The case of alternatives to net zero in the world of classic vehicles.
The electrification of classic vehicles, especially cars, is a divisive topic. The position of the Historic and Classic Vehicles Alliance (HCVA), which is dedicated to ensuring the long-term sustainability of a UK industry with an annual turnover of £18.3billion, is that if an owner of vehicle wishes to change the propulsion system of its classic car, then it is their choice. However, they must carefully consider the total environmental impact of a conversion which can often make no logical sense; actually far from it!
If we consider the carbon dioxide contained in the production of a classic car as an “unrecoverable” environmental impact, the addition of an electric powertrain and an energy storage system reincorporates new CO2 it is unlikely to be recovered due to the very limited use of classic cars. The time required to recover these additional emissions is likely to be measured in decades and, in fact, may never be reached as the battery system will likely need to be replaced before the breakeven point is reached.
Naturally, the calculation of the times to reach net zero with these solutions depends on the source – and the age – of the electrification system used. Used parts will always have less impact on the environment than new parts, and produced locally will be better than imported.
Then there is the question of security. Electrified propulsion systems operate at high energy levels that are dangerous if not handled properly. There are currently no legislative regulations for conversions of classic vehicles. If an owner wants to convert their car, they should ensure that the change is made to a set of regulations that ensure battery crash protection, electrical isolation and identification, battery management and functionality. comprehensive systems among a range of other security systems. .
Regulations exist; an example is in motorsport. Wilson was part of a small group that helped develop regulations for building and converting vehicles for British motorsport, where the safety implications go beyond the basic electrification system. Generally, these systems are heavier, mainly due to a lithium-ion battery. System weight including power electronics and electric motor will result in different and larger corner weight, and suspension system upgrades will be required. Additionally, most classic car electric propulsion systems produce more power and torque than the original internal combustion engine, so improvements to the braking system will be required.
Although conversions often consider these two elements, the structure of the chassis must also be taken into account. As the torsional rigidity of classic vehicles is lower than that of their modern counterparts, for example, the increase in torque will impact the structure of the body and chassis, and localized improvements to these elements will be required. The computer modeling that modern manufacturers can use to identify the optimal location for chassis upgrades is rarely available for the small converter. Some conversions are built with the considerations incorporated in regulations such as those in Appendix J of the Motorsport UK Yearbook and functional safety considerations.
During a recent evidence session of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport examining how government fuel policy will affect connectivity, capacity and sustainability across all modes of transport, HCVA Director Guy Lachlan was asked on the question: “Which classic vehicles could be converted?” His response was, “All; the real question is whether they should be converted. Typically they don’t do enough mileage to warrant a conversion, and that certainly can’t be justified with an environmental argument.
Historic and classic vehicles are part of our industrial heritage, and as worthy as our historic buildings are to be preserved in unmodified condition. In some cases, particularly where the body rather than the powertrain is the key feature of a car, converting to electrification may be preferable, given that it allows such a heritage product to be kept on the road rather than to scrap it or break it for parts.
The key is that the conversion must be carried out to a recognized standard or set of regulations, and there are many UK companies capable of carrying out such work. We must also remember that electrification is “a” solution and not “the” solution in the broader automotive context. Many automakers are working on electric vehicles, while they and others are actively developing hydrogen-based solutions, both as fuel and in a fuel cell. Many are also working on sustainable fuels as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. These fuels, whether biomass or fully synthetic, are the HCVA’s preferred route to achieving a net zero emissions position for the UK’s historic and classic vehicle fleet.
Garry Wilson FIET is CEO of the Historic and Classic Vehicle Alliance. He spent many years working in the wider automotive sector supporting electrification innovations and was part of the team that set up and then ran the UK Advanced Propulsion Centre.
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