In September, I attended an event hosted by Ford in Frankfurt, introducing journalists to its new electric and hybrid range of cars. The journey itself was fitting. Trekking from the modest setting of Doncaster to the glass monoliths of Heathrow airport, and then to Frankfurt, with its monorails and even bigger glass monoliths, there was a distinct feeling of travelling into the future.
Our perceptions of the future more often than not includes some form of electric vehicle, flying or otherwise. Yet many see electric cars in the same category as hologram TVs or hoverboards. The New York Times said that the electric car has long been recognised as “ideal” as it was cleaner, quieter and much more economical than gasoline-powered cars: an apt quote for 2013, yet it was published in 1911. In 1915, the Washington Post wrote, “Prices on electric cars will continue to drop until they are within reach of the average family.”
Ford made its first electric car exactly 100 years ago, when, with a helping hand from Thomas Edison, it built a non-production electrified version of the Model T. However, its success was crippled by the limited battery technology of the time.
It may be reasonable to ask why, considering the technological advancements made in these 100 years, so many of us are still driving gas guzzlers. There are currently (according to Ford’s figures) around 270,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on the road worldwide. But to many, they still seem unusual, unnecessary, or at least undesirable.
A Ford-sponsored poll of 6,000 Europeans found that 54% of respondents believe that climate change is the biggest problem the world faces today, while 72% think EVs are better for the environment. But only 23% want to take efforts – including switching to electric car use – to change their future travel behavior to be greener.
However Barb Samardzich, vice-president of product development at Ford of Europe, said he saw such figures as cause for optimism. “European customers care deeply about the environment and are increasingly seeing electrified vehicles as a way of balancing those concerns with a commitment to car ownership”, he added.
With this optimism, the Ford Focus Electric is now on sale in the UK. It can achieve a top speed of 85mph with a driving range of 100 miles on a single charge – with charging time varying between 10-11 hours or 3-4 hours depending on the station.
After introductory talks in an absurdly fashionable Frankfurt hotel, the assorted crowd, largely made of automotive journalists, was invited to test drive the Focus Electric, as well as the hybrids C-MAX Energi and Fusion Hybrid, through the picturesque streets of Frankfurt.
As an unseasoned traveller whose experience on European right-sided roads consists entirely of trying to not be run over, it was suggested that I was perhaps better off in the passenger seat.
So while this article is far from an authoritative automotive review, I was assured that the Focus Electric is an almost indistinguishable drive from the standard Focus, save for its ghostly silence.
Speaking at the event was Robert Llewellyn – perhaps best known as Kryten in Red Dwarf, or for his boundlessly enthusiastic presenting of Scrapheap Challenge – now a staunch advocate of electric cars.
Llewellyn made some excellent points that debunked some of the shorthand daggers that are all too often used to puncture EV’ tires.
One of the most common putdowns, he said, he has encountered in his time as an EV driver is that “you and your green tofu-eating, sandal-wearing ecocar are dirtier than my 19-year-old diesel that’s done 50,000 miles.”
Sceptics often disregard EVs on the basis that the electricity used to fuel them has itself been produced using carbon intensive methods. This is true, to an extent. However, most EV drivers charge their cars at night. At night, lower demand means that the National Grid does not have to use all available energy sources, and can be more selective.
This means the electricity you use at night comes from comparatively high levels of nuclear and renewable sources. “The actual electricity that goes into the car is of the lowest CO2 possible”, Llewellyn explained.
With the help of a home solar panel installation, the environmental benefits, not to mention the savings, can get even better. Llewellyn claimed that last year, free solar energy added 4,500 miles to his travels. In his latest car, driving for 32,000 miles has cost him less than £600.
There are of course enduring issues with EVs. Range is one of them. Local government grants are aiding councils in installing more electric vehicle charge points across the UK, but EVs are, for the foreseeable future, far more practical for the city navigator than the rural voyager.
The other obstacle is the price tag, which can mitigate fuel savings at least in the short-term. The Focus Electric is priced from £33,500 but with an on-the-road price of £28,500 allowing for the £5,000 government plug-in car grant. An average Focus would could at least £10,000 less, meaning that almost 100 years on, the Washington Post’s prophecy arguably still hasn’t been realised. The Focus Electric has initially only been launched in small volume, and the company expect sales to depend largely on fleet purchases.
Ford says that EV prices are linked with the cost of modern battery technology. When the cost of battery technology reduces, so will the cost of electric vehicles. However, this effect will be enhanced if increased customer demand then drives larger production volumes, they optimistically add.
Roland Krüger, head of Ford of Europe’s electric powertrain development, insisted that competitive pricing must be the next step. Electrification, he argued, must happen, as rapidly rising global populations will bring more and more drivers onto the road.
Similarly, the UK government has said every new car sold in 2040 should be an electric or hydrogen vehicle. In September, the Department of Transport hailed a new strategy for the future of low-emission cars. Transport minister Norman Baker said, “Our vision is that by 2050 almost every car and van will be an ultra low-emission vehicle with the UK at the forefront of their design, development and manufacture.”
BMW’s recent advertising campaign for its i3 model also tells us “The time to become electric is now”. But as this is something we have been told for about 100 years, scepticism may be a fair reaction.
Like those people who keep saying that Fernando Torres is a good footballer once again, it’s hard to know whether to trust those who say that this time, it really is the dawn of the electric car.
However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report made it clear that the global economy must be decarbonised. The challenge is monumental, and EVs could be an important piece of the puzzle. Hybrids may play a more immediate role, but research published in July predicted that EV sales will rise by more than 200% by the end of the decade.
The necessity of the decarbonisation of our streets has never been greater. So maybe this time, the future is not so far away.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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