As we enter the second half of the oil age and the first half of the climate change era, the electrification of the drive train in automobiles is being heralded as the single-most important contribution to sustainable living. Even though road traffic is only part of a society's energy footprint, auto manufacturers around the globe are working feverishly towards the commercialization of electric vehicles, including pure battery, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell cars.
These technologies will be needed in the future if we want to ensure a diverse set of personal transportation modes. Given the extent to which our economic activity depends on road transportation, a case can be made for sustaining a certain level of car ownership to support our standard of living. This is one reason why research into electric vehicles should be continued -- in addition, of course, to their potential for reducing emissions and oil dependence.
There are several aspects related to electric cars, however, which are usually not mentioned when discussing the future of the automobile.
First of all, the most sustainable approach to transportation is to reduce the demand for car ownership in general, and this is closely related to urban planning. In a 2005 study, Statistics Canada assessed the car dependency of the population as a function of the distance of a residence from the nearest urban centre. It found that the dependency is very pronounced above 10km, but drops off remarkably below 5km. This runs against our trend of supporting ever-expanding urban sprawl that lacks new town centres, designed to provide places to live, work, shop, dine, etc.
Urban design is arguably the largest failure in North American transportation planning. We might be good at solving traffic problems in one location, but it happens often at
the expense of creating higher traffic volume somewhere else. Meanwhile, the urban living experience is degraded by this planning approach of widening roads and adding lanes.
Secondly, the most sustainable mode of transportation is, and will always be, cycling, at about 0.05 mega-joules of energy per person per km. It beats walking. Even the next most efficient modes, such as rail or bus, consume 10 to 30 times as much energy. Depending on the number of passengers, a motor car uses about 50 to 100 times as much energy, and this number will not be reduced sufficiently through the introduction of electric automobiles.
There is wide agreement that automotive technology has the potential to reduce the environmental impact of each vehicle, but the rapid growth of the world’s automotive fleet might very well offset any advances in efficiency. In addition, at the socioeconomic level, there are three main problems that will not be addressed or remedied by electric vehicles: 1) traffic jams, 2) health symptoms (stress, obesity, feeling of isolation, accidents) related to commuting and car-centric living arrangements, and 3) the high and growing maintenance costs of road infrastructure.
Although most people, regrettably, seem to have become inured to traffic jams and the detrimental effects of car traffic on their health, the question remains: can we really afford to maintain an extensive system of roads and highways that was mostly built while the country was enjoying enormous economic growth?
The boom times have now fallen into a deep recession, from which a much weaker economy could emerge that will have to struggle for sustainability rather than growth. Already, the huge deficits incurred by governments in stimulating a recovery raise doubts about their financial ability to preserve public infrastructure, much of which has fallen into disrepair from neglect and inadequate maintenance.
A future electric vehicle fleet will also need a much more extensive and upgraded electric energy infrastructure to support it. This encompasses electricity generation, electric power transmission and distribution, and the provision of many convenient “plug-in” stations to recharge electric car batteries. This investment poses a formidable challenge, not only financially, but in the necessary increase in the complexity of our transportation, electricity, and information technology systems, which will make our society more vulnerable to disruption.
Finally, there’s a new trend developing, especially among young people, to abandon personal car ownership in favour of pay-as-you go forms of transportation. Bicycle rental, car-sharing, scooters, public transit, even walking, require little or no maintenance or up-front capital costs. In fact, cars are the only major mode of transportation which does not follow this pay-as-you-go approach.
At the end of the day, economic reasons might prevail over environmental arguments when it comes to the younger generation and their shifting away from car ownership. It would be a mistake for the auto manufacturers to assume that there will always be the same large market for car sales.
So the electric car could end up providing only one more mobility device, integrated into a more resilient and interconnected system of transportation. It would be an important mode of transport, certainly, but not necessarily the magic solution to our transportation woes that many expect it to be.
(Dr. Peter Berg – [email protected] --is Associate Professor of Physics in the Faculty of Science and member of the Automotive Centre of Excellence at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.)