The electrification of road transport excites highly charged opinions. A recent Energy Institute headline read “the end of the ICE age” – a reference to the Internal Combustion Engine. However, polar opposite views exist. The comedian Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr Bean, wrote in a widely cited Guardian article that he felt “a little duped” by his early experience of electric motoring. Looking ahead, Donald Trump has warned that a move to electric vehicles (EVs) represents a “transition to hell.”
Behind these perspectives lies one uncontroversial fact: our love of cars. Over 33 million are registered in the UK alone, part of a global fleet of over one billion.
One might think that our fondness for cars lies in the mobility they offer us. Little could be further from the truth. British cars spend over 95% of the time stationary (RAC data), with most parked at home or on the street outside. In other words, the typical British car is on the move for about eight hours per week. During this infrequent ignition from its state of rest, it is only the driver’s seat that is occupied most of the time (over 60%). Nearly 70% of trips of car owners are under five miles.
British cars spend over 95% of the time stationary (RAC data), with most parked at home or on the street outside.
If not for mobility, is it speed that endears us to cars? Again, often no. The distance from my home to work in London (Sloane Square to Gresham St) is around four miles, depending on the route taken. During the working day, it takes just over one hour walking (so an average speed of nearly 4 miles per hour); by bike just under half an hour (8 miles per hour); and by Underground fifteen minutes (16 miles per hour). By car (taxi), the average time is close to forty minutes (6 miles per hour). Moreover, cars do not stack up well on speed relative to alternatives for longer trips.
In short, cars usually sleep. In their moments of movement, they often crawl, at least in cities. Our love of them might best be compared to that we reserve for babies.
Back to EVs. The term conflates various vehicle types (cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc.) and different technologies (battery, fuel-cell and hybrids). For illustration, let’s consider Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) cars only. There are over 0.7 million on the UK’s roads today.
First, the ‘bad’ news. BEVs will do little per se to change the comparison of cars with other modes of transport, at least in an urban setting. For speed, you will beat the gridlocked BEV by running, cycling, or on most public transport. The case for a city infrastructure with footpaths, cycle lanes and carbon-free public transport can be founded in terms of raw speed as much as the environmental and health benefits.
Secondly, the ‘good and bad’ news. The life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a BEV compared to a similarly-sized ICE vehicle are lower, although the exact figures are contested. In essence, the manufacture of a BEV embeds more GHGs, but the difference is erased over the vehicle’s use. For example, a study by Carbon Brief estimates that a Tesla Model Y would pay off its carbon ‘debt’ after 13,000 miles in a UK context, compared to a conventionally fuelled car.
Further, from the standpoint of society overall, we need to remember energy system efficiency as much as individual car performance statistics. A London Underground train during the main commuter hours is over 5x better than a BEV in terms of transport efficiency, as measured in terms of kWh per passenger-kilometres (p-km).*
A study by Carbon Brief estimates that a Tesla Model Y would pay off its carbon ‘debt’ after 13,000 miles in a UK context, compared to a conventionally fuelled car.
But what if our love of the car is simply too great, and in some situations the only viable means of transport, especially in specific contexts including more rural settings and for some citizens? Here is the ‘good’ news.
The future BEV will be as different from a conventional car as the iPhone is from our old fixed-line handsets. It will charge and discharge at rest, an integrated part of our home energy systems and able to store electricity that can be commercialised. In a network context, an electrified UK car fleet could provide an enormous ‘strategic reserve’ of electricity, greater than any other electricity storage asset available today.
In short, future BEVs may provide various services for society, not just road mobility. Some may even fly, a green answer to Dick Dastardly’s Mean Machine. With sufficient ingenuity and autonomy, BEVs may become a core interface between humans and Artificial Intelligence for services across many sectors beyond energy.
People may draw different conclusions from all this good and bad news. But, love them or hate them, cars seem unlikely to disappear any time soon. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to use them more sensibly than today. At least in that context, BEVs open up a new world of possibilities.
* Energy use in transport is often reported as kWh per 100p-kms (kilowatt hours per 100 passenger-kilometres). The kWh is the standard unit of electricity we use at home. The passenger-kilometre is an industry measure of transport, using 100 passengers as the base (hence 100p-km). A train carrying 100 people for 10 kilometres delivers 1000p-km of transportation (100 x 10). The estimate in the text is the author’s.
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