The conversation around electric vehicles (EVs) has traditionally been dominated by discussions of the future.
From the much-debated upcoming ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles in 2030, to how to incentivise the adoptions of EVs as electricity and energy prices continue to soar, or what we do to replace fuel duty revenue and create a fairer VAT system for those without access to domestic chargers, the future seems to be on everyone’s mind when it comes to going electric.
However, often lost in this debate is the rich history of the electric vehicle, which dates back well into the 19th century when, in the 1830s, Scottish engineer Robert Anderson developed the first crude EV – some 20-odd years before Etienne Lenoir invented the first commercially successful internal combustion engine.
Considering this, Ursula O’Sullivan-Dale asks a panel of industry experts: what would modern society be like had we stuck with electrification over fossil fuels?
Dr Matthew Niblett, director, Independent Transport Commission
If EVs had been made mandatory at some point in the past, it is easy to imagine that air quality on our roads and in our urban areas would have seen a marked improvement. Their quiet operation would also have made for more peaceful neighbourhoods, and perhaps fewer long-distance journeys, since even now the range of most EVs, with a few premium exceptions, is inferior to that of most combustion engine cars.
However, it is important to be realistic about the social impacts of such a policy. The additional expense of EVs would have required a massive subsidy to enable this change for poorer households and the less well off, while society would also have faced the challenge of disposing of tens of millions of combustion engine cars.
The charging infrastructure necessary would have required a colossal investment in swiftly upgrading the electricity generation capacity of the UK, as well as providing rapid charging points inside homes, garages, service stations and kerbside in areas where there is only on-street parking.
It is likely that a national road user charging scheme would have been implemented to offset the loss of government revenue from the redundancy of fuel duty. Whether such measures, including the tax rises to sustain them, could have been implemented without generating widespread societal opposition or unrest is an open question.
Asher Moses, CEO and founder, Sherbet London
Firstly, ‘staying with’ electric cars back in the late 19th century would have meant years of rubbish performance and travelling distances at a ginormous cost. The battery technology just didn’t exist for long trips to be taken by EVs and speed was underwhelming. The original electric London taxi, nicknamed ‘The Hummingbird’ due to the curious noise it made, was a long way from what we use today, with a top speed of 12mph (19.3km/h) and a capacity of just two passengers.
Petrol and diesel cars were inevitably going to take over, but had we stuck with electrification, EVs would likely have advanced technologically faster, as would lightweight material development. But the lack of power deliverable from batteries at the time would have made manufacturers reluctant to use steel to construct vehicles.
The impact on infrastructure would be massive, too. Charging points would most likely exist anywhere you can park and, more significantly, rail infrastructure would be beyond recognition compared with today. The limited range of EVs historically would have meant our trains would need to be faster, more regular and spread across more of the country, as well as having to distribute the country’s freight, in addition to people. Our cities may well have been less dense, too.
Perran Moon, CMO, Liberty Charge
The UK’s electrical grid was designed to power homes and businesses, thus retrofitting to charge EVs is creating challenges in the rollout of EV charging infrastructure. Had the technology been available and had we opted for electrically powered vehicles from the outset, rather than fossil-fuelled vehicles, these challenges would have been resolved at least 50 years ago.
While it would have become commonplace for dwellings to be pre-fitted with EV chargers, would those with driveways or means to privately charge a vehicle have greater, more convenient and cheaper access to charging? You would hope that, instead, on-street charging infrastructure would be as commonplace as street lighting, so that everyone could charge their vehicle conveniently regardless of where they live. Which begs the question: how would we have delivered the energy required to charge a nation of electric vehicles when electricity was not commonly used in homes until the 1930s?
The answer would have changed the course of electrical science and indeed, the National Grid’s history. The vast quantities of energy required would also have had an enormous impact on the cost of electricity. The automotive industry, as it has done with fuel costs, would have lobbied the government to keep electricity prices low. You would hope that today’s disparity between charging costs at home incurring 5% VAT, compared with 20% on public charging, would be regarded as ludicrous inequality, rather than the reality.
Overall, the impact of EV dominance would undoubtedly have been positive. We would expect that the earlier energy need would be a catalyst for earlier advances into renewable energy – to the benefit of all areas of energy production. And earlier technological advances in battery storage and charging would mean that ranges were longer, and charging faster, adding to driver convenience.
