The interconnectedness of all things electric

2 min read

Features editor

Our recent news story about a trial of a wirelessly-charged, all-electric bus route in Milton Keynes has raised again some of the issues surrounding electric vehicles and their impact on the environment. It’s a debate which seems set to run and run, possibly to the extent that we won’t even notice the new infrastructure forming around us while we argue about it. It could be argued that that would be the best possible outcome.

Nevertheless, the issues keep being raised. If the main raison d’etre of electric vehicles is to reduce carbon emissions, then what’s the point of developing them when the electricity that runs them is still being generated by carbon-emitting power stations? Is the most pressing technological problem for electric vehicles their limited range on a single charge, the time needed to reach a full charge, the accessibility of charging points, the weight of batteries, or their cost? Is a battery charging system the best way to go for electric vehicles, or would a hydrogen-based infrastructure with fuel cell vehicles be a more practical way to go?

Many of these questions can, of course, be answered quite easily; the one about development of electric vehicles when electricity is still carbon-generating is perhaps the simplest. We simply can’t develop one then the other. It makes sense to develop electric vehicles first, because the technology can be optimised while the low-carbon generating capacity and extra distribution infrastructure can be brought into place. There are additional benefits to electric vehicles, such as improvement of urban air quality, especially when those vehicles are buses, which travel short, fixed routes and stop frequently. The constant stop-start, acceleration-deceleration cycle of a bus isn’t best suited to internal combustion engines anyway.

Moreover, shifting the emissions from multiple small, mobile engines to power stations makes them easier to deal with; and the better efficiency of electric motors over internal combustion engines means that, in terms of power used, electric vehicles lead to fewer emissions, even if the electricity was generated by coal.

These answers, perhaps, demonstrate the point about electric vehicles: it’s a highly complex web of interconnected issues. What we’re talking about here isn’t developing a technology: it’s developing an infrastructure, and one which impacts on any number of individual systems. This hasn’t happened for about a century, when the infrastructure for petrol vehicles was being established. If we look back on that now, it’s amazing that it ever worked at all. The vehicles were slow, clumsy and dangerous; the roads unprepared for the mixed traffic mode; the fuel difficult to come by.

Perhaps we’re too used to everything working smoothly. The integration of technologies such as mobile phones, personal computers and the internet into most people’s lives has been so smooth and seamless that we expect every other new technology to slot into our routine in much the same way. But electric vehicles and their sister-technologies, smart grids and distributed electricity generation, are trickier, in part because they will replace technologies we’re all familiar with, rather than adding in a new layer, as with personal computing and telecomms.

The questions need to be asked, and are being asked at research institutions, automotive manufacturers and engineering infrastructure specialists. But because of their complexity, these technologies should not and cannot be dismissed on single issue problems. They will grow around us. Perhaps we won’t notice. The Milton Keynes bus trial is an interesting case in point. Its most successful result would be that nobody using the buses will notice anything different around them.