Electric Cars = Environmental Paradox?

I was just reading a BBC news story about the new electric Mini E. This little beauty does 150 miles on a 2 hour charge at 48 amps (presumably on 230V). A quick back of the envelope calculation (actually calc on my Windows Mobile smartphone) yields figures of about 7 miles per kWh, or at 10 cents a kWh, about just 1.5 cents a mile. This is admittedly a lot better than the quoted “half the cost of a gas powered Mini”, so BMW may be considering charging you less for the vehicle (e.g. subsidizing the expensive battery) and making up the difference by effectively charging you more for electricity, i.e. miles driven.

Either way, does anyone think that a vehicle that costs half as much or less to drive is going to sit in someone’s garage while they take the bus? Especially a vehicle that isn’t exactly cheap to buy in the first place (subsidies or not, the BMW Mini field trial is $850 per month for 1 year), and is just begging to be driven - both because it’s fun as heck and also because if you’re going to be buying all that embodied energy, the only way of bringing down it’s true cost per mile is to drive it – a lot.

Which brings me to the paradox. Electric cars, while arguably better for the environment, are poised to make traffic congestion worse for everyone because they are cheaper to operate and thus will be driven more. Consequently, the remaining fossil-fuel powered vehicles on the road are going to be stuck in traffic more often and produce more carbon as a result. 

Think about it - the owners of these vehicles will feel that they are doing the environment a favor by driving an electric vehicle, especially if it's powered by renewable energy.  And frankly, if they don't drive it a lot, it seems that a lot of energy and materials would be locked in their garage for no good reason. 

So how do we solve this conundrum?  As you might expect - software is the key ingredient.  Alongside the oft-mentioned smart-grid technologies that would allow the vehicle to be charged when electricity generation is plentiful and green (e.g. windy nights and sunny mid-mornings), additional software and systems can be used to reduce traffic congestion in very efficient ways. Yes folks, I’m talking about car-pooling - Twenty-first century car-pooling software to be exact. Specifically, software that allows drivers to find - in real-time - other people who are going to destinations along their route – effectively reducing the amount of vehicles that need to be on the road at any one time.

The challenge with traditional car-pooling (or ridesharing as it’s known in the transit profession) is that it requires people to pre-arrange their travel, which invariably means that you are going to have to leave and return at the same time and place pretty much every day of the week. While this might work for folks who work on the clock, it isn’t particularly useful for large segments of the population that have some variability or flexibility in their travel schedule. And it hardly ever works on non-work days, unless you’re including taking the neighborhood kids to soccer practice.

As you travel to work during the rush hours, take a quick look around. Notice all of those empty seats in the cars around you? That’s inefficiency at work. What we need are dynamic systems that can fill those empty seats and reduce the number of shiny metal boxes traveling to any one location at any given time.

A smart, dynamic car pooling system can fix this. Leveraging the power of social networks such as Facebook and Myspace, or even the fact that you are likely to (initially) trust someone who simply works in the same company as you, ridesharing matches can be made automatically based on where you are going and when. Many of us are extensively using calendaring and scheduling features offered by applications such as Outlook and Windows Live Hotmail, and it’s conceivable that this information could be extended and leveraged to provide hints to the system about where you are and where you need to go next.

The key is – the less you have to do to make a ridesharing match, the more likely you are to make one in the first place. Let me use a personal example. My wife and I used to work in locations about 400 yards from each other. But in 4 years, we car-pooled together probably less than a dozen times. Why? Because we both had flexible schedules, and the overhead of trying to figure out if our schedules matched on the way out and back (which they rarely did, especially after we had kids) was just too much to deal with on a daily basis. Is this pathetic? Probably, and I’m not proud. But it’s also reality for most people.

However, by integrating users' calendars into the system, riders can be automatically notified of opportunities to rideshare and accept or decline on the spot using their mobile phone. Similarly, drivers in smart (electric or not) vehicles can be notified via their on-board navigation system that there is someone to pick up along their route, even after they have left home. Incentives for drivers to carry additional passengers can be created, with a debit and credit system for passengers and drivers respectively (potentially as an alternative to road tolling). GPS technology can guide both the passenger and driver to a pick up spot which doesn’t require the driver to go too far out of their way, but is not too far for the passenger to walk. I’m just scratching the surface here.

The best part about the whole system is that you can catch a ride with one person when you leave and a ride with a different person when you return, regardless of the time you travel. Many employers offer a guaranteed ride home program in the event of someone being stranded, which can help provide the safety net such a system needs until a large enough user base is established.

Most important is the need for any given metropolitan areas to invest in a single system (using open standards) so a critical mass of users can be built quickly. In the long run it does no-one any favors to have many competing systems that fragment the user base, thus reducing the chance you will find a match and discouraging users from using the system.

So while electric cars are much more efficient at converting energy into VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled), we need to look at the personal transportation challenge holistically. Simply replacing most gasoline-powered passenger vehicles with electric ones is probably necessary, but definitely not sufficient. We need to reduce the number of cars on the road as well. A system such as this could achieve that and also reduce the number of vehicles each family owns, because you’d only really need a dedicated vehicle if all the family was going out together or if you had a large amount of cargo to transport. Taking that further, if you integrated the system into car sharing schemes (like ZipCar), many families who own multiple vehicles today might be able to get out of vehicle ownership altogether.

The reality is we just don’t have enough space to keep on building roads to deal with an increasing number of single-occupant vehicles. Jevon’s paradox proposes that as you make something more efficient, the rate of consumption increases. Cheaper-to-run cars are very likely to mean more cars on the road - unless we fill most of the seats in the process. I doubt that more traffic jams would be considered great progress, even if we aren’t spewing as many poisonous gases and CO2 into the atmosphere while we sit there. The silver lining is that electric cars are very efficient when not moving or moving very slowly. However, most of the liquid fuel-burning vehicles likely to be all around you are not.

So, when you start looking for your next new vehicle (assuming you can obtain a line of credit!), ask the dealer what sort of systems come with the car to help you fill all the seats on each journey. Sure, you are likely to get a blank stare in return, but miles per gallon (or MPkWh - miles per kilowatt-hour) shouldn’t be the only measure of efficiency if we are to have a road-based transportation system in the not-too-distant future that isn’t gridlocked for most of the day.

And besides, when you’re in your brand-spanking new shiny electric car, aren’t you just dying to show it off to someone else? 🙂

P.S.  In case you were wondering, the picture depicts a Model T Ford and a Chevy Volt electric battery pack.

Comments (4)

  1. Anonymous says:

    thank you for writing such a good post.

  2. Edd says:

    Your thoughts about electric cars are really very interesting, thanks for posting. And here are my considerations.

    Environmentally-friendly and cost-effective electic cars won’t add to traffic jams and air pollution. More and more people now are working through Internet. Why should an archtect rush to the office every day when he can operate from home? I know many such examles with archtects, editors or even teachers.

    Also, most of people I know don’t use buses, they have to drive. Electric cars are much smaller because of relatively small battery capacity, so they are a real step forward.

  3. khyati says:

    Thank you for writing such an appealing post. Normally I see the same thing and it starts to get on my nerves. Thanks again and I’ll be back for more.

  4. james says:

    The electric cars are definitely the only option for urban places to reduce pollution.



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