On 6 August (I’m catching up with things that caught my eye over the summer) John Naughton wrote in the Observer,
It … seems incredible that in the 21st century we propel ourselves along using the energy provided by controlled explosions in metal cylinders. But the industrial fallout from switching to electric cars will be colossal. Some of the impact will be obvious and direct – for example on petrol stations, some of which will become charging stations, while many others will just wither and die. Because most car journeys are short, owners of electric cars will opt to recharge at home, something they cannot do with conventional vehicles. On the other hand, given that it takes significantly longer to recharge than to refuel, the switch may mean enhanced retail and catering opportunities for the stations that remain.
Then there are the innumerable second-order effects. Electric cars are much less complex than conventional cars. They require much less maintenance and the skills required to maintain them are different. They are also likely to last longer. They are much quieter and have zero emissions. On the other hand, a nation that recharges its car batteries at home will make different demands on the national grid…
I believe we need electric cars. The EU has said that it will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 199). Agriculture will certainly still emit greenhouse gases. Probably, industry will need some fossil fuel for high temperature heat. If transport is to use any fossil fuel by that date, it should go to heavy transport which is, apparently, harder to electrify (though there are interesting nautical projects in Norway). Therefore, electricity generation and buildings need to get their emissions more or less down to zero by 2050; and so does land passenger transport.
Given reluctances about biofuels, electric cars seem to be the best option.
That means it is interesting to think about the consequences.
John Naughton raises some of these. For myself, I am also interested in the effects of electric cars on our efforts to switch city transport away from cars altogether, to public transport, cycling and walking. We need to do this because these forms of transport are even better for the environment; and we need to do it because reducing car use makes our cities pleasanter places to live and economically stronger.
My current view is that electric cars won’t change the equation much. They have a high capital cost and a low running cost, so that once you’ve bought one it makes sense to use it all the time, unless congestion or city regulation get in the way – but the same is true of petrol and diesel cars, and in many cities public transport is gradually eroding cars’ market share even so.
It does worry me, though, that electric cars are being exempted from controls on car use in cities – such as the congestion charge in London. These controls have multiple purposes, not just reducing pollution. My instinct is that they should be kept in place in the electric car age.