Electric vehicle

The Guardian recently reported car maker Nissan says Japan now has more charging stations than petrol stations.

The Japanese automaker, whose fully battery-powered Leaf can travel up to 172km (107 miles) on a single charge, said there were more than 40,000 places nationwide where electric car owners could recharge their vehicles, compared with fewer than 35,000 petrol stations.

It’s an exaggeration but it signals that electric vehicles are making ground on conventional petrol and diesel powered vehicles. (1)

Last week, visiting US technology entrepreneur, Tony Seba, told Australian audiences solar-powered electric cars will replace conventional energy production and transport within 15 years (‘It’s the end of energy and transportation as we know it’: Tony Seba).

According to The Age, Mr Seba’s thesis is the change will be wrought by improvements in solar power, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving cars.

“It’s the end of energy and transportation as we know it, and it’s coming very quickly,” Mr Seba said at the start of a week of investor meetings in Australia. “It’s going to be over by 2030; it has started already.”

The change will be as rapid and as unforeseen as the switch from horse-drawn carriages to cars in the early 20th century…Already, solar power costs have dropped from $US100 a watt to US45¢ a watt since 1970, a period when other forms of energy have surged in price 16-fold. That means solar’s relative cost per unit of energy production has reduced by 1300 times relative to coal, to 3000 times relative to natural gas and nuclear, he says.

I’ve discussed the various issues associated with self-driving cars a number of times before (e.g. see What should we be doing to prepare for driverless cars?) so this time I just want to look at wholly electric powered vehicles; it’s an interesting issue in its own right.

The key advantage of the improved battery performance and cost cited by Mr Seba is it will enable electricity to compete with oil in terms of the latter’s big advantage i.e. portability. There are some obstacles at this stage, though.

Notwithstanding Mr Seba’s buoyant outlook, the cost of solar collection and storage is still uncompetitive; the cost of making electric vehicles is still high; and range and charging time are still significant constraints.

There are other potential issues too. Conventional power units are getting more efficient; oil suppliers are likely to compete on price; and governments looking to replace fuel tax revenue might find it hard to levy electricity used for transport separately from other uses.

A huge investment in expanded generation and storage capacity – presumably all of it renewable – would be required. Mr Seba thinks this will mostly happen at the local level.

Assuming the technological, environmental and cost issues can be addressed successfully – and I’m optimistic – there’s nevertheless no obviously compelling reason why motorists would want to shift to electric vehicles. From the motorists point of view it’s just a different engine.

In fact some motorists might prefer the performance characteristics and cultural associations of the internal combustion engine (see this paper vis a vis interest in driverless cars) and it’s likely it’ll continue to improve on the technological, environmental and marketing front too.

I expect significant change would initially depend on some form of regulatory intervention e.g. higher taxes on petrol and/or sustained subsidies for renewably-generated electricity.

A wholesale change from oil-powered to electric vehicles powered by clean energy would eliminate pollution and emissions. But I don’t think the change would have much direct effect on key urban issues like traffic congestion and sprawl.

If there’s a big change it’s more likely it will be the result of differences in how transport energy is taxed. The really big changes impacting cities will come from driverless cars and that’s independent of how they’re powered i.e. if they’re smart enough to drive themselves they’ll be smart enough to top-up the tank or fit the plug.

Where a shift to clean energy might have a major impact, though, is on the way urban policy is framed and debated. It would eliminate the basis for much of the opposition to private vehicles that’s rooted in emissions and pollution. It wouldn’t do away with all environmental objections – embodied emissions would still be problematic – but it would remove the most visible one.

Public policy debates around cars might then be conducted mostly in terms of traditional transport considerations e.g. congestion, safety, amenity and the financial and social cost of building new infrastructure. I expect that would be swamped soon enough though by debate on the positives – and negatives – of driverless cars (see Would a world of driverless cars be all beer and skittles?).

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  1. Petrol stations have multiple bowsers whereas the great majority of charging points service a single vehicle; the appropriate measure would be something like the rate of energy that can be delivered to vehicles at public sites. Many of the cited charging points are for single vehicles and located in private parking spaces/garages.