Richard Dilks, chief executive, CoMOUK
Society would be very much like today’s, only with somewhat cleaner air and different supply chains behind the scenes. I say it would be very similar because EVs remove one problematic aspect of cars – the tailpipe – but they do not get rid of embedded emissions during manufacture, rarity of materials used in their manufacture, road space they take up when parked or moving, or emissions from other sources such as tyres and brakes.
EVs do not promote active lifestyles, boost use of public or shared transport and may even carry a mileage induction danger if the cost of using them remains so much lower than the cost of owning or leasing them. EVs are, however, firmly part of our future – but only part – as we put ourselves to the national task of cutting transport emissions. The latest research reliably points to a circa 25% car mileage reduction being needed by 2030 even with growing EV take-up. So, we need to move around differently. That isn’t and won’t be one way – we need a range of options for people to suit differing journeys.
Our research among car club and bike share users – there are now more than three quarters of a million car club members in the UK and 2.8 million bike-share members – consistently finds that they use private cars less while walking, cycling and taking public transport more, alongside their use of shared transport modes such as car clubs and bike share schemes. This plurality is a key part of making decarbonisation workable, popular and achievable.
Leon Wong, EV business development manager, Pilot Group
There is no doubt that, had we used EVs from the start, much of our environmental, urban planning and transport needs would be very different to how they are now. Of course, pollution is a factor. A typical petrol motor emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, whereas EVs have zero tailpipe emissions. The use of EVs from the start would have made significantly less impact on the planet. Cities and towns would benefit from noticeably cleaner air, with large sums of vehicles no longer being a contributing factor to air pollution.
Urban areas would look and be designed completely differently, with charging points being readily available and power grids reinforced so they are robust enough to accommodate increased demand. Necessary infrastructure for the widespread adoption of EVs would be a firm part of our roadsides. Currently, in the UK there are 34,000 charging points available outside of homes, which falls well short of the 30 million drivers on the UKs roads.
Meanwhile, smart charging would be more advanced, with a network incorporating decentralised generation, microgrids and smart buildings in the electrical infrastructure to ensure long-term sustainability. There would also be no need for petrol stations and the travel distances of EVs would be greater, with improvements in energy density in batteries much more advanced than they are now.
The overall benefit that EVs would have offered is a change in direction from a society that relies on fossil fuels to one that seeks out environmentally friendly and renewable energies. What’s more, humanity would be able to focus on tackling environmental threats such as plastic pollution, biodiversity loss and mass extinction.
But the fact is, we simply didn’t have the knowledge, technology or logistical ability almost two centuries ago to have just EVs. It is promising to see the positive impact they are already having, such as using 64% less energy over their lifetime than petrol motors and the commitment that has been made to make them the only choice in future transport.
Rebecca Oliver, associate, UK and European Patent attorney, EIP
Had EVs always been in mainstream use, range anxiety wouldn’t be as big of a concern as we are now seeing because charging and/or swapping out vehicle batteries would be normal. Currently in-force patents relating to battery development would likely have expired decades ago and the inventions since developed further. Maybe we would already have wireless charging roads and batteries not reliant on rare materials. Alternative battery technologies, currently in their infancy, would likely be more advanced too.
Note though that many features in today’s EVs depend on developments in other fields, such as chemical science and artificial intelligence. Even if EVs had always been our vehicles of choice, some of today’s newest features would probably still have only just been invented. If we relied primarily on private car ownership, congestion and noise on our roads would still be a concern. However, earlier battery advances could have resulted in earlier adoption of electrically propelled micromobility solutions.
It’s nice to think that society would be better off if EVs had always been dominant. Perhaps it would be. Pollution emitted by fossil-fuelled vehicles could be drastically reduced compared to what we see today, with fewer pollution-related health issues for those living in urban areas. Ocean ecosystems may not have been so depleted by water pollution from marine vehicles. Shipping and aerospace vehicles would have developed more slowly due to the challenges of using electric propulsion for such applications.
However, it’s important to remember that other industries rely heavily on fossil fuels too, as does a large proportion of global electricity production and EV manufacturing. Accordingly, current environmental concerns would still be present if we had always used EVs, and we would still have a need for sustainable energy production.
Alok Dubey, UK country manager, Monta
The first electric car was developed back in the 1800s, so it’s not so farfetched to imagine a world where we chose electrification over the internal combustion engine (ICE). If we look at countries like Norway, we don’t have to imagine it because they’re very close to living it.
