Living with EVs

Guest Blogger
Head of Arup Advanced Technology and Research (AT&R) in the UK

A Chartered Engineer and Member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Peter has worked on projects from vibration mitigation through to being a Logistician and Project Coordinator for a 100 bed hospital in Sierra Leone. Peter is currently involved in the Coventry and Birmingham Low Emissions Demonstrator (CABLED) programme, the largest public trial of low carbon vehicles in the UK.

Electric vehicles (EVs) now feature frequently in both the mainstream media and technical press. You will, however, see few on the streets as there were only just over 1,000 ultra-low carbon vehicles registered in 2010, and in fact there are probably more public charging posts than there are vehicles currently.
Through my role on the CABLED project I have been privileged to have had access to electric vehicles for over a year now. I am currently using an electric smart fortwo, and have also driven a Mitsubishi i-MiEV and a Citroen C1 Ev’ie fitted with induction power charging technology.

My experience has been a positive one. EVs are fun to drive and I have effortlessly substituted the EV for our diesel saloon on journeys less than about 40 miles. Concerns about range, charge point availability and charge time are easily ‘managed’ almost without realising. You quickly learn which journeys are suitable and where charging points are, allowing for these factors becomes a ‘normal’ and almost subconscious part of journey planning.  
But we are a two car family and I estimate that we have travelled around 700 miles in the EV and 3,000 in the diesel since Christmas.  In the UK as a whole 94% of car journeys are less than 25 miles, but the remaining 6% constitute 37% of total vehicle miles.  One car households will currently continue to buy petrol cars so that they are able to travel long distances when necessary. To have any chance of reducing carbon from transport by 80% we must find a low carbon substitute for the longer journeys – or significantly change our travelling behaviour.
The latter seems unlikely, but 2050 is a long way away and in the last six months alone many of us have modified our driving habits in response to rapidly rising fuel prices. Personally I drive slower, I drive less and I cycle more. My health and my wealth have benefitted, and I am pleased on both counts. If petrol prices dropped by 50p a litre tomorrow then I would like to think that some of these changes would still stick.
There are some precedents for government policy (rather than affordability) bringing about significant reductions in travel. The introduction of modern passports in the early 20th Century is one and restrictions on the amount of money that could be taken abroad after the Second World War is another. But in the long run we expect standards of living to increase and the ability to travel long distances at will is strongly correlated with our perceived quality of life. Technological solutions which mitigate the reduced affordability or availability of long distance travel will therefore be much sought after.
So where (and when) will such solutions be found? Again, 2050 is a long way away and technological advances are much less predictable than behavioural changes. Electricity will be ‘carbon free’ by 2050 (it will have to be if domestic and industrial carbon emissions are to reduce as required) and so electric vehicles might be part of the answer. This would require one or more of a) greater driving efficiency b) faster charging c) greater on board storage or d) en-route charging. Very significant developmental effort is taking place in each of these areas. Billions of dollars are being spent on battery technology (the significant limiting factor for greater storage or faster charging). Intelligent transport systems such as car trains can drastically reduce energy consumption and many technologies such as dynamic induction charging and fuel cells are being considered as means of extending range through en-route charging. Economists tell us that investment drives innovation and in the sector as a whole investment is now many times higher than it was 10 years ago. As engineers we are sometimes guilty of using short term factors to influence long term planning. The timescales for solving this problem – 40 years or so – are those over which economists generally have a better forecasting track-record.
As EVs become more widely available (most models are still ‘pre-production’, full production is not anticipated until mid 2012 at the earliest) some commentators will use current technological limitations to dismiss their potential contribution to the decarbonisation of private transport. Behavioural change and technological advance will happen in parallel; presuming that we meet the 2050 target I expect technology to be the greatest contributor of the two. Behavioural change will be more gradual and less noticeable, but still significant. As a population we will want to travel more, not less. We should embrace technology as the means for making this possible and remember that we are only a couple of years into a 40 year journey.