The cars that, hopefully wonâ€™t, eat Paris
One initiative that was recently taken up in Paris is something I will be following with great interest. Building on the success of bike sharing schemes near public transport hubs, they are copying the same idea, but this time with electric car rental being offered instead. The system will allow the hiring of electric cars by simply using a special subscription card in a booth (rather than the normal laborious pre-booking and paper work needed in standard car hire situations) which releases and unlocks an electric car for use for 30 minutes or so at a cost in the order of a few euros (video on that here).
What interests me about this scheme is that it hints at a possible solution to the problems currently associated with the electric car. The mass roll out of the electric car is dogged by several persistent problems. Thereâ€™s the limited battery life, high maintenance costs for the battery, as well as charge times in the order of hours (by contrast one can refuel a petrol powered car in minutes and a LPG tank in under an hour). The idea of using electric cars plugged into the grid to even out the peaks and troughs in a renewables dominated electric grids is often touted, and this article here from the IMECHE suggests the basic concept is sound (given a few changes to how the grid is managed and power distributed of course!). However, the effect that such a proposal would have on the battery life of cars (given that theyâ€™ll be being charged and discharged much more frequently this leads to a slight increase in the wear out rate of batteries) has not been adequately addressed.
But to me the â€œproblemsâ€ with the electric car, or indeed hydrogen fuel cell powered cars for that matter, is only a problem so long as we remain wedded to the idea that the global car fleet need to be privately owned by individuals. That is to say that we are expected to purchase and maintain a car for ones own personal use, even though it spends 80-90% of its life parked up by the side of the road gathering rust. By contrast if we all share our cars via some sort of city wide rental system (not unlike the proposed Paris system except potentially for longer periods), or rent them of off a private company, then many of the above problems simply disappear. The maintenance and replacement issues with batteries become an issue for the car leasing organisation not the user. While they will ultimately need to pass on such costs to the end user, such costs will be greatly reduced due to the benefits of improved economies of scale. In essence it becomes more of a long term business decision, and assuming that they keep the car in more regular use and hired out (than a privately owned car that again spends 80-90% of its working life idle) , that should reduce those costs to a reasonable level.
The problem often highlighted regarding the lengthy charge times for electric cars (in this article a BBC reporter takes 4 days to drive a electric car from London to Edinburgh, largely due to the amount of time the car had to spend charging up the battery) also becomes less of a problem if theyâ€™re merely being rented temporarily than it being one's own personal vehicle, as presumably there will always be charged up cars available on every street corner (might get a bit harder at peak times, but youâ€™d be a fool to assume you can get a car at such times if not booked in advance, much like youâ€™d a fool to think youâ€™ll get a taxi just by putting youâ€™re hand up at peak rush hour). You simply pick the one nearest to you, tap your fob from the leasing company on special panel (which unlocks the car and charges youâ€™re account) and hop in, and plug it back it when youâ€™re done. The issue mentioned above with regard to an increased wear in batteries due to using the batteries to balance out the gird is also resolved. The leasing company hires out the carâ€™s and their batteries to the power utilities, who would presumably compensate them for the increased battery wear in return, as well as this providing a useful revenue stream for the leasing company to further reduce the hiring costs to the customers. Similarly the customer is rewarded if he keeps the car heâ€™s hired plugged in while its parked up with say a discount in the rental costs, or maybe free parking spaces. Suddenly the electric car sound like a much more viable idea when you look at it like this.
Also the other problem with electric cars, that being the current limited range of such vehicles, becomes less of an issue. The vast majority of journeys undertaken by people today are less than 25 miles (at least in Europe anyway, Americaâ€™s a slightly different kettle of fish) easily within the range of an electric vehicle. But its this â€œthreatâ€ of the occasional long journey that enforces the purchase of petrol powered cars instead. Currently with electric vehicles via the private motoring option you would be required to own two cars, one electric and one IC engined, which isnâ€™t really convenient for someone with limited funds (i.e. can barely afford one car!) or parking facilities. Now, with shared ownership, if you suddenly find yourself needing to go on a long journey one that cannot be performed either by public transport or an electric car, you simply opt instead to hire one of a small fleet of IC or hybrid engined cars instead.
