As we go forward to the future, we must rethink cars and energy

Features editor

The amazing prescience and hidden subtext of the Back to the Future films are often overlooked, but time travel aside, the way electric cars will change our lives needs attention.

Regular readers will know that I’m never happier than when I’m being nerdy. 

With that in mind, let’s talk about Back to the Future.

The classic science-fiction comedy trilogy has been in the news recently because of two anniversaries. The original film is now 30 years old, and recently we passed the date that its diminutive and (let’s face it) slightly annoying hero, Marty McFly, travelled to in the second film in the series when he had to journey into his own future because, as Doc Brown, the inventor of the series’ time-travelling DeLorean, put it, “Something’s got to be done about your kids.” This means that the entire trilogy is now set in the past, but that’s not my point.

Although there has been much scrutiny of which of the second film’s predictions about 2015 were correct and which were wrong, it’s my contention that this misses an important point; which is that it’s the 1985 original which is in fact a stunningly prescient prediction of an issue that is of huge relevance to today. Please stick with me on this.

You may remember that when Doc first reveals the DeLorean to a disbelieving Marty, our hero asks if they’ll need gas. “No,” Doc replies. “This baby’s electric.” In fact it’s nuclear-powered, using fission in the first film (derived from stolen plutonium, from which springs the rest of the plot) and fusion in the subsequent films (using a handy device called Mr Fusion, which breaks down household refuse to make its fuel: a near-neighbour of Engineer Towers, the science fiction and comics shop Forbidden Planet, recently had a replica of the Mr Fusion unit in its window. Reader, I was sorely tempted). While the crucial time-travelling component, the flux capacitor, uses electricity to fling the machine through the time-stream, context throughout the film clearly implies that the drive-train is also electric, because the DeLorean can’t move at all until Doc diverts the predetermined lightning strike from the Hill Valley clock tower into the engine at the end of the 1955 section. Apologies if those are spoilers, but the film has been out for 30 years.

It could be that all time-travel is electric. The Tardis runs on Artron energy derived from a black hole, but we don’t know what it uses it for (or indeed what it is, but that’s another matter).

So there you go. It’s my contention that Back to the Future is in fact a fable about electric vehicles, range anxiety and the inability of the grid to cope with either. This remains an important subtext of the sequels, since the presence of the Mr Fusion device reveals that even in the posited 2015, transport has been forced to become decoupled from the grid and users must generate their own power from their household rubbish and food scraps.

The fusion-powered iteration of Doc Brown’s time-travelling DeLorean. Possibly the most famous electric vehicle ever; if only they’d sorted the grid out

Considering Back to the Future was made in 1985, and the first electric vehicle to make waves in the real world wasn’t on the market until 1997, I think we can agree that the prescience of the film’s creators was amazing. Of course they weren’t entirely accurate; the Toyota Prius didn’t need 1.21GW of power and might have struggled to reach 88mph in 1997 (so would a DeLorean), although the latter is not a problem for today’s EVs. But these are mere details.

I’ve been writing a lot about electric vehicles over the past couple of weeks — you’ll be able to read my upcoming feature on innovations in the electric drive train, what they mean for the capabilities of electric vehicles and how they might change the way drivers experience and use them, in our November issue next week. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that time-travel is not one of them, but the automotive sector doesn’t have the engineering skills of Dr Emmett Brown to draw on, because he isn’t real (although of course he is an engineer, even if not an entirely flattering portrayal of one. Not the worst, though: readers, I give you aerospace engineer and roboticist Anakin Skywalker, later known as Darth Vader).

What’s becoming increasingly clear to me as I write about electric vehicles is that we need to change how we think about the automotive industry. Up to now, it’s been part of the transport sector, the metalworking sector and the manufacturing sector; and, of course, all these will continue to be true. What we’ve been missing is that it’s also part of the energy sector, and it’s this that is going to be of overriding importance in the next couple of decades as the number of electric vehicles increases.

All of the advantages of electric vehicles to the environment, arguably the most important driver to their development, depend on the reduction in emissions at their tailpipe; this is true whether we’re talking about emissions that effect air quality or climate change. But even pure EVs don’t eliminate the problem, they just shift it, from the car engine to electricity generation. That means the grid, because that’s where those electrons you have to pump into their batteries comes from.

So electric vehicles will depend entirely on sorting the grid out. All the arguments about how we generate electricity, move it around the country, store it and use it have to take this into account; whether we need domestic batteries or if we can use the car as a storage system, what the effect of mass car charging will be on peak demand times, how this might fit in with peak solar and wind generating periods. And although it is a factor that is now being considered, it’s still not appreciated at the highest levels. And it needs to be, because we can’t get our cars to go by climbing a tree clutching a charging cable and waiting for a lightning strike, and that Mr Fusion in Forbidden Planet is just a model.