Writing in The Guardian recently, Dr Ian Walker and Gus Bosehans , of the department of psychology at the University of Bath, England, opine that electric cars are not the panacea for human and urban ills they may seem to be. Both men specialize in the psychology of transport choices and energy use, whatever that means. The city of London has launched a $140 million dollar project to encourage more people to use electric cars. Zac Goldsmith, a candidate for mayor of London claims that electric cars will soon make all the buses in London unnecessary.
Not so fast, Walker and Bosehans say. They suggest that, at best, electric cars only move the source of pollution out of cities and into the countryside, where electrical generating plants are located. There is some truth to that claim, of course. Burning fossil fuels to make electricity is not a zero missions strategy. They also contend that private passenger cars take up valuable space in cities because they are parked more than 95% of the time. Without all those private cars, there would be more room for bicycle paths, walking trails, and parks.
“A switch to driverless vehicles gives us an opportunity to rethink our relationship with cars. We could move away from the old idea that everybody should own their own car and have a much smaller number of automated cars, each in frequent use and summoned when people need them,” they say. Oddly enough, that is pretty much the same point of view as Elon Musk, who told The Atlantic in December he believes cars will become like elevators — self guided transportation modules that come when called, take us where we need to go, then shuttle off to serve the needs of others.
But what Walker and Bosehans are truly concerned about it the sad state of the human condition. They see us as real world examples of the blobs who occupied the extraterrestrial spaceship in the Disney movie Wall-e, doted on and pampered by our robotic assistants until we no longer have the ability to lift a finger of walk but a few steps to the ice cream vending machine.
“If driverless cars appear in streets anything like today’s, we risk falling into the most pathetic of robot uprisings, where they transport us helpfully from place to place while we remain inactive, growing fat and increasing our risk of cancer and diabetes,” they wrote in The Guardian. “Electric vehicles should not be considered a panacea for sustainable transport but rather a possible part of the puzzle.
“We need to rethink the journeys we make. Many of our urban journeys are short and we should plan cities with that in mind. Perhaps in the future we will continue to drive to the city, but we won’t drive through the city. Let’s turn cities back into a place for human beings to make their short journeys in a physically active way.”
Are they right? After all, we could all stand to lose a few pounds. The epidemic of diabetes in America and other countries is reaching critical proportions. Are our cars making us unhealthy? It’s something to think about, especially when it comes to planning the cities of the future.