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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: July 11, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    We’re tackling the wrong problem

    Neil Briscoe

    There is something I have become deeply sick of in the past short while. It’s being told what the official chocolate bar, cereal, washing detergent and cat litter of the Olympics is. Yes, I’m sure that the cost of putting on this contest of running, jumping and drug taking is immense and must be recouped somewhere, somehow but please; enough. Whatever kudos and gravity the Olympic ideal once represented has been long since denuded by the fact that McDonalds is a major sponsor.

    Something else I am rather sick of is the constant exhortation of electric car evangelists that the car buying public must be educated in the ways of battery powered transportation. All well and good, you might think. Education is, after all, one of the few unmitigated goods in the world. It’s always a good thing to be learning. But learning how to use a car? Sorry, but we’ve done that. Been doing it since 1886 and it actually works pretty well, most of the time.

    The hidden meaning in that ‘education’ about electric cars is that actually, what it means, is that you have to learn about their shortcomings. About range anxiety (a real issue, whatever the denials of such) and about how to use the arcane and impenetrable recharging networks. Assuming you can find a charging point, which right now is actually pretty unlikely.

    Before I continue, let me state (as I constantly have to) that I’m not against electric cars nor do I believe that they are white elephants or useless in any way. I just believe, quite strongly, that they are not yet fit for purpose, being too short in range and too reliant on a nationwide charging network that the ESB has been promising for three years now yet which has still not materialised to any great extent. Education isn’t much good to you when you’re sitting on the hard shoulder, out of juice in your batteries. If you live in town, have a driveway and only cover about 100km in any one journey, then fine, an electric car might just be perfect for you and if that described my daily routine, then I’d be straight down to the nearest dealer and have a deposit down for a battery car.

    But for the most of us, even in a nation that is increasingly urbanised, electric cars just don’t work. And the protestations from the electric car enthusiasts that they must be considered as part of a broader transport strategy simply don’t stand up. I live 10km from the centre of Galway yet the bus service from here to town runs just once an hour. Trains don’t stop here. Trams were junked in the sixties.

    All this raised its head again this week when the Fully Charged electric car conference rolled into town. I had a chat with Heike Barlag from electric experts Siemens. She’s heading up the EU’s Green e-Motion project, which seeks to tie together all the national electric car initiatives into one coherent whole. Except it doesn’t. They can’t even agree on a standard plug yet:

    “Standardisation is an important topic and we have a whole work package dealing with that. The point is that the plugs are a very visible problem. The point is not they are not standardised but they are of different types, so that in Europe we have to agree on one type” said Heike. “There are several initiatives dealing with that and Green e-Motion is part of that process, so we are trying to find a common solution. But this is not a technical process but a political one, so it will take time.

    “How long? I cannot say that.”

    Great. So even if I buy an electric car and even if I can find somewhere to plug it in, there’s no guarantee that the plug will fit. And no amount of education will fill that gap.

    As Conor Faughnan of the AA said at an electric car event last year, “You cannot bring the market to a product. You must bring the product to the market.” That’s why Apple’s iPhone became so massively successful; people just picked it up and found that it intuitively worked. It was simple, even fun. That’s what electric cars have to aspire to; something that fits peoples’ lives, not finding people whose lives fit it.

    Actually, I think that part of the problem is looking at the wrong problem. Electric cars have become significant because we are all under the cosh to reduce our Co2 emissions, and none are more under the cosh than the motor industry. Because emissions are only recorded at the exhaust (and not in the manufacturing process or at the power station providing the electricity to charge the batteries) EVs look great to car makers. Why? Because their Co2 emissions levels, from a regulatory point of view, are measured as an average across the range, so that a 0g/km electric car effectively counterbalances a hulking 250g/km SUV. But the car makers are stuck in a loop of building heavy, steel-bodied cars in which electric powertrains make little sense.

    Even a small car now typically weighs over a tonne, and it’s that weight that’s killing the electric car’s chances. The reason mobile phone batteries were able to shrink and to last for ever longer stretches was not so much because of improvement in battery tech (although that helped) but mostly because of smarter software and hardware that was able to work with lower and slower power drains. That’s why the batteries of the latest generation smartphones are not as efficient as the old Nokias we all used to have; those bright full-size screens and constant Twittering really run down the battery.

    So it is with cars. Drop some weight and batteries could provide more performance and longer ranges, while conventional diesel and petrol powertrains would become ever more efficient. And that’s not just my opinion. Gordon Murray, the genius (and I don’t use the word lightly) behind the seventies and eighties Brabham and McLaren Formula One cars, the legendary McLaren F1 supercar and the ultra-efficient new T25 experimental city car reckons that weight reduction is the true key to reducing a vehicle’s impact on the planet around us, and it was the key design challenge for this new T25. Speaking to the BBC, Murray said that: “It was nothing to do with the environment, nothing to do with the quality of the air, greenhouse gasses didn’t come into my mind. It was purely ‘this is not sustainable and this is not fun anymore, so what can we do? What would solve that?’ The only way is to encourage people to go smaller and lighter.

    “With all the promises of hydrogen and hybrids and electric cars, if you could take 10% out of the weight of every car, the effect in the next ten years, just that 10%, would be more than the effect of all the hybrid cars and electric cars on the planet.”

    Best of all? No education of the driver is necessary. No change in habit. No lifestyle shift. Like all the best engineering ideas, lighter cars would just slot into your life as if they had always been there, as if you had just been waiting for them to happen. Electric or otherwise, we’d all benefit.

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