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Can Electric Vehicles change the world? Part 1/3: A Third Comeback

electric car huffington post oldDid you know that the Electric Car was invented before gas guzzlers took over? It was in the 1830s that Robert Anderson of Scotland designed the very first electric car, run on non-rechargeable battery.  “Le Jamais Contente” a Belgian electric racing car even won the record for the fastest land speed at 68mph in the year 1899.

The electric car, was chugging its way to success especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s; popular because it was quiet, vibration-free and gasoline odour-free. It was easier to drive without the need to change gears. Gasoline fed vehicles didn’t have these advantages. Besides they had to be cranked up, which was a cumbersome process.

Enter three individuals into the scene, and we begin to see the brakes on what could have been a flourishing electric car industry: Henry Ford who mass produced Model T cars with the internal combustion engine (ICE) at an affordable price of $650 versus the electric car which costed on an average about $1,750.  The second was the famous oil explorer, Anthony Lucas who made a fortune discovering and drilling oil in Texas, and making gasoline really cheap for consumers. The third was Charles Kettering who invented the electric starter in 1912, a big relief from those awkward hand cranks.

who_killed_the_electric_carThe next major attempt to revive the electric vehicle (EV) industry was in the 1990s especially with increasing sensitivity to air pollution and smog in cities, plus the growing awareness of global warming.  If you’ve watched the movie, “Who killed the Electric Car?” by Chris Payne, you’d begin to suspect it was not just market forces, but a conspiracy of sorts comprising the automakers, and the oil industry, the environmental regulators which suppressed the EV, along with the lack of consumer confidence.

[ “Who Killed the Electric Car” is in 9 parts on YouTube: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9]

To cut a long story short, are we now beginning to see in the second decade of the 21st century, a third time revival of the EV industry?

Pike Research in its report on “EVs: 10 Predictions for 2010″ expects a rapid growth in the sales of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles even though the combined market will represent only 2.5% of the total vehicle market globally.

Some cities have already started preparing for EVs.  The New York Times reported recently that the San Francisco building code will soon be revised requiring that new structures be wired for car chargers. Meanwhile Chinese commuters are turning to electric bicycles in millions.

Here’s a remarkable speech by EV entrepreneur Shai Agassi on TED in 2009, where he excitedly discusses his vision for scaling up EVs throughout the world. His audacious plan is to put 100 million cars on the road between 2016 and 2020.

As with every technology, we need to be aware of the environmental pluses and minuses of EVs too.

Here are the environmental benefits of EVs:

* A big relief to cities air quality, without all the noxious fumes being emitted. This could lead to big health benefits for people who are prone to asthma and cancers.

* Near- Zero carbon emissions, as far as vehicle exhaust are concerned, so it helps with global warming. (The extraction of raw materials and production does have a carbon emissions impact)

* In the era of peak oil,  diversifying away from oil, especially foreign oil is a good idea.

* The vehicle is put to good use when its stationary. On an average 80-90% of vehicles in cities like Singapore are stationery upto 22 hours, with only two hours being used on the vehicles for commuting to work, home and for leisure.

* Consumers benefit from zero noise, zero exhaust and ease of use. Range (or the distance travelled) is generally not an issue for the average city commute though for longer distances, we need a new infrastructure.  New developments  such as battery swap stations and improved battery life cycles, may help overcome issues with range, in the future.

And here are the minuses that merit serious attention:

* The heart of the EV is the battery. Batteries have a life-cycle impact from production to recycling.  Here’s a study that compares the lifecycle impact of 5 batteries.  The metals that go into battery making are a product of mining processes and we do have to bear the toxicity of impact of these extractions, depending on the metal, method of extraction and environmental practices.

*  EVs plug into the power grid. So is the environmental cost of EVs simply being pushed on to the grid?  All depends on how electricity will be derived from the grid. As this TreeHugger article mentions: EVs are better than conventional gas driven vehicles provided the power is not from coal plants.  A similar result was obtained from a more detailed and recent report called “Positive results from Life Cycle Assessment of EVs vs. ICEs

* If mass scale adoption of EVs occurs, this may have an impact on water consumption especially as a study shows, if the grid is powered by coal, natural gas or nuclear. This again highlights the importance of renewable energy powered grids.

* All cars require a shell, and that continues to consume resources, such as steel, water, polycarbonates and so on. Support for good quality public transport would reduce the need for individual vehicle ownership.  Having said that, the developments in the EV space could spill over to commercial vehicles, public buses, taxis and so on, making them less fuel dependent.

Finally, I borrow Alex Steffen’s words, ”

“The answer to the problem of cars and automotive emissions, for instance,  isn’t designing a better car, it’s designing a better city. Cities are the tools we need for reinventing prosperity.  We can build zero-impact cities, and we need to. Any answer to the problem of climate change needs to be as focused on reinventing the future as powering it.”

What do you think of this third comeback for EVs?  Is it for real or will it fizzle out like the other two?  What other environmental impacts do you think the EV will have?

Read the other two parts of this blog here:

Part 2: Can Electric Vehicles change the world? Part 2/3 EVs in Singapore

Part 3: Can Electric Vehicles change the world?  Part 3/3 The fun stuff

You may be interested in the following links:

The Oil Drum:  Costs and Environmental Impact of Electric Cars

Alex Steffen on WorldChanging  : My Other Car is a Bright Green City

McKinsey Report : China charges up : The EV opportunity

Life Cycle Analysis of a Li-ion Battery

Tree Hugger: Myths of Electric Vehicles

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Posted by on Feb 22 2010. Filed under Green Travel/Transport, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “Can Electric Vehicles change the world? Part 1/3: A Third Comeback”

  1. [...] Daily Discourse – Readings From A Political Duo-ble: Foreign Corruption and Money Laundering – A comparision of US & Singapore – Wild Shores of Singapore: Dredging near Kusu Island continues until Aug 10 – EcoWalkthetalk: Can Electric Vehicles change the world? Part 1/3 A Third Comeback [1][2][3] [...]

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