Apologies to Tubeway Army for the headline, but the question should really be ‘Is electric our friend?’ And the answer is ‘yes.’
My visit a couple of weeks ago to the Cenex LCV2017 event at Millbrook – where vehicle activity is so secretive, you usually have to have a sticker put over the lens of your phone – convinced me that the internal combustion engine is nearing the end of its mainstream shelf life in passenger vehicles.
There’s a long way to go with achieving better range (see what I did there?), especially for trucks. With cars, Tesla proves it’s very nearly a done deal and the truth of car use is, drivers think they drive a lot further than they do. Putting aside a bunch of professional drivers, the vast majority of cars trundle five or ten miles to work, then uselessly occupy space in city centres all day before making another journey home.
This is the kiss of death with diesel cars, which have barely reached peak efficiency by the end of the journey, squandering fuel and filling the air with smoke. Car drivers are simply wedded to the idea that they COULD travel 200 miles in their Volkwagen Polo but in reality, they don’t very often and, if they costed the road fund, parking, fuel and servicing bills properly, they could easily lease a Nissan Leaf or similar, park it on charge for free, bank the difference, and use it to pay for car hire when they eventually do want to drive 200 miles.
Car drivers have a mental block about their journeys. They will tell you the reason they drive to work every day is because, on Tuesdays, they have to pick their kids up from nursery, or some other ‘one-day-in-five’ argument. They rarely make decisions based on what is sensible for each journey; their view is that, since they have a car, they should drive it.
They also make the argument that they don’t catch the bus which passes their home because it runs 30 minutes too early or late, without considering the fact that, if they caught it from time to time, the operator would be spurred to increase the frequency. I don’t criticize them for that; getting people out of their cars and on to the bus or train is the job of government, which should act for the common good, but rarely does.
When they do put the squeeze on urban road use, it’s usually with the aim of collecting more tax which they feel aligns nicely with ‘persuading people to drive less’ – they’re half right, but actually much of their effort goes into appeasing people making the wrong transport choice, because elected people are necessarily spineless about getting themselves out of office by alarming car drivers.
But electric vehicles, large and small, are here already and countless millions are being poured into making them better. They run on energy which can literally be sent from the Sahara to Soho in a millisecond (assuming we one day run a cable across the Mediterranean.) Or topped up by energy from a car park roof.
Yes, it all seems such a distant prospect, doesn’t it? But ten years ago, if someone told me my phone would recognise my face reliably, and could then be used to control my heating from across the other side of the planet, I would have thought that fanciful.
After the Cenex event, I went for a pint with my brother-in-law. He was alarmed at the idea of driverless cars, and I nodded sagely as he explained his dislike of not being able to gun a 3-litre diesel engine in an independent way.
“Fancy another pint? I asked.
“I do, but I’m driving,” he said, then glanced down at his smartphone and, I think, was suddenly imagining how good it would be if he could summon a chauffeur to take him home. Or, for that matter, a driverless car.