Thursday, 31 March 2016

Electric Cars won't save our Cities. THE DIRECTOR'S CUT

In January 2016 my student and I published an article in the Guardian entitled Electric Cars won't Save our Cities. The article was dramatically edited down by the Guardian, and I do still think the original draft was a bit better. So here it is...

Will Electric Cars Save our Cities?

Any headline phrased as a question is always answered “no”. This is a universal rule for the media age. And so if you’re pressed for time you can skip everything below this paragraph. Electric vehicles are not going to save us. Well, not from most things.

This statement might upset the Conservative candidate for London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith, who is apparently rather enthusiastic about electric vehicles. He is reported recently to have said that electric cars would soon make London buses redundant, for example. This isn’t the first time Mr Goldsmith has got himself excited about the battery-powered future either. This last link claims that London is spending £100m to encourage more people to use electric cars. That’s the sort of sum a city doesn’t spend lightly In This Age of Austerity™, so there is presumably an undeniable and carefully thought-out case for saying London would be transformed for the better by electric vehicles.

Alas, having looked around a bit, we struggled to find this case written down anywhere. So we sat down with a blank spreadsheet and tried to work it out ourselves from first principles. We began by taking a step back and listing some of the main problems that motor vehicles currently bring to cities. Then, we asked what electric motor vehicles could do to address each of these.

Problem Conventional Vehicles Electric vehicles Automatic EVs - private owners Automatic EVs - shared ownership
Pollution in citiesx
Collisions and injuriesxx
Need to be stored most of the timexxx
CO2 emissionsxxxx
Require most of the street's widthxxxx
Road wearxxxx
Facilitate out of town retail, harming city centresxxxx
Facilitate suburban sprawlxxxx
Reducted physical activity, leading to poor healthxxxx
Reduced employee productivity and increased absenteeism (cf. active travel)xxxx
Reliance on overseas oilx
Reliance on overseas coal and gasxxx
Unresolved legal and insurance issuesxx

As you will see from our table, we had no trouble thinking of a whole raft of problems currently arising from motoring. What became interesting was when we asked how well electrification might solve each of them.

Perhaps the most obvious issue that might make people excited about electric vehicles is pollution. Conventional vehicles spew some pretty noxious stuff into our streets, killing many thousands of people each year, including several thousand in London alone. And reducing this dangerous nitrogen oxide and particulate matter in urban areas is perhaps the main area where electric vehicles do offer an advantage. The reduction in “tailpipe emissions” scores one point for the electric vehicle.

So electric vehicles are cleaner, but are they also greener? It sometimes surprises people, but that’s a very different question ‒ one whose answer is entirely dependent on how the nation generates its electricity (which, interestingly, makes this a political decision, outside the control of the individual driver). In 2014, the United Kingdom’s electricity was 19.1% generated from renewables compared to 30% for gas, 30% for coal and 19% for nuclearThere are few signs that the proportion of renewables is going to increase any time soon. The relatively heavy use of fossil fuels to produce energy (some of which is then wasted during transmission, and when getting it in and out of batteries) means the electric car running through a city’s streets is perhaps not quite so eco-friendly as it might initially appear. Sure, it isn’t pumping anything directly into the air through which it drives, but it is still mostly powered by setting fire to coal and gas somewhere within the United Kingdom. Electric vehicles, in other words, basically just move the fossil-fuel combustion from inside the car to another part of the country (safely outside the purview of any elected mayors, more cynical authors than us might suggest). They certainly don’t do much about how we’ll stop our nation emitting greenhouse gases, or what we’ll do when we’ve no more trees left to burn.

Another major problem with today’s cars is their lack of safety. Globally, around 1.25 million people each year are killed, and many millions more seriously injured, in motor vehicle collisions. Nearly 1800 people were killed and close to 200,000 reported injured just in the United Kingdom last year ‒ a country so small in global terms that it’s not clear how people even get up the speed to cause such problems. It is difficult to see how the fuel source of the vehicles has much to do with these collision rates, and how switching from oil to electricity will stop cars from crashing into things. It is possible we have overlooked something important here. We are not physicists or engineers, after all. For all we know, electric motors emit immense magnetic fields that act as forcefields.

And then there are the issues of how motor vehicles shape our use of land. Today’s cars ‒ which use as much of the road to carry one person as five ‒ demand exclusive use of most of the space available in our streets, leaving far less than half for pedestrians or cyclists in a typical urban road. And, as cars are unused as much as 96% of the time, they are, to a first approximation, always standing around doing nothing other than taking up even more space. This means we must coat swathes of the country with tarmac to provide places to store them. Of course, although parking facilities are expensive to build, most people dislike paying the market rate to store their vehicles and prefer it if the State provides parking for free ‒ something cash-strapped local authorities are curiously happy to do. So frequently cars are stored on roads and sidewalks instead, to the detriment of traffic flow, aesthetics, the penalty-shy councils’ finances, and the needs of vulnerable road users.

