Why the electric vehicle revolution will bring problems of its own

April 17, 2018 by Martin Brueckner, The Conversation
Electric cars are taking over – but they really as green as they look? Credit: Jack Amick / flickr, CC BY-NC

After years of being derided as a joke by car manufacturers and the public, interest in electric vehicles has increased sharply as governments around the world move to ban petrol and diesel cars.

We have seen a tremendous rise in availability, especially at the premium end of the market, where Tesla is giving established brands a run for their money. Electric cars are likely to penetrate the rest of the market quickly too. Prices should be on par with conventional cars by 2025.

Electric cars are praised as the answer to questions of green and clean mobility. But the overall sustainability of is far from clear. On closer examination, our entire transport paradigm may need to be rethought.

Compared with combustion engines, electric transport has obvious advantages for emissions and human health. Transport is responsible for around 23% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions globally. This is expected to double by 2050.

Motor vehicles also put a burden on society, especially in urban environments where they are chiefly responsible for noise and air pollution. Avoiding these issues is why electric vehicles are considered a key technology in cleaning up the transport sector. However, come with problems of their own.

Dirt in the supply chain

For one, electric vehicles have a concerning supply chain. Cobalt, a key component of the in electric cars, is linked to reports of child labour. The nickel used in those same batteries is toxic to extract from the ground. And there are environmental concerns and land use conflicts connected with lithium mining in countries like Tibet and Bolivia.

The elements used in battery production are finite and in limited supply. This makes it impossible to electrify all of the world's transport with current battery technology. Meanwhile, there is still no environmentally safe way of recycling lithium-ion batteries.

While electric cars produce no exhaust, there is concern about fine particle emissions. Electric cars are often heavier than conventional cars, and heavier vehicles are often accompanied by higher levels of non-exhaust emissions. The large torque of electric vehicles further adds to the fine dust problem, as it causes greater tyre wear and dispersion of dust particles.

Different motor, same problem

Electric vehicles share many other issues with conventional cars too. Both require roads, parking areas and other infrastructure, which is especially a problem in cities. Roads divide communities and make access to essential services difficult for those without cars.

A shift in people's reliance on combustion cars to electric cars also does little to address sedentary urban lifestyles, as it perpetuates our lack of physical activity.

Other problems relate to congestion. In Australia, the avoidable social cost of traffic congestion in 2015 was estimated at A$16.5 billion. This is expected to increase by 2% every year until 2030. Given trends in population growth and urbanisation globally and in Australia, electric cars – despite obvious advantages over fossil fuels – are unlikely to solve urban mobility and infrastructure-related problems.

Technology or regulation may solve these technical and environmental headaches. Improvements in recycling, innovation, and the greening of battery factories can go a long way towards reducing the impacts of battery production. Certification schemes, such as the one proposed in Sweden, could help deliver low-impact battery value chains and avoid conflict minerals and human rights violations in the industry.

A new transport paradigm

Yet, while climate change concerns alone seem to warrant a speedy transition towards electric mobility, it may prove to be merely a transition technology. Electric cars will do little for and liveability in the years to come. Established car makers such as Porsche are working on new modes of transportation, especially for congested and growing markets such as China.

Nevertheless, their vision is still one of personal vehicles – relying on electric cars coupled with smart traffic guidance systems to avoid urban road congestion. Instead of having fewer cars, as called for by transport experts, car makers continue to promote individualised transport, albeit a greener version.

With a growing population, a paradigm shift in transport may be needed – one that looks to urban design to solve transportation problems.

In Copenhagen, for example, bikes now outnumber cars in the city's centre, which is primed to be car-free within the next ten years. Many other cities, including Oslo in Norway and Chengdu in China, are also on their way to being free of cars.

Experts are already devising new ways to design cities. They combine efficient public transport, as found in Curitiba, Brazil, with principles of walkability, as seen in Vauben, Germany. They feature mixed-use, mixed-income and transit-oriented developments, as seen in places like Fruitvale Village in Oakland, California.

These developments don't just address -related environmental problems. They enhance liveability by reclaiming urban space for green developments. They reduce the cost of living by cutting commuting cost and time. They deliver health benefits, thanks to reduced pollution and more active lifestyles. They improve social cohesion, by fostering human interaction in urban streetscapes, and help to reduce crime. And of course, they improve economic performance by reducing the loss of productivity caused by congestion.

Electric cars are a quick-to-deploy technology fix that helps tackle climate change and improve – at least to a point. But the sustainability endgame is to eliminate many of our daily travel needs altogether through smart design, while improving the parts of our lives we lost sight of during our decades-long dependence on cars.

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5 comments

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dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (3) Apr 17, 2018
Most eleectric cars beyond 2025 will not be using Lithium batteries. And self driving taxis should bring the cost of shared transport (taxis) down considerably
Edenlegaia
3 / 5 (2) Apr 17, 2018
Most eleectric cars beyond 2025 will not be using Lithium batteries. And self driving taxis should bring the cost of shared transport (taxis) down considerably


Whoa, beware. You're awfully close to prophecies and myths with such claim. Most EV could very well continue to use Lithium batteries and it wouldn't be surprising.
Steve_S2
5 / 5 (6) Apr 17, 2018
Quite a bit of Misinformation and errors in this piece and ironically coming from "The Conversation (Australia)" you would normally have expected something that was not only current & accurate without the commonly forwarded MYTHS that the Pro Fossil Fuellers toss around.

Cities have switched to completely electric busses (Shezen for example with 17,000 E-Busses) and many more. The COBALT & Lithium FALSE FLAG is being waved, newer Chemistries use much less and alternatives AND ARE RECYCLABLE !!!! In FACT it's mandated in China (no one else wants to oddly). Commercial car, truck & transport fleets are being changed to Electric and NOT just in China ! Ever hear of UPS or DHL Post ?

The WORST PART - China is pushing EV's and they are selling at record pace and even Western Auto is doing it THERE. The WEST is BEING LEFT OUT by our own Carmakers who still push diesel ! First World to get the Goods LAST ! Intentionally SO by Corporate Demand.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Apr 17, 2018
Prices should be on par with conventional cars by 2025.

Prices are already on par (actually below) conventional cars if you calculate total cost of ownership (TCO). If you do the calcs you will find that despite a 50% surcharge on the sticker price over a comparable ICE car you actually save money over the entire lifetime of the car when buying an EV.
At the end of the day TCO is what impacts your wallet.
and heavier vehicles are often accompanied by higher levels of non-exhaust emissions.

Like brakes and tires? Oh, wait: EVs don't brake nearly as much as ICE cars because they mostly use recuperation. Tires might be an issue, but companies are already starting to sell special EV tires to address this.

electric cars – despite obvious advantages over fossil fuels – are unlikely to solve urban mobility and infrastructure-related problems

What has this got to do in an article that claims to show up the problems "electric vehicles have of their own"?
gkam
1 / 5 (1) Apr 19, 2018
This article completely misses the biggest (by far), change in our society which is: What do we do with the hundred million people whose incomes are tied to some part of the internal combustion engine, its manufacture its parts, its sales, its upkeep?

Oil and gas are a small part of it, compared to tune-up places, emissions checks, oil changers, repair mechanics, the folk who make oil filters, and all the folks who sell them parts and everything else.

We have to plan for that now, because the transition will be quick.

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