Skip to content

Transforming transport

Undeniably we live in interesting times. Whether you consider that a curse or a blessing is probably down to your world view but, in any case, we all have to cope with it. Nearly every change lies somewhere on the grey scale between being beneficial or detrimental. Every development, however well intentioned, has some downside, while even technologies primarily developed for military use have some really useful spinoffs (satellite navigation, for example).

What we now call social media is a prime case in point. Facebook allows people to keep in touch and let each other know what they are doing, but it is also a largely unsupervised channel to make vile threats, peddle lies and bombard people with a mixture of cuteness and rubbish. In some cases, it seems largely a platform for self-promotion.

Neither should we forget the downside of sharing personal data. The coming General Data Protection Regulation may force organisations of all sizes to get (apparently) informed consent to hold even basic data on them, but that doesn’t stop people sharing quite personal information via their mobile phones. Mark Zuckerberg and others in the tech sector are being taken to task on this issue right now.

In this vein, consider the implications of the current policies on road transport, with the primary aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. One strand is the use of biofuels – ethanol, bio-diesel mainly – as a partial replacement for conventional petrol and diesel. At first glance, this seems relatively uncontroversial; taking renewable raw materials to create a cycle of carbon dioxide emission and recapture.

In practice, things are not so clear. CO2 emitted by burning biofuels one year can be theoretically recaptured by crops grown the following year. But this doesn’t take account of additional greenhouse gas emissions arising from growing and processing the crops in the first place. Nitrogen fertilizer, ploughing and processing starch into anhydrous alcohol (for example) all require significant energy and the net carbon dioxide savings can in practice be much lower than the theoretical ones.

Add to that the fact that most bioethanol is currently produced from food crops and we can see that there is also a distorting effect on food prices and a likely increase in the area of land needed. In the case of bio-diesel, the clearance of land for oil palm plantations also destroys the habitat for the orangutan. And for both types of fuel, the limited supply of available biomass means that replacement of fossil fuels can only be a partial one. Until the large barriers to fulfilling the potential of algae to produce much larger volumes of fuel without impinging on terrestrial farmland are overcome, biofuels look like a dead end.

Two other options for transport are to use hydrogen as an energy source, converted to electricity by fuel cells, or opt for battery power. Hydrogen may sound clean and green but, in the real world, storage is a real problem, distribution is virtually impossible on a practical level and it gradually escapes from even the best-sealed container. Add to that the fact that fuel cell technology still has a long way to go to reach economic energy production per unit weight and volume and currently this is pretty much a non-starter (despite a handful of demonstration projects).

Which really leaves battery power. Battery technology has progressed significantly, to the stage where cars such as the Tesla model S can provide an excellent driving experience plus a range of several hundred miles. For many people, this is more than enough, although the big problem that remains is the greater cost of such a car relative to its conventional cousin. For those with around £70,000 to spend, they may seem a good buy, but this is hardly a mass-market car.  

This does not necessarily mean that all-electric cars are necessarily another blind alley. If Tesla ever manage to ramp up the production of their more affordable model 3, the potential for a real market shift may be demonstrated. But that may simply highlight some further issues, not least of which will be charging facilities. Suburban owners will usually have the luxury of off-road parking and their own private charging point, but for city dwellers who may not even be able to park outside their own home, things are different.

Matching supply of chargers with demand at an affordable price is a problem that remains unsolved for the time being. While fully electric cars are relatively uncommon, finding an available charger may not be too difficult, but if the market does take off, it may be nipped in the bud if there aren’t enough chargers to go round.

We also need to remind ourselves again that electric cars bring no net benefit to emissions unless the electricity is from nuclear or renewable sources (the same can be said for hydrogen if this ever becomes a viable option). There is still the localised environmental benefit of cleaner air in urban areas, which is an advantage being promoted at the moment, but that is a different issue.

So, the future of all-electric cars is by no means assured, unless the practical problems can be solved. However, the technology developed will not necessarily be wasted; in practice the transition away from the internal combustion engine is likely to be towards plug-in hybrid vehicles. For city-dwellers, they would probably be run on batteries most of the time, improving air quality, while for longer journeys drivers still have the freedom and flexibility of a conventionally-fuelled engine.

New developments are never wholly good or bad, but ultimately the market will choose which are the most useful without having unmanageable downsides.