Such a scheme of collective car ownership would also solve a number of other problems. For example, I highlighted in a prior post the issue of â€œplanned obsolescenceâ€ where products, notably cars, are often specifically designed with short operating lives. This is done both in order to increase sales (shorter operating life means demand for more cars), but also because consumers by and large demand products that are cheap and which they donâ€™t actually intend hanging onto for very long. Obviously for a car leasing firm the purchase cost of a car matters little, itâ€™s the overall lifetime cost of ownership thatâ€™s important. They will thus purchase cars with longer operating lives, more fuel efficient engines, lower maintenance costs and ultimately lower disposal costs, in preference to cars with a lower initial purchase costs but shorter lives (and thus higher life time costs). Now if a large portion of the motor cars worldwide are being bought by such organisations, then obviously the manufacturers will quickly change theyâ€™re tune and start building cars with longer operating lives, that are easier to maintain and more fuel efficient. This will greatly reduce the amount of resources that needs to get put into building cars in the first place and the pollution this causes, nevermind the benefits of reduced air pollution and elimination of tailpipe emissions that electric cars already provide. Also given that leasing companies will be trying to keep their cars constantly in use (or parked up and charging), the end result is you will need substantially less cars to support a nationâ€™s motorists, which brings all sorts of benefits (less parking space required, less road building, less accidents, less thefts, etc.)
Also thereâ€™s been much talk recently about redressing the imbalance that is the absurd subsidy society gives to private motoring (in terms of the government paying for building the roads, maintaining and policing them, providing fire and emergency services cover, paying for the costs of climate change, and securing oil resources, but getting only a fraction of all of this back in road and petrol taxes). Congestion charges or a system of road pricing is often raised as fair and egalitarian way of resolving this issue. However, the problem with both is always implementing it (who in their right mind is going to fit a government GPS tracker to their car just so â€œbig brotherâ€ can track and tax you!). Obviously, if the majority of cars on the roads are leased from companies (or local councils) itâ€™s a simple matter of fitting them all with GPS units from day one.
Perhaps more critically this idea of â€œnational car sharingâ€ also helps to square the circle as far as public transport. Let be realistic for a minute. Public transport is a very efficient way of moving lots of people from A to B, but what if you want to go to C and live at D? Consider, its possible to go from London (Kings Cross) to say, Achnasheen (a small rural railway station in the middle of the Scottish highlands) in 10 hrs and 15 minutes, including stops (according to national rail enquires). Driving that same distance (596 miles) is doable in 10 hrs 25 minutes, according to Google maps, excluding stops (and to be realistic driving that far in one day, nevermind non-stop wouldnâ€™t be a good idea, not unless you want to risk falling asleep at the wheel!). However, the problem is what do you do when you get to Achnasheen? Suppose youâ€™re ultimate destination is down some remote highland glen or say, Torridon, a small village about 15 miles away down a very scenic valley surrounded by mountains (some of the oldest exposed rocks in the British isles in fact). There is no direct bus from there to Torridon. And in any event the timetable says youâ€™d be arriving at 19:15 at night. If youâ€™re a keen cyclist (like me) you could try biking it (but its fairly hilly!) but thatâ€™s not much good if youâ€™re 60 years old or with kids and have lots of luggage. Furthermore getting bikes on trains these days isnâ€™t easy. A taxi would be difficult to arrange and likely expensive. And of course you need get back to the station for the return journey to London! And what happens if you get back to the station and find the train has been delayed or cancelled or you simply missed it? And suppose that rather than living in central London, you live in a small Cothswoldâ€™s village and you thus have the same sort of problems at the other end!
