Travelling in hope

The week before last, two ministers drove a pair of new Mini Es around a racetrack in Scotland and launched a strategy for low carbon vehicles in the UK.  This was widely reported in the newspapers, in tones ranging from mildly approving, through neutral to pretty sceptical.  The criticism tends to be about the scale of the ambition and the reality of its implementation.  So why is it that people get so exercised by this issue?  Or is it the politicisation of the issue they object to?

It is undoubtedly a complex area to unpack.  Over the last 100 years almost the whole planet has fallen in love with the idea of personal transport.  This has had an impact on our manufacturing base, our consumption of natural resources and our production of greenhouse gases.  We have now (mostly) got to the stage that we realise that the impact of our desire to own and use a car might be causing problems, but the response of those who have them tends to fall into the “you’ll have to prise it from my cold, dead hands” category of response. Meanwhile those who don’t yet have them want them as soon as possible - and worry more about the cash price that the long term environmental impact.

This means that the first potential answer to the problem – that people should choose to give up personal transport and move wholesale to mass transport – is not going to happen easily.  Cultural change of this magnitude takes time and giving things up is not a normal trait for our civilisation.  So – what’s Plan B?This principally involves making the cars produce less greenhouse gases in their operation. There is also an elementof running the overall system more efficiently, but to achieve the overall necessary reductions each vehicle has to produce the minimum of greenhouse gases.  There is not one simple answer to this, and choosing between the options is not clear-cut. 

First on the agenda is moving to (primarily) electric powered cars.  This requires a number of things that don’t exist in the right form yet: efficient electric motors (mostly there, and improving a lot because there are other uses for them that demand the same sort of performance); high capacity fast-charging electric storage (probably batteries); a recharging system that is as ubiquitous as the petrol stations we are used to; a distribution system for the electricity to “fill up” these cars; and a source of electricity that produces lower quantities of greenhouse gases than the mass of internal combustion engines it replaces. 

All of these challenges are more about technology than science.  There are no laws of nature that must be broken to achieve all this – just the hard work of making the components and system operate at the required efficiency for the required price. 

About here the waters get murky, because it is possible that the electricity can be generated within the vehicle by the use of fuel cells - or with a small, highly efficient internal combustion engine!  And even if the car has an internal combustion engine, there is a spectrum of applications from the “range extended” car, where the battery is seen as the minor power source, to one where the electric part of the system is dominant and the extra power source only kicks in for long journeys, or where charging is not possible.

Next on the option list comes moving to an alternative fuel – or an alternatively - sourced fuel.  This doesn’t actually lower the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the car, but means that the cycle the carbon has gone through is a few years rather than a few million – making the impact less in the long run.  Using ethanol or methanol is already a practicable option but, like many of the options, hasn’t found large-scale deployment.  There are also chemical options to make fuels similar to those we use today in terms of handling and performance and plans for bio-derived sourcing.

Lastly, there is using hydrogen as a fuel.  Hydrogen can be used to power a fuel cell (see the first option) but it can also be used in an internal combustion engine – where the combustion product is water.  The challenge here is to distribute and store hydrogen – it is a gas at room temperature and down to about -250oC, and is difficult to contain – but the prize is attractive.

There are probably further possibilities that I don’t know about, but already the inter-relationship of technologies and options is starting to show.  The New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team (NAIGT) is about to issue its report – it got a mention at last week’s event – and that report contains a roadmap, the high level version of which is included in the Low Carbon Strategy.  This sort of (technology) roadmap is commonly used to map out the future.  It should start with the needs of the market.  These define the products and services needed to answer them.  These, in turn, define the science and knowledge needed to develop and implement these products and services.  What most (technology) roadmaps end up doing is coming at the problem from both ends – they know the technologies we already have and they extrapolate them into the future.   Roadmaps are just like normal maps – they don’t tell you what to do, but they give you options.  The roadmap included in the NAIGT is the best prediction of how things will play out, but it could be different.

Finding the technological answer will not magically make the problem go away.  We can make the next generation of low carbon cars fit the way we use the current generation, but there is also an intermediate, cultural part to the answer.  If we cannot give up cars, but we cannot use ones with the exact characteristics of the ones we currently use, is it possible for us to change?   

For a more personal view, I have calculated that with my current car, which I have owned for about 5 years, I have averaged just over 45 miles a day.  That means that – on average – I could have used a car with a range of 50 miles and charged it overnight.  Of course, I often drive well over a 100 miles a day and then leave the car sitting in my garage or a railway station car park for days on end.  Do I really need to own it to get this use?

So, how will we be travelling in 10 years’ time, or 20?  Will we be using all-electric cars or hybrids or using more mass transport?  I am not sure – and don’t think anyone else is.  What I am sure of is that we need quite a broad range of technological options, a long and hard think about whether continuing to do things in the same way is right, and the drive to make a change.  It will take a long time to get where we need to be, but, as with  any long journey, putting off starting only delays arrival!

 

Last updated on Friday 31 July 2009 at 09:53

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