Why Electric Cars Can’t Charge Themselves

The electric vehicle is truly a wonderful development in automotive technology. Capable of traveling, in some cases, up to 300 miles per hour on a single charge and reducing your carbon emissions while they do it, electric cars are not only the present but the future of transport. 

But if electric cars are so amazing, we hear you ask, why can’t they charge themselves? 

It’s a simple question - and a good one - with quite a complicated answer. In order to fully understand why EV technology isn’t currently at the level of self-charging electric cars, the development of self-charging technology needs to be examined from both a scientific and political perspective. So, buckle up and get ready to learn exactly why it is that electric cars can’t charge themselves!

Why Electric Cars Can’t Charge Themselves

Self-Charging Potential 

One thing to make clear as we get into this article is that asking why electric cars can’t charge themselves isn’t just wishful thinking! Some electric cars actually feature an existing energy-generation function called regenerative braking that demonstrates the potential for electric vehicles to self-charge. 

Regenerative braking is a very clever process whereby pressing on the brake of an electric vehicle enables the car battery to store kinetic energy from the wheels. The kinetic energy is conducted from the wheels of the car through the drivetrain and a certain percentage of it is stored in the car’s battery. 

Now, of course, this energy storage happens on a relatively small level and isn’t nearly enough to charge an electric car for a significant amount of time, but innovators have already suggested the possibility of building on this regenerative braking function to make EV self-charging possible.

Ideas in this area include, amongst other things, attaching generators and alternators to the wheels of electric cars. 

But potential theories for how electric cars might, someday, be able to charge themselves don’t stop there. Another popular suggestion for EV self-charging involves the use of solar panels.

Proponents of this idea suggest that solar panels could be built into the exterior of an electric car. The general idea is that the solar energy accumulated by the car’s panels could then be converted into an electric charge to power the battery. 

Finally, some scientists have even proposed incorporating wind turbine technology into electric car construction as a method of generating electricity for self-charging.

This would most likely (according to current scientific possibilities) involve using the wind produced by the turbine to physically power a generator, which is where the conversion of energy to electricity would take place. 

So, you might be wondering, if we have all these ideas surrounding the self-charging potential of electric cars, why haven’t any of them been put into practice yet? We’re glad you asked. The answer comprises 2 key facets of societal and technological progress: science and politics. 

The Science 

Unfortunately, as we stand in terms of scientific capability, none of the above options for electric vehicle self-charging are currently viable. 

This does not mean that they could never work in the future - on the contrary, new developments in technology are happening every day, so it’s very likely that a scientific breakthrough allowing one of the above self-charging methods will happen in time.

However, presently, the technology just isn’t quite there yet. 

For instance, the concept of using regenerative braking on a larger scale to enable EV self-charging is imperfect due to the fact that it simply isn’t energy-efficient enough to provide a reliable charging system.

As we mentioned earlier, only a percentage of the kinetic energy from the car’s wheels ends up being stored in the battery. The amount of energy transfer, even when wheel generators and alternators are involved, isn’t enough to completely charge an electric car’s battery with any kind of efficiency.

It might, however, keep you coasting for a little longer if you unexpectedly run out of charge on the road, which is a good start. 

When it comes to solar power, that idea has actually already been tested in the Netherlands with the development of the Lightyear One electric car: an incredible feat of solar and automotive engineering that allows for 12 km of drive time per hour of solar charging.

As amazing and encouraging as this development is, the reality is that 12 km (just over 7 miles) of charge per hour simply isn’t anywhere near enough for the majority of drivers’ needs.

For context, when driving at the average highway speed of 55 mph, 12 km would translate to roughly an 8-minute drive. Until methods of collecting more energy through solar technology are developed, solar self-charging for electric vehicles isn’t an efficient enough option for most drivers. 

The idea of attaching a wind turbine to an electric car, while certainly intriguing, is also fundamentally flawed. This is largely due to the principles of aerodynamics: specifically, the principle of aerodynamic drag, which dictates that the airspeed of a vehicle is directly tied to its drag coefficient.

An object’s drag coefficient indicates the efficiency with which it travels through a fluid such as air or water and is impacted by factors such as form drag and skin friction. Form drag refers to the extent to which an object’s shape makes it resistant to travel through fluids.

Adding a large structure such as a wind turbine to the construction of an electric car would significantly impact the form drag of the vehicle, thus affecting the drag coefficient.

This means that the vehicle would require more power just to gain momentum in the first place, which means that more wind (and, consequently, electricity) would need to be generated.

Currently, the only solution to this problem would be to add more wind turbines, which obviously just creates a further problem in this case. 

So, as you can see, the primary obstacle to self-charging electric cars is the current limitations on energy-generating technology.

However, this isn’t simply a problem of insufficient knowledge or research - far from it! The real underlying issue behind the slow progress in EV self-charging is of a more political nature. 

The Politics

Another fundamental obstacle to electric vehicle self-charging besides the scientific practicality is political and governmental support. 

In order for any major technological breakthrough to be developed, trialed, and incorporated into the daily lives of millions, if not billions of people, government support (in the sense of endorsement and financial facilitation) is required. 

As it stands, there is not sufficient government support for the electric vehicle industry to allow faster progress in the self-charging aspect. Just earlier in the year, the U.S. government decided not to renew sustainable transport giant Tesla’s tax credits.

This removal of a significant sales incentive for electric vehicles is, many experts believe, a step in the wrong direction since there is a risk that this move will result in a decrease in electric vehicle sales at a crucial point in time for both society and the climate.

There are also fears that the same fate may befall other leading EV manufacturers such as Nissan and Ford as they reach the sales threshold for government tax credit. 

The unfortunate reality of the current situation is that governments are still reluctant to provide more infrastructural and economic support for EV development for several reasons.

These reasons include scientific studies suggesting that electric vehicle tire and brake emissions may cause harm to the environment, as well as logistical conundrums surrounding how to incorporate EV self-charging technology into national and global infrastructure.

This ultimately needs to change if significant breakthroughs are going to be made in terms of self-charging technology for electric vehicles. 

Final Thoughts  

In summary, the answer to the question of why electric cars can’t charge themselves can be boiled down to ‘science and politics’. 

We do have the basis of scientific knowledge and tools required to make serious progress in EV self-charging.

Many of our existing power-generating technologies, including generators, solar panels, and wind turbines, have already been considered for use in self-charging electric vehicle models, with solar-powered electric cars already being a reality in some parts of the world. 

Although none of these technologies currently allow for the development of fully self-charging electric vehicles that can store and convert energy with the efficiency of electric charging, there is great potential for the modification or improvement of these methods in the future. 

However, in order for these developments to take place at a faster rate, governments all over the world will need to extend further political, economic, and infrastructural support to the EV industry.

This will involve making a great many changes to how we sell, buy, and drive electric vehicles in the near future and will take a lot of planning, restructuring, and rethinking. 

Ultimately, as technology advances through the years, we are likely to see future electric vehicle models that can, in fact, charge themselves.

This technological advancement, however, will need to be accompanied (or put into motion) by governmental support in order to translate into the reality of fully self-charging electric cars. 

Michael Schuck
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