What’s the Future for Electric Vehicles?


The petrol-fuelled motor vehicle kills and maims our children, clogs ups our streets, pollutes the air we breathe and contributes to global warming.

Is the electric vehicle (EV) therefore a possible solution to reduce the environmental impact of road transport?

A number of different categories of EV currently exist. These include ‘plug-in’ EVs which like other domestic appliances require you to plug them in to recharge the battery. Some EVs are solely dependent on the battery as its main source of power. In these vehicles if you don’t use heating or air conditioning and drive sensibly you can travel up 80 -120 miles.

If you wanted more certainty in driving then ‘plug-in’ hybrids allow you to switch between electric or traditional fuel.

These tend to have smaller batteries which means you can only undertake electric travel for about 10-40 miles. Hybrid EVs tend to have a smaller battery which is charged while driving and can therefore be used only over short distances.

The Toyota Pirus is a successful example of a hybrid. Although it has been referred to as the ‘hippie car’ it has been the car of choice for a number of Hollywood celebrities. Finally, there are fuel-cell vehicles which generate their own on-board electricity by using fuels such as hydrogen and therefore do not need to be plugged-in.

Although the UK EV market is the early stages of development, the government’s Committee on Climate Change recommends we should aim to have 1.7 million EVs on the road by 2020 if progress is be made towards achieving the national target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Battery operated EVs tend to be more energy efficient when in use as 80% of the stored energy goes to driving wheels. This is compared to cars with internal combustion engines which are about 20% efficient with most of the energy lost as heat.

Although when loss from energy generation is considered, the energy efficiency of EVs is reduced. On the whole carbon emissions from driving EVs are comparable with the most efficient diesel cars and are about 30% less than the average for new fossil fuel cars.

In addition, EVs produce no tail-pipe emissions when in electric mode so poor air quality will not be experienced in congested urban areas. This is particularly important for large urban conurbations which are grappling with high levels of vehicle-related particulate matter and nitrogen oxides emissions that exceed EU limits.

In London an estimated 4,000 extra deaths occur each year due to airborne particulates costing up to £20 billion a year – twice the cost of obesity. EVs contribute less to noise pollution as they are much quieter that traditional cars – perhaps a reason why many milk floats were battery operated in the heyday of doorstep milk delivery. However, concerns have been raised with regard to pedestrian safety especially of the visually impaired.

The Toyota Pirus

So is the EV a greener option? Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology undertook a life cycle assessment of the EV and highlighted the ‘toxicity’ of EV manufacturing process compared to conventional vehicles (e.g. extraction of minerals for the battery).

They calculated that the ‘global warming potential’ of manufacturing is about twice as high as conventional vehicles. They argue that promotion of EVs does not make sense in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal and lignite combustion.

We still have a long way to go before the EV is seen as desirable option by the majority. The public image of EVs needs to be improved and recharging infrastructure needs to be targeted, convenient and safe. For example, the majority of recharging taking place at home, at night, after the peak in electricity demand as well at the workplace for commuters and these need to be available. We also need to understand how to reduce environmental impact of the EV manufacturing process and improve battery recycling.

Until we are able to make a significant shift to renewable energy sources, EVs are simply a means of reducing roadside emissions rather than global emissions. Improvements in technology will inevitably improve the environmental credentials of EVs.

In the short term emission savings in transport are likely to come from better efficiency of conventional vehicles. Walking, cycling and public transport also have a role to play as well as reducing the need to travel in the first place.

© Gary Haq 2013

Selling a Greener Future

ENVIRONMENTALISTS are often perceived as spoiling the fun by reminding people of the ecological consequences of their actions and asking them to make “sacrifices” for the common good. If we are to make significant progress towards a low-carbon future and prevent irreparable damage to the climate system, then both the public and politicians needs to be inspired by the idea of a greener future.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS are often perceived as spoilsports by reminding people of the ecological consequences of their actions and asking them to make “sacrifices” for the common good.

If we are to make significant progress towards a low-carbon future and prevent irreparable damage to the climate system, then both the public and politicians needs to be inspired by the idea of a future which is greener, richer and happier for all.

The transport sector is massively dependent on oil and is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases. It accounts for about 24 per cent of the UK’s domestic carbon dioxide emissions, the majority of which come from road transport.

Depleting global oil reserves, together with increasing transport emissions, will require us to radically rethink how we travel in the future especially if we have any hope of achieving the government’s target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

So what will life be like in a low-carbon future? Sit back, close your eyes and imagine a greener future.

In 2050, the railway system will be completely powered by electricity provided by non-fossil fuel sources such as wind and biomass. Better and more compact spatial planning will have reduced the distances to travel to work, school and other local facilities.

The high cost of fuel will have encouraged us to walk, cycle and use public transport more as this will be cheapest way to get around. Gas guzzling enthusiasts such as Jeremy Clarkson will be driving electric cars or vehicles powered by fuel cells.

High-speed rail and video conferencing will be a common feature of our greener world. Improvements in aircraft technology and air traffic management will have reduced aviation emissions.

However, air travel will be expensive. Long-haul holidays will be an occasional luxury rather than an annual event and staycations will be the norm. Flying to European capitals to hold hen and stag-dos will be replaced by “Party Trains” as there will be more accessible improved train services with overnight trains.

Travelling to a destination will be just as much part of the holiday experience as time spent at the holiday resort itself.

Changes in ship size, routing, fuel, speed and application of new technologies will have decreased emissions from shipping.

In this greener future, we will have made significant progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and will have averted runaway climate change.

While this vision of a low-carbon future may feel like an infringement of personal liberty, it does offer a number of socio-economic and environmental benefits. Imagine for a second that traffic congestion is a thing of the past.

The time saved not being stuck in traffic jams is spent enjoying the company of family and friends. Imagine a clean, efficient and cheap public transport system comparable to that in any other European city. And imagine opting to be car-free and being better off due to having saved thousands of pounds a year by avoiding the cost of running a car.

Our greener future will be a happier and richer future. There will be a community renaissance with people spending time and money locally due to more people walking, cycling and using public transport.

Lower levels of motorised traffic on our streets travelling at a maximum of 20mph in all residential areas will make them safer.

Children will be able to discover the delights of independent mobility and going to and from school, friends and local clubs on their own.

Older people will find it easier to cross roads, chit-chat on the street and engage with friends and neighbours, thus reducing social isolation.

The long work commute will be distant memory as all kinds of businesses will have introduced flexible working, video conferencing, and more family- and child-friendly working practices.

There will be local area offices using digital technology which will provide the link to businesses, customers and workers at home.

Less vehicle traffic will mean cleaner air as well as reduced noise and stress. This together with high levels of physical activity will have lowered rates of obesity and heart disease and improved our overall general health and sense of wellbeing.

All these factors will have contributed to the creation of high quality living environments where community life will be much improved. This vision of a low-carbon future is not a green pipe dream but a possible reality. There are no technical, financial, organisational or other obstacles in our way. Many of the building blocks to create our alternative future already exist.

The future of our climate and our way of life will be dependent on the choices we are willing to make today. A vision of a greener future needs to be communicated and sold as positive and aspirational goal for all. Once we have sold the concept then we will need to move boldly and decisively to achieve this vision for ourselves and future generations.

© Gary Haq 2009