CAN ELEC­TRIC CARS SAVE OUR CITIES?

As Volvo an­nounces plans to go all-elec­tric by 2019, trans­port ex­pert Ian Walker weighs up the en­vi­ron­men­tal pros and cons

Focus-Science and Technology - - Discoveries -

Volvo is the first ma­jor car com­pany to an­nounce that all its cars will soon have elec­tric mo­tors. None of its new mod­els will rely solely on in­ter­nal com­bus­tion af­ter 2019, and other man­u­fac­tur­ers are pre­sum­ably not far be­hind. So what does this mean for the en­vi­ron­ment, and for our con­gested cities? Are elec­tric cars re­ally as eco-friendly as we’re led to be­lieve?

There is one area where elec­tri­fi­ca­tion clearly brings an ad­van­tage, and that is ex­haust emis­sions. Fumes from ve­hi­cles are im­pli­cated in around 40,000 pre­ma­ture UK deaths ev­ery year, with around 9,000 in Lon­don alone. Diesel fumes are a ma­jor is­sue here, al­though petrol is hardly be­nign. Ve­hi­cle emis­sions cause a host of un­pleas­ant con­di­tions, in­clud­ing can­cer, heart disease, di­a­betes and Alzheimer’s. Shift­ing to elec­tric ve­hi­cles has the po­ten­tial to change this dra­mat­i­cally, es­pe­cially in ur­ban ar­eas.

There is also the pos­si­bil­ity that elec­tric cars, in the long term, might in­tro­duce a vir­tu­ous cy­cle of en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. Elec­tric mo­tors are not as heavy as their oil-pow­ered an­ces­tors, which means the over­all ve­hi­cle can be lighter. In a coun­try where most ve­hi­cles have be­come lighter, the dam­age from im­pacts is re­duced. This means cars need less pro­tec­tive ar­mour, which makes them even lighter, so they need even less en­ergy to get around, which fur­ther re­duces their dam­age, and so on…

Fi­nally, there is the pos­si­bil­ity of re­duced car­bon emis­sions, al­though this one is a bit less clear-cut. The car­bon cost of elec­tric­ity en­tirely de­pends on how it’s gen­er­ated. I’m writ­ing this on an over­cast, still day, and right now 49.4 per cent of UK elec­tric­ity is from burn­ing gas. Charg­ing a car now would be far less green than charg­ing it when it’s sunny or windy. The green­ness of elec­tric ve­hi­cles, then, de­pends ei­ther on peo­ple’s will­ing­ness to hold off charg­ing them un­til con­di­tions are good (which, based on some of our re­search at the Univer­sity of Bath, looks un­likely) or a break­through in bat­tery tech­nol­ogy that al­lows en­ergy to be stored ef­fi­ciently from good days to bad days.

“GO­ING ELEC­TRIC WOULD DO NOTH­ING TO RE­DUCE CON­GES­TION”

Given their po­ten­tial ad­van­tages – and the lack of ur­ban pol­lu­tion is one that’s par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing – it would be easy to be­come highly en­thu­si­as­tic about elec­tric cars. Many peo­ple al­ready have. Gov­ern­ments might even be tempted to sub­sidise them to en­cour­age a rapid up­take. But be­fore we rush head­long into an elec­tric fu­ture, it’s im­por­tant to con­sider any pos­si­ble down­sides too.

The main is­sue is that cars – both by their in­trin­sic de­sign and by the way we use them – are as­so­ci­ated with a broad range of prob­lems that, at best, will be un­touched by tak­ing out a com­bus­tion en­gine and re­plac­ing it with an elec­tric mo­tor. Go­ing elec­tric would do noth­ing to re­duce con­ges­tion – in­deed, it could plau­si­bly make it worse if pol­lu­tion­less driv­ing starts to feel ‘guilt-free’. Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion also fails to ad­dress the is­sue of where we store cars when they’re not be­ing used – and when you think about it, that’s al­most all the time.

There’s also a host of is­sues that elec­tri­fi­ca­tion, at best, ad­dresses to such a mar­ginal de­gree that it’s hardly worth the bother. Take noise pol­lu­tion. This is a far big­ger pub­lic health prob­lem than you would be­lieve, con­tribut­ing to con­di­tions like hy­per­ten­sion, sleep dis­or­ders, and be­havioural prob­lems in chil­dren. But above even mod­est speeds, the noise from cars is mostly from the tyres, not the en­gine. Re­search we’ve car­ried out at Bath, with col­leagues from Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, showed that even if ve­hi­cles went 100 per cent elec­tric overnight, the noise is­sue would be only very slightly re­duced. Hardly a ring­ing en­dorse­ment.

But per­haps the great­est pub­lic health is­sue of our age is one that elec­tri­fi­ca­tion com­pletely fails to ad­dress: phys­i­cal in­ac­tiv­ity. The way we build and run our towns and cities means that it’s easy, and so­cially ac­cept­able, to drive short dis­tances. At least a quar­ter of English car jour­neys are un­der two miles, usu­ally tak­ing up pre­cious road space by car­ry­ing around sev­eral empty seats. These are jour­neys that in most cases would be quicker, cheaper and a great deal health­ier and less con­gest­ing if walked or cy­cled. The guilt-free na­ture of elec­tric cars could even make this slightly worse.

There are cer­tainly ad­van­tages to a change like Volvo’s, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to re­duc­ing ur­ban pol­lu­tion. But all we are be­ing of­fered at the mo­ment is the chance to re­place cars’ en­gines, not to look at the way we use cars in so­ci­ety. This means that we fail to work to­wards towns and cities that are truly health­ier, safer and more wel­com­ing, and we fail to free ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties from their car de­pen­dence. There’s a sense in which elec­tric cars are old milk in new bot­tles. Re­ally we should be ask­ing far more fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about how and why we travel rather than just what sort of en­gines our cars have.

Dr Ian Walker is a psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Bath who spe­cialises in traf­fic safety, trans­port choices and en­ergy con­sump­tion.

Head of Volvo Hakan Sa­muels­son at the an­nounce­ment

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