Electric Cars Won’t Save Us Or Our Cities


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.

Electric cars

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.

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • Carl Raymond S

    At my local train station, the nearest place to park a car any time after 7.30am is about 12 mins walk from the platform. If I had a driverless car that could drop me off at the station, I’d be more likely to take the train.

    As things stand, it’s quicker to drive, despite the heavy traffic.

    Those residents living near the station must be looking forward to reclaiming their streets (assuming they are following the development of autonomous cars – which on second thoughts is probably false.)

    • Steve Hanley

      Ahh, the always troubling gap between theory and reality. Thanks for sharing, Carl.

    • MB

      Carl thanks for sharing your thought. I have a question would you not consider that 12 minute walk good as it gives you a chance to physically active for a short while?

      Once upon a time when I had the option of using public transport which I did for many years and felt healthier in general. The beauty about public transport is that it is not only shared transportation, but in general also makes you do some physical activity to get to the station. Now as my unfortunate dependence on the car has increased I can see that its hurting me physically.

      In short I just want to say if public transportation is 20% slower (or 10 minutes slower) then one should prefer that.

  • AaronD12

    I’m not sure who thought (thinks) that EVs will fix everything. They are a personal transportation device, just like an ICE car. They just pollute less.

    For inter-city travel, I can definitely see on-demand self-driving vehicles being used. These vehicles may not look anything like today’s vehicles either — they may be optimized for single passengers, optimized for cabin space for multiple passengers (making them more like boxes on wheels), or some other form factor we haven’t thought of yet.

    For travel outside of city centers, cars will still rule for quite some time. They, too, may be self-driving or have self-driving capabilities, but for people who live in rural areas, on-demand vehicles may not be available or there may not be enough of them, especially at peak demand times.

    • Carl Raymond S

      I’m one of those “EVs will fix everything” people. It’s not the EV itself, but better cheaper batteries that are the holy grail (because they make solar and wind cheaper than coal, oil and gas), and one inevitably leads to t’other.

      I can’t wait for Tesla’s Model 3 to be the envy of all ICE drivers, because that forces all automakers to make comparable EVs, which in turn forces into existence a massive battery industry – with the biggest rewards imaginable for whoever produces the best battery technology. The kilograms per kWh and dollars per kWh will come down and down, following the curve we saw for the cost of solar panels.

      The whole autonomy thing I’m sure will come too, and it helps turn attention to the new breed of cars, but ridding the world of drivers too quickly has a downside (structural unemployment, also people like driving, even those who aren’t great at it), while ridding the world of exhaust pipes is all upside. If I were Tesla, I’d be careful about promoting the car sans-driver before the world is ready. Softly softly.

  • I’ll be publishing a lengthy article about the illusory panacea of driverless cars in CleanTechnica in the next couple of days. Love the tech, want to have it, but it’s not going to change the world the way that advocates think it will, but differently.

    • Steve Hanley

      Great! Be sure to link to this story, Mike. : – )

      One of my favorite quotes is from Marshall McLuhan: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Often in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

      Post a link to your story when it’s done.

  • Kevin

    “make all the buses in London unnecessary”, it more appears to me as making all of the taxis unnecessary.

    • Steve Hanley

      That too, Kevin.

    • Carl Raymond S

      Tony Seba’s book discusses this. When the numbers are crunched, it turns out that driverless cars, with varying seating capacities, are cheaper and faster point-to-point than bus services.

  • Carl Raymond S

    One last issue for driverless cars that I have not yet seen discussed… Roads are not always corridors. Often, they are queues. When traffic slows to the point where the lane becomes a queue, a driverless car in that queue is the equivalent of placing a cardboard cutout of yourself in the queue at the bank or post office. For people prone to road rage, driverless cars will be a huge source of agitation.

    The solution is not simply tinted windows. They are as anti-social and alienating as a black cardboard box over one’s head containing a narrow slit. If along the way to saving earth we lose society, it’s a hollow victory.

    So in conjunction with solving all the driving issues, automakers need to be working on solutions to congestion. The carrying capacity of roads will go up the day non-autonomous, non-networked cars are outlawed, but that is at least one vehicle lifetime away. One solution which would work is time-of-use, zone based road taxation. Hmm, about as popular as the carbon tax I suspect.

    • Steve Hanley

      Many worthwhile points in there, Carl. Thanks for sharing.

  • Read it. Disagree.

    • Thank you for your deeply thought through, well referenced counterpoints. They have increased the nuances in my thinking tremendously.