A couple of weeks ago I was observing a workshop on climate solutions, and the room was discussing the merits of various transport options. A well meaning and environmentally-minded fellow started laying into electric cars. They were no kind of climate solution, he insisted, because they still cause pollution and the batteries cannot be recycled. So no, we shouldn’t invest in charging networks or waste time encouraging people to switch to EVs.
I found myself defending electric cars again. Yes, walking and cycling come first. Then public transport. Car culture needs to be challenged, but cars will be with us for a long time yet and we will not get to zero emissions without electric vehicles of all kinds. They cause less pollution, and the batteries can be recycled. EVs aren’t a techno-fix for climate change, but they are a massive improvement on what we have. (And I can’t help noticing that many of the local greens who dismiss EVs in meetings then drive themselves home in their diesel cars.)
As usual, there is a balance here. An electric car is better than a petrol or diesel car, but not as good as no car at all. And not all electric cars are created equal, which is what I wanted to focus on today. We don’t want to switch power sources but otherwise leave all the worst aspects of car culture untouched.
Exhibit A in how to do it badly is this the electric hummer.
In its original incarnation it was one of the most inefficient petrol cars ever made, one of very few cars to score below 10 miles per gallon. That made it a tough sell when oil prices shot up in 2007-08. Dealerships started going bust, the brand was worthless and it was discontinued in 2010.
It’s now back as an electric car – and a highly popular one. It has sold 90,000 pre-orders and buyers are likely to spend two years on the waiting list. President Biden took a test drive in one recently as a publicity stunt. And yet it’s a stupid car. The stupidities of the original have been carried over: it’s too big for the road and for parking spaces. It’s deadly to pedestrians. It’s massively inefficient and will be very vulnerable to rising electrity prices.
The Hummer is an extreme example of an important negative trend. People love big cars, and the car manufacturers have been happy to supply them. They make more money that way. Given the popularity and profitability of larger cars, the industry has prioritised electric SUVs. There are many to choose from on the market, while the wait goes on for small and affordable electric cars.
Globally, just over half of all electric cars sold are SUVs.
This replicates all the problems with SUVs for a new generation of cars: too much space on the roads and car parks, greater risks to pedestrians, inefficiency of materials and the energy to run them, etc.
There are specific issues around electric SUVs too. If we’re concerned about batteries, then it’s worth considering the extra size and weight of SUV batteries. They need more materials, which adds extra pressure to already stretched supply chains. (The materials in one 3-ton Hummer battery could apparently make the batteries for 400 e-bikes) Heavy vehicles do more damage to roads, which will have long term costs. Cars with bigger batteries spend longer charging, which holds up public charging points. And the large energy demands of electric SUVs make it harder to de-carbonise the grid and reach zero emissions on electricity.
So we need electric cars, but we also need a conversation about what kind of cars are welcome on our roads. We need smaller, more efficient vehicles. It isn’t enough to champion electric cars over petrol and diesel. Let’s do better than that, and be more specific about the cars, the traffic and the streets that we imagine for the future.