don’t think so, and it seems almost impossible to sell them to private individuals in Europe. Without subsidies, the sales figures seen in places such as Denmark and Norway will tank. About 85 percent of them go to authorities, to fleets, and to municipalities that buy those cars because of subsidies. Of course you can [use subsidies to] promote a new technology at the beginning, but if there is no chance that it eventually becomes an independently successful business model, then the subsidies must end.
C/D: There is a lot of chatter that says the market is close to a breakthrough.
FI: We’ve been told this for a long time. But the basic question remains: Why should a customer buy a product that is significantly more expensive but can do much less than what he already has? Only when a new product can do two or three important things better can you convince customers to switch. But this scenario doesn’t fit the electric car, because with its “electrochemical factory,” you can never reach the range, efficiency, and safety of a combustion engine powered by fossil fuel. Conventional engine technology is by far the most economical and safest technology for the transportation of goods and people and, overall, also the best for the environment. When it comes to value, customers are quite pragmatic, and you will not be able force them to buy electric cars, because they are so much worse than what they currently own.
C/D: What do you mean by that?
FI: The combustion engine provides instant mobility, day and night, summer and winter. Customers can use their car to tow a trailer, pack a surfboard, or drive 300 or 600 miles at once if, for example, there is a family emergency. And they do not want to give up this unrestricted freedom. In addition, the combustion engine is affordable. It is not worthless after eight years, like an electric car. Present and future cars with internal-combustion engines, together with new and synthetic fuels, will continue to beat back all alternatives. And of course that also applies to trucks and buses. The exceptions are some fleet vehicles—say, for urban transport with central charging options. By the way, anyone who thinks he can travel cheaper with an electric car than with a gas burner is wrong. Higher electricity taxes for households that draw a lot of electricity are already on the way, and public charging stations aren’t cheap.
C/D: You mentioned safety as a problem with electric cars.
FI: Safety is a serious problem. When an electric car burns, you need heavy-duty respirators. And once the main battery catches fire and the chemical process is up and running, it’s virtually unstoppable. You have to fight the fire for up to 48 hours, pour tons of sand over it, or just flood the car. Tesla, for example, speaks of 3000 gallons of water. Extremely hot metal pieces could fly out of the battery. EV manufacturers have also recommended that vehicles damaged by accidents should not be parked in garages, but only outdoors. I am afraid we have bad things coming here.
C/D: You also mentioned that the environmental performance of electric cars isn’t convincing.
FI: In a holistic view—and that’s the only one that counts—the electric car provides no contribution to improving the climate. It starts out with a huge mortgage, because you need a lot of electricity just for the production of batteries. The power required to run these cars is rarely generated in a clean way, and at the end of the life cycle, the expensive raw materials cannot reasonably be recycled. Moreover, faster charging will present massive infrastructure problems because you need to lay thicker power cables everywhere, at huge expense. The overall environmental balance of electromobility does not look bright.
C/D: But carmakers face a practical problem. For certification purposes, the CO2 emissions are stipulated to be zero. How do you propose they comply with CO2 regulations?
FI: Certainly not with electric cars, because the numbers in service will remain very low anyway. If they invested the money in further improved combustion engines and their partial electrification, in natural-gas cars and alternative fuels, they will come closer to the goals. Incidentally, the Chinese are also making major strides in synthetic fuels. This approach brings about quick results, and you do not need a new infrastructure. I also view these fuels as the best solution in the long term.
The charging port on a 2018 Mercedes-Benz E350e plug-in hybrid.
C/D: In the meantime, what is the role for the plug-in hybrid?
FI: At some point, everyone might realize that the plug-in hybrid is a scam, if only because most users do not even plug in their cars. The fact that these cars are counted as electric cars in the statistics is a joke but helps to make the embarrassingly low sales of electric cars look a little less pitiful. By contrast, it makes sense to use partial electrification with starter/generator systems that deliver 12 to 15 kilowatts. At 20 percent of the cost, you get 80 percent of the benefits of a full hybrid.
C/D: Does diesel still have a role, a right to exist?
FI: The diesel has every right to exist. With modern exhaust aftertreatment and urea injection, it is a clean technology. It is powerful and still extremely efficient.
C/D: Then why do you think do executives endorse e-mobility so strongly?
FI: I suspect that they have to make those statements to keep the workers’ councils and supervisory boards happy and to justify their billion-dollar investments. And in the case of VW, Mr. Müller might just want to distract politicians and media from the diesel scandal. Whether all of this this will help him to sell many EVs remains doubtful.
C/D: Taking a somewhat cynical point of view, why should executives care what kind of product their company sells, if that’s what society demands?
FI: To opt for e-mobility is a risky strategy, not only because financial success is unimaginable. And I can tell you what happens if internal-combustion engines are really banned at a future point in time, say in 2030. Then the people will rush to buy a conventional car the year before and keep driving it for 10 or 20 years. It would disrupt the typical six-to-seven-year cycle of new acquisitions, and we would plunge into a vast economic crisis. Then I would like to see the politicians responsible for this. But I can assure you: It will not happen. The mood is already tipping, not least because there are more and more well-reasoned, critical voices out there. The weak points of EVs are becoming more obvious. And the raw-material shortage for the production of today’s batteries is just one of them.