Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Electric cars

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Better Place chief executive Shai Agassi talks to David Pogue of the New York Times about how his system of providing the infrastructure for electric cars is going to work.

This interview is for those who have not been paying attention since I know I have heard this before and blogged about it. Actually nearly a year ago.

Electric cars – with energy from renewable resources – are going to be one essential component of weaning the world off fossil fuels.  But just as every other solution, it will not be the magic bullet that solves every problem. The land use we now have was designed and built around mass car ownership – as was the transport infrastructure – and that will be with us for a long time after fossil fuel has become rare, expensive and socially unacceptable. There are going to be all sorts of bumps along that road – and in some places low density suburbs will be slums – or even deserted and torn down to be replaced with windfarms – or maybe even real farms.

Cars are also not going to be as welcome in urban environments – even if they are zero emission. Because cities are for people not their mobility devices. And since many of us still have legs that work (and of course we must make better provisions for those that don’t) we will be using those a lot more in future – because that will help us keep healthy and also produces a better social environment. There is no sociability in a traffic jam.

One of the current bumps in the Usonian road is that funding for transit is getting cut just at the time when more people have started using it. That might happen here too. All it takes is continuing inertia.

But what I think is really interesting about Agassi is the role that he has identified for himself

Well, I’m more of an integration guy. …  What I bring in is that understanding of complexity of both the technology and the economy. When you look at the problem mobility with a fresh set of eyes, sometimes you find solutions that the guys who are sort of locked in the inertia of day-to-day business–have missed.

It is because of his Usonian origins that he thinks of cars as the solution to mobility problems. But in fact cars are one of the least efficient systems we could have devised. They spend most of their time parked – empty and idle.  The space they take up is out of all proportion to their utility. They are inconsistent with nearly everything that makes city living desirable. Electric cars will be part of the solution for the suburbs. But we will also need lots of other solutions too – starting with places that are walkable and adding other transportation systems that are efficient and effective. This will not just be transit. Some of it will be the expansion of car provision that allows for much better mobility and utilisation by eliminating individual car ownership. Car co-ops, but also shared ride taxis and other innovations yet to be seen.

Electric cars will not help solve traffic congestion – and I doubt they will do much to reduce collisisons either. And neither of those are trivial issues. But this sort of thinking is a step in the right direction. And, boy, do we ever need more “integration guys” like him!

Written by Stephen Rees

March 19, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Posted in electric cars

9 Responses

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  1. Stephen: Why do you think that the Tata Nano is so popular? Cheap. It provides freedom. I’m an expat Anglo (like you) who decamped Canada after 30 + yrs. for the southern USA. Energy use = rise in standard of living. Immdiately following WW II, USA and British GDP per person were about equal. Following 60 years of “progressive” thinking in the UK, it now has the highest emmigration rate since post WW II and there is a wide gap in GDP /person compared to America. Canada’s GDP compared to USA (which until the Trudeau period was superior to USA) has fallen significantly since it adopted eurostyle restrictions…..i.e. green (as advocated by yr. party) = energy taxation and restriction of use = planned drop in standard of living. Cheers, Mate.


    March 23, 2009 at 8:05 am

  2. See correction to email address


    March 23, 2009 at 8:07 am

  3. GDP is a grossly inadequate indicator – and one which needs to be dropped from future policy making. It only counts those things that have a monetary price. Economic growth cannot continue indefinitely since the planet’s resources are finite – and it is clear that its carrying capacity is already being exceded. If India and China achieve current North American lifestyles then we will need three planets – and we only have one. Our current “standard of living” is literally killing us. We cannot afford to live like this any more. Yes, cheap cars are popular. That does not mean they are a sustainable way to proceed. Obviously we have a very different view of the world – and you seem able to ignore a lot of evidence which points to the need for change

    Stephen Rees

    March 23, 2009 at 11:25 am

  4. Capitalism is very good at putting only what’s convenient on financial statements. What is the cost of extracting a non-renewable resource? Is it merely the cost of finding said resource, removing it from the ground, processing it and shipping it to customers? No. At every step of the way there is air, water and soil pollution generated which “isn’t my problem” to the people generating it. Eco-systems are damaged by most industries, some permanently. Are those costs counted anywhere? Only when companies are forced to “restore” land and even then things aren’t truly restored. The list could go on and on.

    Until we start accounting for the true cost of our standard of living, we’re deluding ourselves and stealing from future generations.

    I’m not going to pretend I’m saving the world, but I’ve made some small changes that help like taking transit to work, using low energy lighting throughout my home, turning the heat down several degrees, reducing the amount of garbage I produce, and maintaining a garden around my home instead of paving everything like so many of my neighbours have done. This coming election I’ll be supporting the STV initiative and, for the first time, the local Green Party candidate.


    March 23, 2009 at 5:34 pm

  5. While on the surface the electric car looks like a great idea, we should remember that most technological advances merely move pollution from one location to another. Manufacture and shipping accounts for roughly 20% of the total pollution produced by a gasoline or diesel car. In the case of hybrids and pure electrics that fraction is much higher.

    The Toyota Prius, despite leading the way in fuel economy and emissions, is NOT the most green gasoline powered car. When a proper cradle to grave study is done, the Prius suffers because it uses so much plastic and because battery making is a very dirty industry. Cars using renewable materials and highly tuned traditional engines actually cause less impact on the planet than current hybrids.

    Electric cars will probably be better, but only marginally in most areas because a large percentage of electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels. They will also drive up demand for rechargeable batteries. Given that most of the base materials for these cars will come from Asian cities with next to no environmental standards it’s likely that an electric car will simply move the pollution from one part of the world to another with no actual net decrease.


    March 23, 2009 at 10:44 pm

  6. Just a little family history, my great aunt in Victoria drove an electric car in the city from about 1910 to the 40’s! I believe it was a true horseless carriage, with only a rudimentary canopy and tiller steering. I am trying to get a photo of it.

    Malcolm J

    March 24, 2009 at 6:19 am

  7. […] cars will not help solve traffic congestion: So says Stephen Rees Electric cars – with energy from renewable resources – are going to be one essential component of […]

  8. […] And this about extending Para-Transit, this one about Personal Rapid Transit and  Michael Geller promoting TukTuks. But perhaps the central argument is in this one about electric cars. […]

  9. […] drag this off. It is not about the emissions – or lack of them. As I have said here before, the problem is that they are still cars. Cars are the problem. An electric car is a little bit better than an […]

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