Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Okay, I was wrong about electric cars

Quite recently I was getting all het up about electric cars, and how I'd quite like one if only they were priced more reasonably. I have to put my hand up right now and admit I was wrong. One of the huge differences between the approach taken by politics and science is that science has to be eager to admit mistakes and move on - and I got this one wrong on good scientific reasons.

The trouble is, as was the central theme of my book Ecologic, and will crop up repeatedly in my soon to be released business book Sustainable Business, with green issues it is all too easy to let go of logic and go for emotion. And susceptible as I am to iAnything, I let logic go out of the window in my interest in an electric car.

Rule number one with being properly green is to think holistic. I don't mean by this that you should go all fruit-loopy and do a quick meditational chant over your fuel tank, or try acupuncture on your tyres. I mean when thinking of the costs and benefits to the environment you have to take into account the whole life cycle of the vehicle, not just the running costs. So you need to include, for example, CO2 emissions from manufacture, servicing and disposal of the vehicle.

Because of the heavy carbon dioxide output in the production and disposal phases of an electric car, it only breaks even (in terms of savings over conventional cars) on emissions after driving it for 80,000 miles. But the thing is, I (and a lot of others) would only use an electric car for little bitty journeys. The sort of thing I currently use my Toyota Aygo for. It would take me at least 10 years to clock up enough mileage to just break even. The fact is, for most of us, a low emission conventional car with a small engine like the Aygo or a Polo Blue Motion would be better for the environment than an electric car. And cost about 1/3 to 1/4 the price. The only reason to go electric, I'm afraid, once you've looked at this logically is to be a poser.


  1. Your forgetting 2 Major points..
    (very bad science!)

    1)The lifetime of the vehicle is not how long you use it for but how long all its drivers use it for. If it lasts longer than the break-even (80,000 miles) then its a win.

    2)The cost of 'fuel' the sensible choice here has to be mains electric at 12p/Kwh rather than Petrol at £1.40/l. No-brainer not poser.

    Additionally: The figures are also skewed due to volume production, once ev scales up production processes get better.

    I'm afraid we can only agree on one point in your article: "Okay, I was wrong"

  2. From the Original Source:

    "ELECTRIC and hybrid cars create more carbon emissions during their production than
    standard vehicles – but are still greener overall, according to a new report."

    The figures:
    Gasoline: 24t Life 5.6t Prod
    Battery: 19t Life 8.8t Prod
    (where life = 150K Mile)
    G: (24-5.6)/150 = 0.122t / 1k mile
    B: (19-8.8)/150 = 0.068t / 1k mile

    (8.8-5.6)/(0.122-0.068)= 59.25k mile Break-even
    (a little way off from 80k)

  3. So, am I OK running Caroline, my ancient 3.5-litre gas guzzling Volvo, who's practically new even though she's clocked up more than 139000 miles? I think a lot of the problem is built-in obsolescence. I read once that 90% of all Volvos ever built are still in use. My Volvo should, baring huge mishap, last forever. If you could build an electric car as robust, rust-proof and (mostly) trouble-free as a Volvo, you'd be onto a winner.

  4. You can read an interesting counter argument to mine here and a press release on the original report here

    I stick by my comments, I'm afraid. The trouble is, the numbers in the report are themselves rather suspect.

    Firstly it seems to assume you only need one battery set, but you would need AT LEAST one replacement set, meaning you have to add an extra 4 tonnes plus to the production and more to the disposal.

    Secondly 150,000 km is still a lot for a runabout. Remember you won't be taking electric cars on long journeys down the motorway.

    Finally it is comparing it with a midsized petrol car. I am not. I am comparing with an Aygo or Polo Blue Motion, which are better than a hybrid on running emissions, and much better once you take full life cycle into account.

    The fact is the comparison is a lot closer than many are willing to admit.

  5. I expect not, Henry. I can't imagine Caroline's emissions are good. But I bet she has a great aura.

  6. Brian

    Do you remember in the old days when e mail was a nascent technology and there was a constant debate about whether it was worth putting in an e mail server or not; the cost benefit analysis never seemed to justify the investment in the additional computers required to allow everyone to have one at their desk - and hence make e mail work.

    What was needed was an act of faith that the technology would come good in the long run; those companies that took that risk gained significant advantage over those that didnt because computers could do more than just e mail and although it was hard to measure those benefits in the long run having more staff with IT skills helped businesses to compete better

    Which is a long winded way of saying that sometimes all the financial analysis in the world is meaningless if there are sufficient users willing to support another nascent technology.

    From my point of view it makes sense to have a cheaper way of travelling from A to B but if it comes at such an additional price then I'm afraid I can wait until there is no significant difference between the cost of petrol and electric cars; plus I'm not keen on buying something that has a significantly lower range than my current vehicle, whatever the environmental impact.