Consequently itâ€™s no surprise why so many people choose to get in their cars and drive the entire length of such a journey, even though strictly speaking a car is only necessary for the first and last 5-10% of the journey distance. This is why even in situations where itâ€™s cheaper to use the train than drive, many people still opt to drive. Indeed on that point I would note that the cheapest single ticket for that case study journey I mentioned above was Â£173.50 while Google quotes an estimated driving cost of Â£114.40! The reason why the car triumphs over public transport every time has nothing to do with anything youâ€™ll hear Jeremy Clarkson fluster about (or faking on Top Gear), it has everything to do with convenience and the assurance that you have a car sitting there ready to take you wherever you want to go at the drop of a hat.
But car sharing would allow us to square this circle. Now when I get off the train at 19:15, I simply hop in a car, drive onwards to my final destination, and plug it back into the nearest charge point. When Iâ€™m done, I hop in a car drive back to the station, plug it back in, fall asleep on the train, and hop in another car the other side which takes me home. Now nevermind cost, thatâ€™s the sort of system with a level of convince that stands some chance of temping people into travelling more by public transport. And if the usage of public transport goes up, then ticket prices begin to fall substantially (look at Ryanair, ever wonder why they can offer flights for a euro? Its because they make sure their planes are constantly in the air and as fully loaded as possible...oh! and btw I'm not related to these guys, "Ryan" is a very common Irish name so don't e-mail me complaining about the time they lost you're bags!).
Now some people will inevitably say, wait give up my own personal car for some sort of â€œcollectivisedâ€ car ownership systemâ€¦sounds a bit commie! Nobodyâ€™s suggesting we ban private cars or anything like that (well, not immediately anyway!). Inevitably the above system will not suit everyoneâ€™s needs or tastes. A travelling salesman (in say solar panels) or a farmer in a remote rural area, or a doctor or a plumber (plus all his tools!) will all probably find that they need theyâ€™re own personal and privately owned vehicle. And indeed while weâ€™re at it, building electric vehicles capable of meeting these peopleâ€™s needs would be technically challenging, nevermind electrifying long distance trucks, aircraft or cargo ships. Inevitably quite a bit of our transport network will still have to remain fuelled by oil in the short term, then probably biofuels taking over later, possibility eventually being superseded by hydrogen vehicles longer term. No doubt some petrol heads with more money than sense will still want theyâ€™re boys toys and Iâ€™m quite sure Ferrari and Porsche will still be around to satisfy their needs (i.e. sell them over-priced "anatomical extensions"). Although they may find, given that the welfare rug of public subsidy has been pulled from underneath them, such private car ownership will now be somewhat more expensive. But for the vast majority of us such a car sharing system would offer numerous benefits and advantages.
I would finally point out that robotic car technology, that being cars that can drive themselves, is progressing at quite a pace. One could see a convergence in the future between improving electric car technology and artificial intelligence, which could ultimately us all permanently relegated to the passenger seats. Indeed the BBC has another video here about a scheme using driverless pods in Heathrow airport, although these run on dedicated tracks. Iâ€™ve been hearing about such PRT systems for quite sometime, and while Iâ€™m not entirely convinced about them yet, certainly they could figure quite significantly in the future. If the price could be reduced and these pods developed such that they could run on the road network (even if only for short distances) this would truly close the loop between public transport and personal automotive transport.
Robotic cars offer numerous advantages, notably the fact that they donâ€™t get drunk or distracted by the kids fighting in the back and run over granny's, they provide better fuel economy and increased engine life (robots arenâ€™t constantly sitting on the brakes and then speeding up or forgetting to change gear, etc.), they donâ€™t get lost and refuse to look at a map, plus you can run robotic cars in bumper to bumper traffic at 70 mph!
Obviously if machines are going to start driving cars it makes little sense for us as individuals to own them anymore, far better to delegate such responsibilities and the maintenance of such vehicles (to avoid some very literal blue screen of death moments!) to a suitable authority (private company or government backed leasing scheme).
Bottom line, if the automobile is to survive the end of the age of oil, we have to adapt our car ownership system to suit the needs of the technologies that replaces oil, not try to adapt the technology to our peculiar and outdated traditions.