Electric Vehicles - Good or Bad?

 We have a small campervan - and I do mean small - powered by a 1500 cc diesel engine. It is both our family car and holiday home. It does about 45 mpg (19 kilometres/litre). It was bought new in 2013 so is getting on for 9 years old and has done 47141 miles: a total of 14.6 tonnes CO2  which includes extraction & refining of the fuel, vehicle manufacture and total fuel used.

Vacanza Campervan based on the Nissan NV200

Electric options were not available at the time of purchase and diesel was considered better for the environment back in 2013 due to its lower carbon emissions; typically, 120g CO2/km and 200g CO2/km respectively for diesel and petrol. We then had the 'dieselgate' scandal in 2015 and, more recently, increased concern about the size and amount of Particulate Matter (PM) in the exhaust. Most deleterious to health are the smaller PM2.5 (< 2.5 μm) that are emitted in greater quantites from diesel cars. This is an oversimplification since modern diesel and petrol cars have very similar overall emissions though diesel is still, in general, slightly worse. This YouTube video by Sabine Hossenfelder provides a useful summary of the current situation with diesel cars (her other videos on a wide range of topics are very good too).

Improvements to internal combustion engines (ICE), such as particulate filters/traps and catalytic converters, have reduced the amount and toxicity of tailpipe emissions. Nevertheless, from the perspective of climate change, air pollution, health impacts and depletion of a finite resource, it is time to move away from fossil fuels. 

Oft-heard criticisms of electric vehicles (EVs) include: (i) higher carbon footprint to make EVs compared to ICE vehicles - mainly due to battery manufacture, (ii) EVs run on dirty electricity produced in coal-fired power stations, (iii) mining for lithium, cobalt, nickel, etc for EV batteries is carbon intensive and exploitive.  Some of these ideas are presented in this YouTube video from PragerU (not a university nor an educational platform, more a 'right-wing' advocacy group).

If you thought the arguments presented in the PragerU video were convincing then you are in serious need of a course in critical thinking and skepticism. The YouTube video below, from Potholer 54, addresses the most egregious claims (i.e. misinformation) ...

See here for a recent and global Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from EV and ICE passenger cars. Even in India, which is heavily reliant on coal-fired electricity generation, EVs have 19-34% lower lifetime GHG emissions than gasoline/petrol equivalents.

As regards the 'dirty' mining of metals, let us not forget that the petroleum and petrochemical industries are also heavy users of these materials. There are some valid concerns about whether the supply of lithium can keep up with the current demand for EV and stationary batteries, but there is no shortage of this element in the earth's crust. And new developments in battery technology may circumvent even these problems.

The pros and cons of EV ownership have been expounded many times. Compared with ICE vehicles, EVs are more efficient, have fewer moving parts (lower maintenance costs), low/zero on-road tailpipe emissions, quiet, easy to drive (like automatics), can be charged at home, and are, generally, cheaper to run. The disadvantages include higher upfront cost of EVs, moderate mileage range, lack of charging infrastructure, longer 'refill' times, battery replacement is expensive, low/zero emissions only if electricity produced from renewable of low-carbon sources.

Also do not forget that pollution from vehicle tyre wear is now significantly higher than that emitted from the exhaust pipe of modern cars.

Ultimately, we must all change our habits regarding personal transport. Less personal and more community transport. This will enable humanity to decarbonize and reduce its energy use in the transport sector. Your personal freedom will be curtailed a little but you will still be able to fly to that holiday destination in the sun. On the plus side, cities become people-based rather than car-based and much nicer and healthier to live in.

If we were to buy another car, it would be an EV. However, I expect our campervan to be the last car we own before we start to rely on public transport. Ideally, we would run it into the ground and then recycle it (i.e. scrap or break up for parts). If we were to sell a working campervan in order to buy an EV then we would not be reducing our carbon footprint - merely passing on that responsibility to someone else. Decarbonizing the personal transport sector needs (i) reducing the total number of vehicles on the road, (ii) direct substitution of EVs for ICE vehicles which are then scrapped, (iii) expansion of public transport, (iv) improved safety for very low carbon transport (bikes, scooters, walking, etc), (v) implementing the '15 minute city' concept into existing and new urban design and planning.

