With an MSc in Renewable Energy Development, POW UK Content Contributor Iain MacLeod has worked in sustainable transport since 2014, primarily in the field of electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure. He believes that we can solve the problem of climate change, and fervently hopes that we choose to do so. Below, he explores the journey of the electric vehicle (EV), from its innocuous beginning, quickly eclipsed by the internal combustion engine (ICE), to its more recent rise to popularity and increasing ubiquity, ultimately questioning whether the future of transport will be ICE, EV – or neither…
I have only ever once had the occasion to slam my foot down on a car’s accelerator. It took off so suddenly and caught my colleague in the backseat so unawares that she let out a scream of such force and authenticity, the salesperson in the passenger seat could only lament not having recorded it. Believing, probably correctly, it would’ve proven excellent marketing fodder.
The location was a test track on the outskirts of Edinburgh; the occasion was simply putting the vehicle through its paces (at the salesperson’s encouragement);the car was electric. The Tesla Model S: a car which has spent the last several years unashamedly turning the automotive world on its head.
Though not within financial reach of the vast majority of us, it has been effortlessly outperforming vehicles with price tags several times its own across an array of motoring stunts. In so doing, it has decisively shown what an electric car is capable of.
This has forced many, car fanatics especially – a group heretofore composed exclusively, almost by definition, of ‘petrolheads’ – to sit up and ask: what are these whiny electric cars about then?
A question worth delving into. And one that leads inevitably to the question of whether we are now, as many claim, passing over the cusp of a transport revolution.
Here I will consider both these questions, beginning by laying out how this putative revolution came about, where it is now, and what its prospects may be. However, ultimately we must be careful to not overplay the role electric vehicles should have in the future of transport…
While in driving they may be quick off the mark, in conquering the global automobile market electric vehicles (EVs) have proven anything but. One could be forgiven for not being aware that in their most rudimentary forms they date all the way back to the first half of the nineteenth century.
These crude precursors gradually evolved, and as technological advancements spurred their development into the turn of the twentieth century, they briefly found a place as private luxury carriages in the US and parts of Europe.
Recent history teaches us that gaining popularity among the wealthy is a necessary first step in many a new innovation’s journey – from impractically niche, to convenient, everyday ubiquity.
With said innovation’s initial disproportionate price tag so intrinsic to its status symbol status, willing early investors are compelled to pour in the funds that with luck and perseverance enable its ascent of those economies of scale.
Ideally, the culmination of this process is a much sought-after product, available and affordable to the masses.
One might therefore have expected EVs’ global dominance to be inevitable – particularly as they offered a quieter, smoother ride than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, being free of the objectionable, smoky emissions that characterised the latter.
However, the discovery of cheap petroleum reserves, alongside the development of more sophisticated road infrastructure, shifted things decisively in electric cars’ disfavour.
As road networks bloomed out, the ICE car’s greater driving range naturally fit the independent, cross-country journeys these new transport links enabled. Electric cars, with their small, slow-charging batteries, couldn’t offer the same liberating travel opportunities.
What market advantage EVs had possessed thus lost, and the establishment of assembly-line mass production models for ICE cars precipitated plummeting prices, accelerating their ascendance and sealing EVs’ defeat.
Their demise was not total: they found small-scale niche applications here and there, with their use as milk floats and golf carts likely being the best known of these; but while the idea of viable electric cars never completely went away, in comparison to the volume in which the world was producing ICE cars, the vehicles themselves barely existed. They were left to languish in their counterpart’s smoky shadow for the best part of a century.
The world in peril
Trillions of dollars have poured into the ICE car’s development in the decades since the electric car disappeared in its rear-view mirror.
As the industry has grown, so too has the global economy, with wealthier segments of populations the world over attaining, or aspiring to, what might be classed as a Western standard of living. This includes all the trappings of modern material consumerism, with the private automobile no small part of this.
The implications of continuing uninterrupted on this growth trajectory are far-reaching. It is now well understood that the burning of fossil fuels in these cars’ engines emits greenhouse gases that increase the Earth’s temperature.
If we cannot reign in these emissions, in transport and in every other sector of society, the outcome will be disastrous. We will eventually so alter Earth’s climate that many aspects of our lives that we now take for granted will be drastically and irreversibly upheaved.
Island and coastal areas – including many of the world’s most populous cities – will be abandoned as they are subject to increasingly devastating storm surges, or completely submerged. Glacier loss will imperil the water supplies of over a billion people.
