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EVs and the environment

19 September 2017

Electric vehicles are going to save the planet... rah, rah, rah!

Well that's the pitch being made by some folk and on the face of it, things sound pretty reasonable.

Replacing evil CO2-generating dino-juice with clean, clinical uber-clean electrons has to be better for the planet... right?

Well I'd say that in most cases, an EV is going to have a smaller environmental footprint than your mate's V8 Holden -- but it's not as cut and dried as it might seem and there are probably many ways in which the EV-advantage could be significantly increased.

For a start, in some countries, the electricity to power your EV is probably going to come from coal, oil or gas-fired generation. Hmmm... that simply replaces one CO2 emitter with another. Probably not going to help too much is it?

Well actually, it's probably a snot-load better to burn one of these fossil fuels and power an uber-efficient multi-stage turbine generator to power EVs than to burn the same fuel in an IC engine on the road.

The average car engine has a thermal efficiency of little more than 20%. This means that 80% of the fuel's energy is wasted. Compare this to the much higher efficiency of coal (47%) or a combined cycle gas turbine plant (58%) and you can see that even when fossil fuels are the source of the electricity, an EV still comes out ahead.

However, if we are to really reduce the total environmental impact of our transport vehicle fleet then we have to make some other compromises.

Motor vehicles, regardless of their motive power source, are very energy-intensive to manufacture.

Steel must be refined (or recycled), plastics have to be produced and molded, copper must be refined and formed into wire, glass has to be made and molded into windscreens, windows and headlights, bauxite has to be turned into aluminium (very energy intensive) and then cast and machined into engine parts, wheel rims, etc.

So long as we keep rolling out new models every year and regularly trading in the whole car just to get slightly better performance or more elegant styling then cars are going to be incredibly environmentally harmful.

If we really want to reduce the environmental impact of transportation then we're not only going to have to go electric but we're also going to have to change the entire way we build, maintain and upgrade our vehicles.

For a start -- these things will have to be modular.

Why replace an entire car just to get the benefits of next year's model? It's lunacy!

A modular vehicle will make it easy to simply replace the electric motors with newer, more efficient ones and to retrofit the stability control system with whatever is deemed to be better as that improvement is developed.

Even styling can become an incremental upgrade. Detachable body-shells or panels would allow for a "facelift" to be rolled out every year or two -- without the horrendous environmental impact of scrapping every other component in the vehicle, as is currently the case.

EVs should last a lot longer than dino-juicers -- by dint of the fact that they have fewer moving parts and no "engine" or exhaust system. Aside from "consumables" such as tyres and brakes, the EV should be virtually maintenance free for a very long period compared to today's cars. Even after several hundred thousand Kms, a well designed EV will simply need new suspension bushes/shocks and perhaps a new battery to remain practical, efficient and safe.

Of course the biggest hurdle to this will be weaning consumers off the concept of buying a new car every couple of years. For many it's a prestige thing, an outward statement of success or just a treat they give themselves to remind them why they're working so hard.

Sadly, just as is the case with privacy, this may be something that will be lost in the interest of the greater good.

Of course there will be forces that strive to oppose the move to EVs and the concept of low-footprint vehicles. I'm pretty sure that the automotive service industry will live in fear of the day that we're all driving EVs and the regular service intervals are measured in years rather than months. Likewise, new car salesmen will shudder at the prospect that people can simply upgrade their ride for far less than the cost of buying a whole new car.

Such is life however -- I don't think that the buggy-whip industry had it any better in the early 1900s.

What do readers think?

Should we take the opportunity to completely redesign exactly how we build and upgrade vehicles as part of the transition to EVs? Might the move towards modular construction and progressive upgrades do as much for the environment as the actual transition away from petrol and diesel?

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