Issues of space actually go even further than where we store millions of bulky vehicles, because for a century or more we have allowed motor vehicles to shape our world. The easy mobility they provide encourages developers to build out-of-town shopping parks, which eat up green belt and strangle city centre retail. The hypermobility afforded by the car also permits suburban sprawl (and extra greenhouse gas emissions) as it becomes possible for people to live far from where they work. Again, these are issues not addressed at all by making vehicles run off electricity.

And, of course, swapping the engine while retaining the same basic concept of the car does nothing to change a raft of other negative effects on people’s lives. Our nation has a health crisis linked to physical inactivity, placing a billion-Pound annual burden on the NHS. It has long been known that shifting shorter journeys from cars to active travel modes not only makes those journeys faster and cheaper, but is the single best thing thing any developed nation could do to tackle its health problems. It is difficult to see how a car powered by a different engine is going to do anything in this area other than, possibly, make the problem even worse as people feel no guilt about driving their “clean” cars even further.

And finally, won’t somebody please think of the children? Because how will electrification of the vehicle fleet obviate the problems we drop onto our children by using cars to ferry them around? Not only does the lack of activity make ferried kids unhealthy, just as with adults, but it even looks like it’s bad for their minds too. Being chauffeured from place to place in the back of a car has been argued to decrease children’s performance at school and cuts them off from the natural world and from the learning experiences offered by social interaction. Once again, it is not clear how electric cars would do anything at all to improve this.

But perhaps for people like Zac Goldsmith the issue is actually all political? There are certainly plenty of political issues surrounding what we use to fuel our vehicles after all. Today’s engines run off oil, which is pretty unpleasant stuff in all sorts of respects, and which makes us reliant on countries like Algeria and Nigeria for our way of life. A switch to electric vehicles fixes this by… er... making us reliant instead on such nations as Russia for our coal and Qatar for our gas. The extent to which this is an improvement is perhaps a matter for debate. (Incidentally, if you follow these links, you’ll see that the biggest winner either way is very clearly Norway, who are spooning both oil and gas into the United Kingdom at an astonishing rate.)

At this point you might be getting frustrated, thinking we are deliberately being unkind to the champions of electric vehicles. Perhaps what people are really thinking of ‒ especially when they start suggesting they will replace buses ‒ is self-driving electric cars, like Google’s famous prototypes. Certainly, taking the driver out of the picture does overcome some of the issues we’ve just discussed ‒ most obviously the problem of collisions. But the extent to which automated electric vehicles will solve any other issues is in the balance. A switch to driverless cars does give us a brief, never-to-be-repeated opportunity to rethink our entire model of car ownership. We can finally move away from our current approach, where everybody owns their own car, each of which is hardly used. Automated cars allow us to choose instead a system where there is a much smaller number of cars, each in frequent use and summoned when people need them, like taxis where we are freed from having to feign interest in the driver’s life. If we seize the chance to make this switch, and resist the urge to have exactly the same system as now but with robot drivers, then this might overcome some genuine problems ‒ like where we store all the cars when we’re not using them. But, really, this vision of the future would require car makers to sell a few cars rather than many. Expecting them to wither away like this, and resist the urge to sell direct to the consumer, makes it unlikely any real change will happen ‒ especially given the cosy relationship they enjoy with regulators, such that they were the only industry other than banking to be bailed out by taxpayers after the 2008 financial crash. And even if we could overcome our cultural inertia and move to this most futuristic of visions, where we finally escape individual private cars, we are still left with all the issues of town planning, urban sprawl, health, wellbeing and child development that we have outlined above.

So we finally return to the question: will electric vehicles save us? If you are one of the thousands who will die from urban air pollution next year, then they will. If you’re going to die from being driven into by an inattentive motorist, then they won’t. Perhaps, in the best-case scenario, where we replace the meatbag drivers with robots and abandon the idea we must own one vehicle each, we can escape most of today’s problems with collisions and streets clogged by unused cars and vans. And that would certainly be nice. But then we risk our children enjoying these benefits from bariatric beds and diabetes wards unless we start to create streets that are not primarily designed for motor vehicles. There is no future in which humans can sit down all day without paying an enormous health price, but that is the future that electric vehicles currently promise if they appear in streets that in any way resemble those we have today. Most urban journeys are short. Perhaps in the future we will continue to drive to the city, but we have to stop driving through the city. Instead, we need to start turning the space between buildings back into a place for human beings to make their short journeys in a physically active way, experiencing the unprotected world without fear or discomfort. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking driverless cars are a panacea. They remove some of the problems, but a host more remain - and some new ones actually appear. Given current trends, we risk falling complacently into the most pathetic of robot uprisings, where they drive us so helpfully from place to place that we slowly die of bowel cancer. At least in the old days, the robots had the decency to kill us with laser guns.