Extremes of rainfall – both too little and too much – will wipe out harvests, causing food price shocks and threatening global food supplies. Climate driven natural disasters will become more numerous and destructive.
The huge number of ‘climate refugees’ displaced by these events will be forced to move to less irreparably afflicted areas. The level of this migration will be without precedent and will almost certainly trigger mass social and political turmoil in the settled countries, with consequences that are impossible to predict.
Depending on the level we allow this heating to reach, the result will be catastrophe of a magnitude the human species has never come close to experiencing.
Some would dismiss this as doom-mongering hyperbole. And there is a disturbing number of people – a disproportionate number in positions of power in some countries – who, for varying reasons, flat out reject every aspect of it.
However, the body of scientific knowledge on the subject is pretty well settled around these conclusions.
To avoid a future of cataclysmic climate change, we need, just for starters, to steer away from a world in which everyone owns their own fossil-fuelled vehicles.
Rebirth of the electric vehicle
The first hints of an electric vehicle revival came around the turn of the second decade of this century, with a small number of the major manufacturers producing the first genuinely practical models. While the distance they could drive on one battery charge remained low, they were an emphatic proof of principle for early adopters.
Around the same time, the disruptive force majeure Tesla emerged, making its indelible stamp on the automotive industry with the sporty Roadster. Bringing together performance and 200-mile plus driving range, this was the first car to demonstrate that electric vehicles could be sexy.
History will have final say on Tesla’s importance in heralding the electric car age, but it has swept away the image of electric cars as boxy and ineffectual, reserved solely for square environmentalist types.
And given the extent to which image underpins the car industry, the significance of this shift is likely to prove considerable.
Fears around peak oil and a desire for increased energy independence have occasionally galvanised interest in electric vehicles in the past. And there have been technology developments that have spurred their recent leaps forward; most significantly, advances in the lithium-ion batteries that all the modern players rely on.
However, it is difficult not to think that the biggest contributing factor to their growing prominence has been the looming spectre of devastating climate change.
This has impelled us – all too slowly – into the realisation that we need to radically overhaul how we transport our goods and ourselves. Without the impetus of the need to combat severe climate change, the decades of investment and billions of vehicle sales head start ICE cars have over EVs would likely seem insurmountable.
Ten years ago, at the beginning of the EV renaissance, their numbers were a tiny fraction of that of ICE cars being cranked out, and this could easily have proven to be another false start.
While the proportion they make up of new vehicles sales is still relatively low, it has risen exponentially in countries around the world for each of the past several years. More and more manufacturers are committing to electrifying their fleets, and more and more governments are setting explicit targets for phasing out ICE vehicles in the next one to two decades.
With this gathering momentum, it increasingly feels that we are approaching a tipping point, that EVs really are coming this time, and coming to stay.
Those opposing the transition of vehicles from fossil-fuelled to electric often claim that the latter’s much touted environmental benefits are a façade. That their supposed emission reductions disappear when one looks beyond the tailpipe to the original energy source the vehicles’ electric power derives from.
The argument is not entirely without merit; an electric vehicle powered by coal-produced electricity emits more carbon per mile driven than many (not all) modern ICE cars.
However, this is only true with electricity grids with a very high carbon intensity. Electric vehicle advocates of course also argue that we need to transition the entire energy system underpinning our lives away from fossil fuels, not just the cars we drive.
As the grid supporting EVs becomes cleaner, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per electric vehicle mile driven fall proportionally. In fact, EVs’ much higher efficiency relative to ICE cars means that they can be comparatively cleaner even when powered by a predominantly natural gas powered grid.
Another common objection is that the upfront carbon emissions involved in EVs’ manufacture are higher than those for ICE vehicles, making them worse for the environment overall.
Once again, there is truth to this assertion, but only up to a point. Sourcing and transporting the raw materials for electric vehicle batteries, and the batteries’ subsequent manufacture from these materials, do cause considerable CO2 emissions.
Upfront emissions for EVs tend to be in the region of one and a half times those of ICE cars as a result. Most vehicles release the bulk of their emissions during their operational lifetimes rather than in their manufacture.
The ratio of electric vehicles emissions from manufacture to emissions from operation is higher than that of ICE vehicles. This means electric vehicles start with a carbon pay-off period. They are in carbon debt relative to an ICE equivalent until they have travelled a certain number of miles.
The exact distance they have to travel to achieve and surpass carbon parity will vary depending on the vehicle model and the carbon intensity of the electricity grid supporting it. In most cases, for anyone doing a moderate mileage, the carbon debt will be settled relatively early in the vehicle’s lifetime.