This YouTube video is meant to make you think ...

 ... you don't have to agree with him but you should give it some careful thought.

A couple of days ago, we left the campervan on the drive and used our bus passes (free travel for pensioners) to visit Leominster, a market town approximately 14 miles away. There were a couple of bus options; both had journey times of about 40 minutes. The trip to Leominster from Hereford on the 501 (the bus stop was only a minute's walk from home) was the more circuitous route involving lots of winding country lanes. By the time we arrived in Leominster, I was feeling distinctly under the weather due to travel sickness - a long-standing issue for me, especially on small boats! Mary was fine! The return journey on a similar-sized bus (route 492) was more direct, mainly on A-roads and a good deal less stomach-churning; we also had a longer walk back home (10-15 minutes) in the colder afternoon weather.

The trip made me think of a few things (in no particular order):
  • Travelling by bus does take longer and lacks the convenience of personal door-to-door transport.
  • Travel sickness is an issue for me but is not a game changer. I'm fine on intercity buses/coaches and trains. It is something I'm going to have to get used to living in a rural county like Herefordshire.
  • Diesel buses are noisy and vibrate a lot; electric buses would be quieter, less polluting and altogether more pleasant.
  • Mary, who does all the driving, enjoyed taking in the many scenic views that Herefordshire offers and the lower stress levels from not having to drive.
  • There is some 'bus timetable anxiety', particularly in rural counties such as Herefordshire where the number and frequency of bus routes are severely limited. We never had this problem when we lived in London because there was always another bus in 10-15 minutes. In Herefordshire, you are lucky if the next bus is only two hours later and you want to travel in daylight hours only. At least these days you can check on your mobile (assuming you have a signal) whether you have just missed the bus, it has been cancelled or, as you planned, it will arrive in the next 5 minutes!
  • Careful planning of your journey certainly helps. We also had a backup plan to catch the train back from Leominster - albeit this was not a free journey.
  • I counted only 5 other passengers on the Hereford to Leominster leg of the journey. At least 3 of these came from a very rural caravan encampment where the bus service was, clearly, their only option. I suspect the remaining two passengers (of the age to have a free bus pass) were also dependent on this bus service. There were probably a dozen or so passengers, including ourselves, on the return journey. This seemed a reasonably high number for a Friday between 11 am and 3 pm.
  • About 20% of households in England do not have access to a car. In London, over 40% of households do not have a car thanks to better and affordable public transport (buses, tube, trains, trams, light railway, river ferries/taxis, bicycles) operated under a single authority, Transport for London (TfL).
  • In my opinion, the way forward is to establish local transport hubs (e.g. integrated train and bus stations) and electrify all modes of transport (trains, buses, bicycles, scooters). If services were regular and affordable then it would encourage people to ditch the car in favour of public transport. Either offer a regular 10-minute service or use technology to inform passengers when the next service is available. The benefits would be huge: no more traffic jams, reduced air pollution, less stress, smaller road-building programmes, less strain on the NHS, a rebirth of nature in urban environments, and much more.
  • The average cost of running a car in the UK is about £3,500 per year. So, with about 33 million cars on the road, that is £112 billion in total spent on personal transport by UK citizens. About the same as the GDP of Ukraine before Putin's illegal invasion. The operating costs for TfL are about £7 billion for the 9 million people living in London while the railways covering the rest of England cost £17 billion. It appears to me that we are not spending our money wisely just to kill off 30,000 people a year by polluting the air!
  • Finally, a couple of YouTube channels highlighting how car-centrism is destroying our lives, our cities and our planet. These are examples - don't forget to have a look at some of the other videos they produce.


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