As a keen environmentalist you would assume I would be favour of the government’s direction on electric cars, but they simply aren’t the answer. A horse would be a better option.
Let me explain:
Let’s take the Nissan Leaf, for example, and mainly because it the most accessible and, probably, one of the most popular electric cars out there at the moment. It can go 84miles on a full charge. Figures vary on how long it takes to fully charge it, from between four hours to 12 hours depending on the charger type, and the model of leaf. So, for sake of this article, and because I think technology will improve lets say six hours is a (un)reasonable amount of time. What you do at the charging station on the side of the motorway for six hours, especially when it has a two hour parking limit is of course an additional problem, but let’s first look at the practicalities of some of my own personal journeys.
A trip to my mothers is usually around 11 hours of driving time, with some stops for teas and pees, in a petrol car. During this time I will cover, according to Google maps, 550.5miles.
So, based on the distance of 550.5 miles this would require me to recharge my electric car 6.55 times. In practical terms let’s say seven times, because I need to allow for minor detours and any possible hold ups. That equates to my spending 42 hours charging it up on the trip, plus the 11 hours of actual driving. Let’s now say that I only stop to eat, and sleep, during the charging periods, which would be sensible, it would take me 2.21 days to drive to my mothers, and 2.21 days to drive back. So, instead of a week long visit of seven days, with two days travelling, five days with mum, I now have just three days with my mother, and that assumes I slept in my car when it was charging and didn’t mind spending 4.5 days travelling for three days visiting. To be honest, faced with this option, most people are going to fly instead. Where does that benefit the environment?
Now obviously I don’t do this trip every week, although some people do similar trips that often, but let’s take say…a trip to the nearest main hospital, in my case that means Aberdeen. This is a trip of 66miles each way, and quite a lot of people do similar daily commutes, so that’s a relative common journey.
In theory, having charged my car to capacity at home, I can get to the hospital, where I will now need to again charge my car for six hours before I can then drive home again. It means I have to occupy a charging point in the already overcrowded hospital car park for six hours, as does almost every other attendee, member of staff, and the visitors. The overstretched NHS are going to need to expand the car park by around 400% capacity, based on the average attendee being there, usually, for not more than two hours. Not to mention digging it all up to install all those charging points in the first place. Is this realistic for the patient? Is is realistic for the hospital? No.
The policy makers are, generally speaking, living mainly in cities where the average journey is under 4 miles. Can you tell?
I haven’t even mentioned that while those hundreds of people are waiting for their cars to charge they need to be housed, fed, and watered. Visiting periods at the hospital on some wards are only two hours long so what do they do for the other four?
In purely time of practically and time for journeys the electric car model is simply not, at the moment, an option for people who do not live in cities. To be honest, if you live in a city where the average journey is under four miles you could walk or cycle and not have a car anyway, so the electric car is now redundant. It is impractical for anyone who doesn’t live in a city, and not really required by this who do.
Now let’s look at those batteries which are going to charge my (impossible) journeys – they use Lithium. Lithium is a globally limited resource, which means if everybody needs it the price is going to rise dramatically as the resource dwindles, and the process is more detrimental to the environment than the extraction of fuel for petrol cars. Here is an interesting article looking at these issues. The price of an electric car is not going to come down, it’s going to go up. Unless we can find a way of storing the power that doesn’t involve a limited and increasingly expensive resource, and that charges much, much quicker.
And, you have to also consider how the electricity that is used to power the car is generated also. Coal fired power station? No. Nuclear power? No thanks. Wind/wave turbines – at the cost of ruining our countryside and our seas, because we would need a hell of a lot more of them and we would need the means of transporting and storing that power also? No, preferably not. The Scottish economy runs on oil, whisky, and tourism. Take away the oil, because we are all using electric cars, and that leaves whisky and tourism. Take away the tourism because nobody wants to look at or listen to hundreds of thousands of wind turbines, and that leaves just whisky…
So, we can say that the electric car doesn’t work for many journeys undertaken regularly today even in a small country like the UK. Imagine transporting goods and people across the vast plains of the United States in electric vehicles?