And, as grids get cleaner, the pay-off period will only get shorter.
Furthermore, this argument disregards both batteries’ second life opportunities and their recyclability. When the batteries of electric vehicles on the road today have lost a certain portion of their original capacity, they will likely find a use in energy storage facilities.
Alternatively, or after that, their high recycling potential will trigger explosive growth in the battery recycling industry towards this decade’s end, as the first generation of electric cars conclude their serviceable lives.
Close consideration of these arguments settling things decisively in electric vehicles’ favour will not stop cheerleaders for the status quo continuing to make them. Particularly as the reality is nuanced enough that it provides fertile ground for unscrupulous peddlers of misinformation to cherry pick the evidence and spread falsehoods.
However, EVs have another trick up their sleeve that decisively puts to bed any question of whether their carbon case stacks up relative to ICE cars; they are likely to have a crucial role to play in decarbonising our electricity supplies.
There is a general consensus that massively increasing renewable energy generation is essential to combating climate change.
Yet, while wind and solar technology have made huge advances over the last four decades, to the point that we can reasonably discuss them competing economically with fossil fuels, their inherent intermittency remains an insuperable challenge.
When the wind blows and when the sun shines rarely align with when we need electricity. And we lack the means to store the electricity they produce at the scale required.
This is where electric vehicles can play their ace, in the form of vehicle-to-grid technology.
Car or power station?
In the near future, we will see increasing numbers of electric vehicles pooled in a vast reservoir of energy, simply by the act of drivers plugging them in at home or work.
When an electric vehicle is connected to a ‘bi-directional’ charge point, electricity can flow both from the electricity grid to the vehicle, and from the vehicle back to the grid.
Adding smart technology to the mix allows a third party to remotely monitor the vehicle’s level of charge and decide which direction to send the electricity at any given time.
Scale this up over hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of vehicles, and you have a vast, decentralised energy storage facility that goes a long way towards solving the problem of renewables’ intermittency.
Having somewhere to channel excess renewable energy during times of low electricity demand, reduces how much we have to deliberately cut the output of renewable generators – as is currently common practice. It can also assist voltage management of the grid.
The upshot of this is potentially huge improvements in the efficiency and economics of renewables.
There is an on-going and invariably rancorous debate as to whether renewables alone can provide all our low-carbon energy needs, or only as part of a mix that includes nuclear energy.
Resolving this question is fortunately beyond the scope of this discussion; however, there is no question that the potential to cultivate a symbiotic relationship between electric vehicles and renewables is a boon for both technologies.
Applying the brakes
This EV vs ICE argument thus resolved, we can ask then: is the future of transport an electric utopia? Will the ICE car-lined streets you walk today be EV-lined in the future?
In fifteen years, instead of noisy motors rumbling up and down these roads sputtering out fumes, will there be only convoys of sleek, near-silent, exhaustless electric cars?
Well, hopefully not.
As much of an improvement as that would be, we should resist the idea that our mission is simply to supplant all fossil-fuel vehicles with electric ones.
Electric cars undoubtedly score far better than ICE cars when it comes to combatting climate change and a host of other environmental issues. However, we should not seize upon them as a panacea for all our environmental woes, as they too are bound up with environmental and social problems which are liable to grow with the industry.
Assuming EV batteries remain lithium-ion based, mines to provide the lithium and rare earth metals an EV-driven world requires will wreak destruction on areas holding significant quantities of these materials – which may include otherwise pristine ecosystems.
Of course, the depth and breadth of harm caused by the unchecked proliferation of lithium mining won’t compare to that threatened by climate change. Nor will the damage from lithium mining reach anything like the scale of destruction the fossil fuel industry causes in the day-to-day, routine extraction and processing of coal, oil and gas.
However, we should not lightly dismiss these impacts simply because they won’t approach the fossil fuel industry’s horrifying precedent. It is not just the environmental impact of these mines that should concern us.
Anyone read up on the anti-EV literature will be familiar with the issues surrounding the sourcing of cobalt – up to now a crucial component of all lithium-ion batteries.
Most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an impoverished country that has suffered from over a century of colonial abuses, war and political turmoil. Its mining industry has a record of horrendous working conditions, poor to non-existent safety standards and, most notoriously, the exploitation of child labour.
Large tech companies heavily reliant on cobalt have been subject to lawsuits contending that they are knowingly complicit in such practices. In response to the growing public opprobrium triggered by this controversy, these companies say they are investigating alternative cobalt-free battery chemistries and acting to ensure child labour forms no part of their supply chains.
