Blog 12th September 2009 The Age of the Electric Car
This week I was invited to attend LCV2009, the second annual event to demonstrate UK commitment and capability in low carbon automotive technology. The event was organised at Millbrook proving ground by Cenex, effectively a sister company to innovITS, which I have the honour to chair, in that both were founded by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in response to the automotive industry’s request for UK Centres of Excellence in these two complementary fields, Low Carbon Vehicle technology and Intelligent Transport Systems.
The event was most impressive, significantly larger than the inaugural event in 2008. Nearly 2000 people attended including over 100 journalists and they had the opportunity to test drive a large number of prototype vehicles as well as participate in a lively series of seminars and review many other supporting exhibits. Brendan Connor, Chairman of Cenex, told me that there had been a tipping point since the previous year, no doubt assisted by the Climate Change Act 2008, the publication of the “Low Carbon Transport: A Greener Future” White Paper in June 2009 and the Technology Strategy Board’s Low Carbon Innovation Platform, particularly its Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator Programme.
I myself test drove two plug in electric vehicles, a Mini from BMW and a similar compact four seater from Mitsubishi. Both companies are planning to test a number of vehicles in the UK very soon and will be joined before too long by Nissan, GM and several others. I was impressed by the acceleration, the road handling and the all round engineering of these vehicles and could certainly imagine having one to use for all the shorter journeys. Typically such cars have a range of 100 miles before they need a fresh charge which then takes a number of hours depending on the voltage and ampage.
It is clear, then, that major car manufacturers are planning to build serious electric cars and bring them to market together with all the necessary infrastructure. Several cities in the UK are planning to install infrastructure such as charging points.
However, there are a number of critical issues that will have to be addressed before all this worthy activity makes a significant contribution to a reduction in carbon emissions.
First, while the fully electric vehicle powered by a lithium ion battery emits zero carbon emissions at the tailpipe if it is charged from the National Grid then the source of the electricity in the UK is still largely based on carbon fuels, coal and gas, and so the overall emissions will not be very much reduced. This will only change when the UK power supply is driven by a combination of nuclear and renewables and that is many years off. The position in France is very different where only 7% of their grid is based on carbon fuels.
Nevertheless, the change should still be made because it will take time and if we wait until the whole fleet of power stations has been rebuilt it will perhaps be too late. It is also desirable to improve the air quality in cities and I imagine this is why London, for example, will exempt the electric vehicle from the Congestion Charge as the streets will be just as congested if all the cars are battery powered. Another benefit of the electric vehicle is the lack of noise. Except for wheel noise at speed it is quite silent and so we can look forward to considerable reductions in noise pollution. Some groups like the blind are concerned about this and clearly their concerns must be addressed, perhaps by retraining guide dogs, but the overall benefit of quieter roads should not be underestimated. Many of our buildings, particularly city centre office blocks, are designed to keep traffic noise out and much of that cost could be saved in the future.
There is also the question of manufacture. Much of the debate seems to ignore the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process which is considerable and it will be very tough, for example, to get the carbon out of steel. One eminent representative of the automotive industry claimed that some electric cars could achieve 45 grams of CO² emissions per kilometre which on an average of 1.6 occupants per car was 25 grams per person, considerably better than the best electric train. However, another equally eminent representative of the same industry admitted that the building of the battery alone accounted for 90 grams per kilometre in the lifespan of the vehicle.
For all these reasons the solutions to the problem of climate change will be complex and varied, not simply a substitution of one kind of power for another. As far as transport is concerned it will require the more intelligent movement of people and goods and that is where the use of intelligent transport systems comes in.
Copyright David C Pearson 2009 All rights reserved