Electric cars roadmap: where are we with electric cars and what have they got to do with digital cameras? YW explores the explosion in camera development over the last ten years, and wonders if electric cars will follow the same pattern.

Digital camera and electric car timeline

Digital camera and electric car timeline

Think back a bit to the emergence of digital cameras. The date is 1999, Nikon cameras launches the first mainstream professional digital camera, the D1. That’s not to say that there weren’t digital cameras before. Most notably, Kodak had a range of pro digital SLRs (Single Lens Reflex), Canon too, but they were never truly mainstream and cost a fortune. At that time, if you asked most photographers whether they were “going digital”, they’d say the cameras weren’t good enough, and maybe never would be. After all, how could you match the amazing image quality of a 5×4 inch studio camera?

Move on ten years to 2009, and it’s hard to find a photographer not using digital cameras. AND they trump film in just about every respect. So are we in “1999” with electric cars? Will they be the norm rather than the eccentric? The mundane instead of the unusual ? Come 2019 will the infrastructure have changed sufficiently to accommodate the potential explosion in electric car use?


battery timeline

battery timeline

Various all-electric supercars are in the pre-launch stage, such as the Lightning GT, Shelby Ultimate Aero EV, E-Wolf and the traditional makers are spawning prototypes, such as the Audi e-tron, at an increasing rate. These are all overpriced monsters and even city cars such as Think and electric Smart cost somewhat more than we are used to paying for a small car. Starting with supercars was a good tactic to get electric cars accepted as desirable transport with the skeptical public, but at the cost of mainstream development. The stage has been set for the arrival of mid size family cars, such as the Tesla S. However, all these EVs (Electric Vehicles) are the equivalent of the 1999 digital camera, with some of the drawbacks of the time such as insufficiently large memory cards, power-sapping circuitry and small pixelated screens. Now Nissan-Renault have unveiled their Leaf and Zoe/Fluence/Kangoo all-electric, 100 mile range cars, at a price point that could launch them into the mainstream, just as the D1 did for Nikon cameras. And there are plenty of other manufacturers gearing up for similar projects; GM have their Volt and European Ampera well underway. They will struggle to be more than the equivalent of the Nikon D1x, a camera that was a definite improvement over the D1, but stuck in the same body.

This is fascinating stuff, and it’s great to watch the unfolding development of this market. BUT, if the analogy holds, there’s some angst for the manufacturers. The number of camera makers plummeted as the costs of development sunk the smaller peripheral camera companies. Just 2 mainstream DSLR manufacturers survived intact, with others being swallowed up by predatory electronics groups, keen to get on the digital bandwagon. Follow the analogy further, and the market could propel an upstart with big backing such as Tesla with it’s $500 million dollar Obama government loan to crush the traditional makes that are dragging their heels. Medium format digital imaging group PhaseOne’s success left several other longtime camera manufacturers, such as Bronica, Rollei, Pentax, struggling or dead in the water.

Electric Smart - contender for popularising the genre

Electric Smart - contender for popularising the genre

Maybe Tesla’s Roadster is approaching the equivalent of Nikon’s D2x. A successful camera that had good battery life. A revelation after the complexities of keeping several battery packs charged for equivalent use with the D1/D1x. It was the replacement of Nickel Hydride (Ni-MH) batteries with lithium ion (Li-ion) cells that made the big leap in performance, together with more efficient electronics and processing. Li-ion batteries are already the de facto powerpack for current EVs but there are several new battery technologies waiting in the wings ( for example Lithium-Titanate, Nickel-Lithium, Lithium-Air) to give us this same leap in performance for our future electric cars: bring them on fast! The Nikon D3 was another huge technical leap, and we haven’t seen anything in electric car terms to match it, let alone the current D3x. There’s a long way to go to reach the everyday practicality of today’s digital cameras. EVs are at best stuck in 2001, and the infrastructure barely creeping into 1997!

If you think we left out hybrid cars, well that was deliberate: they surely cannot be more than a stop gap stage to conquer the inherent lack of range we are currently stuck with. Electric cars’ success relies on efficiency; carting around the weight of an alternative power-plant doesn’t make logical sense. If fuel cell cars can be made to work as production items, then fair enough, as they integrate with electric propulsion. Hybrids that just use small efficient engines to recharge the batteries, like Fisker’s Karma, or BMW’s Vision concept chassis are a step closer, but still a compromise in our opinion. Imagine a digital camera, with a video camera bolted on to it: it would be a nonsense. Today’s cameras share all the components to offer video as well as still images, with just a switch to swop modes. Hybrids also smack of medium format camera manufacturere’ hesitancy to embrace digital photography completely, by keeping the ability to attach film backs. The only real attempt to produce a medium format camera from scratch is Leica’s new S2, although Mamiya had an attempt with the ZD.

So where will we be in 2019? Battery technology will need to have matured to give us 500+ mile range. The infrastructure would have to be in place to recharge/fast-swop battery packs countrywide, so that charging away from home would be easy. This would quell “range anxiety” the problem that stops current owners using the full potential of their cars. Prices need to have dropped to the equivalent of a petrol/diesel car. There should be a worldwide standard plug; we don’t want another Blueray vs HD DVD war….but it’s not looking good. Fortunately for digital camera users; they just had to buy computers, and the infrastructure (the internet!) was built concurrently.

Problem: the analogy doesn’t hold water! Look up the history of the motor car, and you’ll find electric cars dating back over 100 years and no equivalent in camera technology. Well, the theory was good, the timeline might be quite similar and it still makes an interesting comparison. Bring on electric cars as good as today’s digital cameras, and all those who said it will never happen, will be eating their hats!

Most anticipated electric car, the Audi E-Tron

Most anticipated electric car, the Audi E-Tron

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