It should be noted that cobalt is also a vital ingredient in phone, tablet and laptop batteries. So while rapid growth in the electric vehicle industry will drive up demand for this metal, the cause of these problems is by no means restricted to this sector.
EV battery technology will continue to evolve; manufacturers are already exploring means of production less reliant on rare earth metals, and they may even find alternatives to basing batteries on lithium.
As discussed, they are trying to reduce dependence on cobalt, but even if unable to do so fully, there are other countries with cobalt reserves and less abysmal human rights records that could increase production. Moreover, there is no fundamental reason why labour practices in the DRC can’t be improved.
Should we get to a point where we can extract the materials for constructing electric vehicles in a manner that is, socially and environmentally, relatively benign, then that should be celebrated.
However, there are still problems that come with the day-to-day running of electric vehicles. Problems inherent to the running of any private vehicles, electric or otherwise. It is important to recognise these and therefore the fact that replacing every ICE vehicle with an equivalent EV will perpetuate an inherently damaging status quo.
As well as contributing to climate change through the emission of CO2, ICE cars have an insidious effect on local air quality, the detrimental health outcomes of which are becoming increasingly understood. This comes from their emissions of NOx and particulate matter.
NOx are gases produced by the combustion of fuel in internal combustion engines, while particulate matter is released by the wear and tear of tyres and brake pads, and dust kicked up from the road. EVs don’t produce NOx, but they do emit particulate matter. Whether they do so less or more than ICE vehicles is still in question.
On the one hand, as EVs’ battery weight makes them heavier than equivalent ICE cars, they could be expected to shed more tyre particles and kick up more road dust over a given distance.
On the other hand, EVs make use of regenerative braking technology, in which the moving vehicle’s kinetic energy reverses the electric motor and is converted into electrical energy – simultaneously slowing the vehicle and charging its battery. If the driver uses this braking method assiduously, they will increase the distance the vehicle can drive per charge, and the release of particulate matter through brake pad wear will be minimal.
While it is NOx emissions that are most damaging to our health, particulate matter is a problem too, and the disappearance of ICE cars will only rid us of the former.
Imagine there’s no traffic
It is worthwhile stepping back from comparing EV and ICE vehicles’ respective demerits and considering the problems they share.
For a start, they are both typically composed of at least a tonne of metal and other materials, which contribute at least a tonne of CO2 to their manufacture. No meagre amount if we are to move towards a net zero carbon world.
And this kind of mass requires considerable energy to move around. Granted, for an EV this can be from low carbon sources, but energy is the foundation stone upon which the entire global economy sits, and all this energy must become low carbon as soon as possible – not just that used for transport.
But even in the most optimistic scenarios, low carbon energy will be a highly constrained resource for the next couple of decades at least. Every drop diverted to the woefully inefficient movement of cars is therefore energy unavailable for more indispensable work.
As such, in the near to medium-term, it’s difficult to reconcile a zero carbon world with one filled up with EVs.
But then we should ask ourselves: is an EV-filled world even one that we would want?
We have become so inured to the omnipresence of the private vehicle, we don’t notice what an imposition upon our lives it is. When Covid-19 lockdown measures were first implemented, we had to stay indoors for months, with our roads left deserted as a result.
For many of us, this suddenly laid bare just how much cars fence us in in normal times. Nothing can reduce the scale of the tragedy the coronavirus pandemic has brought, but it has been transformative to see how freeing urban life emptied of cars can be.
Advocates of the private vehicle consider them to be tools of liberation, allowing us to go wherever we want, whenever we want. And of course, it’s not hard to sympathise with this perspective.
For a relatively small amount of money, a car can spirit you across distances in minutes or hours, that in previous ages might have taken days or weeks to traverse. Almost anywhere you may dream to travel, chances are there’s a road you can follow that will get you if not there, then at the very least somewhere close by.
However, in practice, where most people typically travel by car is the shops, to work (when not in lockdown), and on a hodgepodge of weekly errands. There are those for whom these journeys can only practically be carried out by car, such as people with particular disabilities, people with childcare responsibilities, and people living in remote, rural areas.
Yet outwith these groups, how many routine car journeys could truly not be carried out without a car?
Yes, some trips might require additional considerations to allow making them by bike, foot or bus, but once begun, these extra steps would quickly become habitual, and thenceforth rarely even thought about; forgotten in the wave of endorphins, better health and better mood of the less sedentary, higher activity lifestyle brought by the shift from a car-centric existence.