According to Autotrader, the best range is provided by the American Tesla Model S with between 218 and 315 miles. Even allowing for the starting price of £57,400 in the UK not putting people off, how practical is it? Take that trip to mums again – 550.5miles, at least two charges, one at home and one on the road. My journey to mums is now at minimum with the fastest charge time of three hours, going to be 14hours long. But, if the slowest charge time is taking into account it becomes 28hours, or double.
In the US, route 66 is 2,448 miles across the country. So that means charging your Tesla at least eight times, but it’s actually more practical than it sounds in the UK because to drive 2,448 miles at 50mph (US speed limit) would take you 49 hours anyway so you can easily do your charges overnight. There you go, it is more practical to own an electric car in the home of the 5l V8 (21mpg) Mustang than it is in the home the 1.1 (64mpg) Ford Fiesta…
The net result of imposing electric cars on the UK, and probably many other countries, is that more people are going to fly. Given that one single take off in a Boeing 747 amounts to an output of things terrible for the environment greater than I would ever produce from my low emission petrol car in 40 years of driving, how is this going help air quality or global warming. You also have to consider that we have to move goods around the world, by boat or plane, and these have a far greater impact in a single journey than a city of diesel car drivers will have in a year.
All in all, and I’m sorry Elon Musk, but it isn’t the answer. We need an answer, but electric cars are probably not it, at least not outside the USA.
So what is?
You’ll remember that I said at the start of this article that a horse would be a better option? Yes, that was tongue in cheek and I don’t really see us going back to using horses, with or without carriages, but let me explain why horses are actually a better option.
Take that journey to my mothers – 550.5miles, 53hours with a relatively affordable electric car, including charging periods. At the end of the stagecoach era the coach teams were going at around 12mph. That means that a trip to my mothers would take, in theory, just under 46hours by stagecoach. So, a horse and carriage can beat an electric car journey by 7 hours. Horses do not require any fuel in the generated sense – no power station to make the electricity, and no lithium mines of course. The emissions are lower still, the environmental impact of the vehicles construction, and maintenance considerably less, the impact on the earth surface of roads is reduced because the horses won’t be good running on our tarmac, and the journey is actually quicker. My friends, we would be better returning to the age of the stagecoach than the electric car!
You’d need a lot of horses mind, given how many people are travelling. The population in 1851, which is really towards the end of the major stage coach era was 16.8million. In 2001 it was 49.1million, according to the Office for National Statistics and the UK census records (see here). We know it’s going to be around, probably over, 60million by now.
So what are our other options, if the government persists with the plan for all electric cars by 2040? Well, we could have government electric car stagecoaches. Instead of waiting for the charging of your car, nobody actually owns a car anymore, and we just borrow one and drive from staged charging point to staged charging point, swapping our flat car for a charged car. This means we could then reduce the drive time to be little more than it is now, but a lot of thought would have to go into how it works and it would also mean decanting your luggage and passengers roughly every hour to hour and a half throughout the 11hour drive. It is doable, but would you do it? Or would you just fly, and hire your own electric car at the destination?
So what about that flight option? Well, for me to fly I have to drive to Inverness or Aberdeen airport (1hr/1.5hrs). Then I have a 90minute check in, a two hour flight, around 30minutes to get out the airport with my luggage and get to my hire car, and then from Luton to my mothers (as an example) is around 1.5hr-2hr drive. The whole thing would take me around 7 hours. That is 4 hours less than it takes me to drive it now, on average, but I don’t do it because its messy and inconvenient, environmentally unfriendly, and car hire is expensive (the flights are not).
A visit to my mums – 7 hours fly-car option, 11 hours petrol car option, 46hours by horse, or 53hours by electric car.
Maybe we should go back to looking at hydrogen……