Cars have transformed history, lives and cities in the past century. Cars have allowed people to travel further, more easily, comfortably and cheaply than previous modes of transport. They have also transformed landscapes, with substantial amounts of land devoted to roads and cities that are larger and more spread-out. Cars inspire passion. The fact that they are inherently individualistic - you travel in them alone or with your family and you can buy one that expresses your tastes and tells people who you think you are – I think does a lot to polarise opinions about them. They are often portrayed as being symbolic of freedom – go where you want to go, but to detractors they can represent a selfish individualism where people enter little metal boxes and disengage with their communities.
The connections between cars and other modes of transport, urban planning, economics, productivity and the environment are strong and complicated. Posts about urban transport policy invariably elicit strong debates on this blog. But some environmental impacts of cars are relatively straightforward, In particular, they are large contributors to urban air and noise pollution and global greenhouse gas emissions.
Electric cars promise to reduce some of these environmental impacts. They can be quieter, more efficient and less polluting. And with high petroleum prices, they have been attracting attention lately.
Pure electric cars run on a rechargeable battery than can be recharged just by plugging them into a power point in your garage. (note we’re not talking here about hybrids – they run on petrol but have a battery that’s recharged from the engine and from braking and they can be thought of just as a much more efficient petrol vehicle). From a consumer point of view, electric powered cars have two main advantages: they’re pretty cheap and they have a much lower running cost (about 1 – 2 cents per kilometre, less than 20% of the cost of petrol vehicles). But they have had two major limitations: low range between recharges and low speed. They’ve been kind of souped-up golf carts.
But new models can go further and longer between recharges and can achieve much higher speeds. USA Today earlier this week looked at two models on the US market: a US$100,000 electric "high-performance" sports car and a US$9,000 "city car".
The sports car version has a range of over 400km (which would allow an easy Canberra – Sydney drive with some detours and a margin of error) and a top speed of over 200km an hour which is a great deal more than anyone should be thinking about doing anyway. The city car has a range of just over 60km and a top speed of just over 60km/hr. Other models to hit the market soon start at US$5,000 for a 40km/h 2-seater with a 50 km range. The technology is advancing rapidly, with speed and range increasing.
What about the environmental impacts?
The biggest environmental benefits compared to regular petrol cars is in local noise and air pollution. These cars are much quieter and cause no particulate pollution in the city because they run on electricity. Of course, there’s air pollution created in generating the electricity that they run on (particularly in Australia where it’s likely to be generated by coal) but there’s still a substantial net benefit in terms of health etc because Australia’s power plants tend to be located in sparsely populated areas and where the particulates disperse before damaging people’s health (as opposed to cities where people breathe within metres of a car’s exhaust).
In terms of greenhouse emissions, electricity’s no better than petrol (unless it’s from low-emission sources such as wind or solar) so electric cars are only beneficial if they’re much more efficient (or if consumers choose to power them from ‘green’ electricity – which I guess is a real possibility for the segment of the market who’d be interested in these vehicles).
So are they much more efficient?
Well yes they are – much more. The typical electric vehicle today uses 0.3 to 0.5 kilowatt-hours per mile (0.2–0.3 kWh/km) while the average car in the US is equivalent to 1.58 kilowatt-hours per mile.
But will people buy these cars? And if so, who?
Well it doesn’t take a marketing genius to figure out people aren’t going to sell their Commodores and buy a zippy electric car that can do 60km at 60kph before the battery dies. But they’re cheap and getting cheaper and really cheap to run. So I can imagine a family getting one as their second car to drive the kids to school and soccer, go to the supermarket, maybe drive to work. The sportscars are going to have a limited market, but they’re pretty cool. They accelerate and handle better than a petrol car and there’s got to be some status in having an electric car, particularly if you sign up to green power with your power company. Very green chic, very sci fi - or something. If only DeLorean made one. That would be cool.