When we have a vehicle, we are apt to use it, as doing so is invariably easier than the alternative. Only the most resolute can resist the call of the keys on a cold, wet November night when an urgent cross-town errand beckons. Again, this is understandable.
But we need to recognise that when living in a community, be it small or large, our lives invariably butt up against and overlap others’ – all the more so the more densely populated an area we’re in.
Their advertisers and evangelists make much of the idea that we express our individuality through the travel freedom cars provide.
But, setting aside the question of how the bog-standard use of an all-pervasive mass-produced commodity can be an expression of individuality, in reality, cars individualise us only in the sense that they isolate us: from our neighbours, and from our communities. We are set apart, invariably in antagonism with the other inhabitants of the always too small and too crowded road arena – our very human instinct to share disappearing as we settle behind the wheel.
To someone without a car, what is the impact of your casual reliance on one?
It’s parents, fearful for their children’s safety, unwilling to let them out to play; it’s day and night the incessant grumble and whine of traffic; it’s cumulatively hours every year spent waiting for roads to clear enough to enable crossing; it’s consignment to the narrow fringes running alongside these roads; it’s the constant low-level stress of being surrounded by massive objects hurtling at lethal speed; it’s loved family pets lost beneath car wheels; it’s a fracturing of where we could otherwise wander and gather; it’s acute anxiety about riding a bike anywhere; it’s what could be shared, open spaces, instead saturated with thousands upon thousands of imposing metal boxes.
And what might the alternative look like?
Towns and cities filled up with pedestrianised streets, thronging with activity; with outdoor cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, pop-up stalls, markets and performing artists; people of all ages congregating, socialising, exercising, playing, on wide open avenues immediately beyond the doorsteps of our homes.
Before dismissing this as naïve, overly-fanciful, utopian nonsense, consider the below images from a recent experiment in traffic management in Milan.
City authorities here have taken an emphatic step in favour of the principle that streets should first and foremost be for people, with the vehicle giving way to the pedestrian, rather than the other way round.
Anyone who sees no issue with the traffic currently circulating and choking up our urban areas should study these pictures closely; then, ask themselves, whether it’s a more worthwhile fight to stop us going from the scenario depicted in the uppermost picture to the lower, or to get us there as soon as possible.
The way ahead
Having begun by extolling the salutary virtues of electric vehicles, only to pivot to excoriating the notion of even owning a car, may seem somewhat disjointed. So I will conclude here by briefly clarifying and hopefully reconciling these arguments.
As should be clear by now, this is not meant as a fanatical polemic in favour of EVs. To stop the worst impacts of climate change, we should encourage and fully embrace the transition of all transport to electric; it is indisputably a positive shift.
But we must do so with our eyes open, rooted in the scientific realities of our situation and a determination to understand the implications of our every step in the course we choose to take, aware that switching to EVs to waylay the grave impacts of continued reliance on fossil fuel vehicles does not get us completely off the hook.
As, after all, even a low impact activity’s effect becomes very significant when multiplied by a planet of billions. The effect of a high impact one, like owning and heavily using a car – howsoever it’s powered – becomes colossal when replicated the earth over.
Cars are a marvel of technological progress. And for the number and scale of otherwise unrealisable opportunities they open up, and otherwise impossible activities they allow us to carry out effortlessly, they may be quite without parallel. There will always be a place and a need for them.
But it is not in our collective interest to reserve quite so much space for quite so many of them as we have become accustomed.
The take home message can be taken then as follows: if you can, avoid getting a car. Get the bus, get a bike, get out walking. Your carbon footprint will shrink precipitously the moment you stop dragging an extra tonne of plastic, steel and aluminium with you wherever you go. And you’ll feel fitter, healthier and happier into the bargain.
But should you for one reason or another consider a motor indispensable, then for the love of all things sacred and the future of our and other species, at least make sure it’s electric.
I know from experience that putting your foot down on an electric car’s accelerator is exhilarating. I know there will always be those who will give scant regard to the exact route they’re on, wishing only to careen wildly into tomorrow.
Such individuals will likely be unmoved by any and all appeals to act with more considered discretion.
This is a plea therefore not to them, but to other, more prudent souls.
Who, whether given or not to the occasional reckless adrenaline rush, recognise that the prospects of our long-term survival should trump immediate hedonistic gratification. And who are thus willing to marshal efforts towards that, one would think uncontroversial, end. To exercise their moral and intellectual responsibility, into questions of where we currently are, where we should be going, and what we must do to get there.
And to do it.