The Evils of Electric

Last post, I delved into how the Tesla Model S might be too good for its own good, if that makes any sense at all. Electric cars have gained a lot of traction since I started writing this blog and offering up other possible modes of making cars go that might become dominant. But I’d like to focus once again on just electric cars, in particular non-hybrid, 100% battery-driven vehicles, and possible consequences of their adoption. I’ve no doubt their market share will grow, and at this point in time all we think about is how wonderful it will be with silent, no-emission environmentally-friendly vehicles that’ll cost peanuts to run, and not about downsides this might bring. Let me insert a small caveat here: that I’m in no way against electric cars, in fact it’s quite the opposite, I think they’ll probably be fantastic when they overcome current problems.

With the possible advent of a slew of super-batteries, such as the University of Illinois micro-battery or graphene batteries, it’s no longer solidly arguable that charge times and range will be a hindering issue in adopting EVs as a normal everyday transport. But at what cost?

– Electricity will become more expensive
If everyone starts plugging in every night to recharge their cars, the electric grid will have to be upgraded to cope with the extra juice being extracted. That’ll cost money, and I don’t see governments picking up the bill in this economic climate. Also, markets function on the principle of supply and demand. A lot of demand will mean the suppliers will raise prices and increase their profit margin, and blame the aforementioned upgrades for the price hikes. Don’t believe me? That’s exactly what happened when oil prices spiked and the price of fuel went up, and oil companies registered record profits.

Might be avoided if…
… the march for the adoption of renewable energy sources continues. Solar and eolic (wind) generated electricity are the most obvious, but perhaps other solutions originally thought up as alternatives to petrol and diesel like algal-based fuels and second-generation biofuels can be put to good use if the internal combustion engine goes the way of the dodo.

– Gigantic changes in infrastructures
If I were to go out tomorrow and buy a Nissan Leaf, I’d be buggered to able to recharge it. Having an electric car today, in 2013 implies you’re fortunate enough to have a garage with your own mains. Most people have to park 3 streets away from where they live, or, like me, in a common garage beneath the block of flats where they live with no socket to plug their car into. Charging stations are a joke in this day and age. I only know of one at a petrol station near my house, and to my knowledge it’s probably the only one in a 10-mile radius. Most of the time some ignorant plonker in a BMW has parked it front of it, so it’s non-usable, or another EV has parked there and won’t be finished with the station for another four hours. Infrastructural support for EVs will need big investments, and in the case EVs replace ICE cars, there’ll be a lot of abandoned petrol stations. “Oh, just convert them into charging stations” you might say. Well, I can tell you from my own experience in real estate-related matters, that is scrotum-squashingly difficult. You need a bunch of legal mechanisms that don’t even exist at the moment to make it possible in the first place, and that’s just to make it possible. To make it easy will be herculean (if it’s even achievable) since every law-making entity always makes a hash of streamlining any sort of legal process. Top all this off with the prospect that charging points will be non-standardised at first as each brand will battle for its own proprietary solution, and the fact that the user-friendliness, quality and adaptability of charging stations will suck terribly before years of R&D, consumer consulting and simple trial and error will fix all the original mistakes.

Might be avoided if…
… there’s a lot of planning and understanding in advance. Governments and the big players in pushing EV recharging stations would have to come together and choose the best stuff on offer and come up with a harmonious solution. Doesn’t seem likely for a number of reasons, most of which have been stated above.

– It will ruin other forms of transport
This one’s close to my heart, since I’ve recently restarted using a bike as a mode of transport. In many cities, especially in uncivilised backwaters like the one I live in, bicycles are seen purely as an object of leisure, and only paupers use bikes to go to work. As a consequence, bike lanes are only practically found along the coastline and near universities, because local authority members only use cars and wouldn’t be seen dead on a bicycle, and think that if they build bike lanes no-one will use them (which shows up their stupidity, the only reason people don’t use bike lanes is because there aren’t any, but I digress). However, recently bike sales have climbed, and people cycling about is an increasingly visible sight. The rise in their use is mirrored by a current awareness campaign on TV aimed at making motorists and cyclists behave better around each other, and some councils converting disused railway lines into bike tracks (which is very stupid, but maybe one day I’ll get to that). Bikes are brilliant: they’re cheap, quick, healthy, easy to park, non-taxed and have practically little to no running costs. The problem here is that human beings are inherently lazy, and will only start riding bikes for financial reasons. That’s why bike use is rising, because we’re in the midst of a humungous economic depression. If people get access to electric vehicles that are cheap to run (if the price of electricity doesn’t go through the roof), that’s it for bicycles. And buses and trains, since it will probably be cheaper to run a near-maintenance-free EV than it will to buy a fricking bus-pass every month. We’ll be back to pre-recession levels of car use, if not higher.

Might be avoided if…
… people get used to bikes and start loving the freedom and the practicality and health they give. That and the subsequent total gridlock that will become rampant if everyone starts using a car.

– It will radically transform the economic dynamics of the materials necessary
Rare earth materials have been quite controversial in recent years. There’s China’s attempted market manipulation and terrible mining practices in the Congo surrounding these materials, and these are absolutely crucial for the electronics that our lives can’t function without today. Smartphones can’t be made without rare earth minerals, as well as a whole host of other consumer electronics. So imagine: in a few years, we’re going to need a whole lot of rare earth if we want to make battery-powered cars that are governed by complex techno-wizardy to make them work properly. As the name implies rare earth materials are, well… rare, and if today there are enough problems as it is for supply to meet demand, imagine what will happen if demand keeps rising!

Might be avoided if…
… scientists or manufacturers manage to get round the need for rare earth minerals by making complex electronics work with more abundant elements. For example, a Chicago-based company has come up with an electric motor that doesn’t need rare earth materials.

– It will create perverse new ways for governments to put their hands in our pockets and monitor our habits
Yes, this one is the biggie. Governments should be like those money kitties at work, where everyone chips in and it’s all eventually and evenly used for a common benefit. But unfortunately, most of them work more like Mafia bosses, demanding a cut on every single piece of income you could possibly have, then squandering most of it on expensive habits, but leaving a few crumbs for the less fortunate to give the impression they care. A huge slice of government money comes from taxing fossil fuels (where I live, it represents 20% of indirect tax, second only to VAT, which is a whopping 50%). So if fuel consumption goes down, it only stands to reason that the government will implement something like a perverse “pay-by-mile” scheme, which will in turn imply monitoring where you go so they can collect their precious lolly. I can only guess they’ll make it mandatory to have some sort of GPS-tracking system you can’t switch off, which will then be hacked by criminal syndicates who will use it to see when you’re away from home and sell the info to burglars, so when you get home you’ll have four walls and nothing inside them. The Dark side of electric power comes hither.

Might be avoided if…
… governments had wise people within them. Which they don’t.

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