Norway has a strong EV adoption rate twinned with renewable energy infrastructure, and its commitment is cemented by its goal to ban the sale of new ICE vehicles by 2025 – 10 years ahead of the EU’s target and five ahead of the UK’s.
Renewable energy production would absolutely be streets ahead of today’s output to meet the increased demand for electricity, which would make owning an EV much more affordable with a low cost for charging. We’d also be much further ahead in applying grid management technology such as V2G. It’s not so hard to envision a world where each house has its own solar panel or wind turbine and their car acts as a battery on their driveway, supporting the grid when renewable output is low.
In fact, if we had EVs from the outset, our cities and towns would probably be structured differently too. There would likely be more emphasis on the creation and management of local energy markets to ensure that communities are sharing and regulating their energy consumption. There would be chargepoints on every street, shared by the community. There would be easy pedestrian and cycle access, likely shared with micromobility solutions that would also charge at the public chargepoints.
While the decision to power our cars with petrol and diesel is in the past, it’s exciting to dream of an electric future.
Anna Walnycki, senior researcher – urbanisation, International Institute for Environment and Development
Even in the 20th century, swapping out fossil-fuel vehicles for EVs doesn’t necessarily mean that technology would have provided affordable, accessible transport to the one in seven people on the planet who live in informal settlements in cities in the global South.
Most people who live in informal settlements get around by walking, cycling, and using informal collective transport on narrow often unpaved roads. Steep terrains, cost, poor lighting and associated safety issues, or seasonal rains often makes collective transport inaccessible for some people living in an informal settlement. This is part of broader pattern where formal basic service infrastructure does not extend into informal settlements, many people don’t have access to paved roads, affordable mainline water or sanitation services or formal electricity.
In that sense, it’s unlikely that the infrastructure to support EVs would have caught up in these communities, even if it had been the norm elsewhere. If you haven’t got access to a tap in your house, you’re unlikely to have access to a private EV. I think it is likely that the social and environmental benefits [of EVs] would have been experienced by those who could have afforded access or to live in wealthier countries or neighbourhoods that can support the infrastructure.
EVs have potential as part of efforts to enhance access to affordable collective transport, and could have played a role in this historically, but ideally would have needed to be part of broader, holistic approach to improving connectivity to key services and destinations to have had a meaningful impact. This would include efforts to provide alternative transport, including safe pedestrian and cycle infrastructure and improving lighting and drainage to tackle safety and flooding challenges in informal settlements.
What’s more, given all the other contributing factors that are accelerating climate change and the fact that it disproportionately affects the poor and marginalised communities, even if you took fossil-fuel cars out of the equation decades ago it’s likely that people living in informal settlements would continue to be vulnerable to the impacts of climate breakdown, such as flooding and extreme heat.
So what do we do now?
Liana Cipcigan, professor and research theme leader, Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence, Cardiff University
First, I do not expect that all petrol and diesel vehicles will be converted in 2030/2035 to EVs. This is not a realistic assumption for the early 20th century or for the 21st century.
Instead, active travel, public transport and car sharing models should be promoted, along with a switch to innovative business models, for example, offering transport as a service, as young people are not in favour of car ownership. The benefits of all these measures for CO2 emissions reduction are well documented in terms of health and wellbeing. Other benefits of investing in the development of public transport are preventing fuel and transport poverty.
Second to consider is the grid development and evolution to incorporate the new type of mobile load, since electricity is used as a transport fuel. This is seen more as an evolution rather than a revolution. The grid needs to evolve to become smarter, to mitigate all these challenges and enable customers to benefit from considering their EV as an energy asset integrated with the grid.
Third, it is the grid carbon intensity for charging electric vehicles, and the impact on the generation system. We don’t want to achieve the decarbonisation of transport by switching emissions from one sector to another, so these developments should be harmonised between sectors.
Fourth to consider is the cost of electricity as a transport fuel when compared with the volatile price of petrol and diesel, which is greatly influenced by external events. Electricity cost is much more stable, and the current situation is an exception rather than the norm following the historical trend. This all started with the story of ‘who killed the electric car?’. Well, what we know is the electric car was much-loved, so I don’t think it was about public perception of the ‘new car’ on the road.
But the question is if all the other conditions, particularly related to the grid and generation system, were in place at the time when General Motors killed the electric car, what could have happened? Today, at least, we can clearly see ‘the revenge of electric car’.