Much has been made recently about the potential for electric vehicles (“EVs”) to transform transport and related industries, even going as far as to suggest that demand for oil is close to peaking as EVs displace petrol and diesel vehicles.

According to a recent IEA report:

“EVs of all types lie at the heart of future sustainable transport systems, alongside the optimisation of urban structures to reduce trip distances and shift mobility towards public transportation. The wide global deployment of EVs across all modes is necessary to meet sustainability targets. The EVI 20 by 20 target calls for an electric car fleet of 20 million by 2020 globally. The Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility and Climate Change and Call to Action sets a global deployment target of 100 million electric cars and 400 million electric 2- and 3-wheelers in 2030.”

Charts such as the ones below are presented to show falling costs driving increased uptake of EVs, but rarely are the infrastructure challenges associated with such growth discussed.

ev forecasts

To this point, between August 2016 and January 2017, Uber carried out an electric vehicle trial with over 50 partner drivers based in the London area, which found that lack of charging infrastructure and range anxiety were the main factors inhibiting take-up of EVs. The trial, which was carried out by the Energy Saving Trust, involved Uber partner drivers driving fully electric vehicles (the Nissan Leaf (24kWh & 30kWh models), the BYD e6 and the Tesla Model S) while working in the London area.

Range anxiety inhibits EV take-up

The study found that range and charging concerns impacted the drivers’ ability to complete private hire journeys as normal, with around 50% of drivers declining journeys at least once a week, often with passengers in the vehicle, with many turning down journeys on a daily basis due to concerns over lack of range. Most of the drivers reported wanting to drive at least 10 hours per week more than they felt was possible with the electric car.

Movement data showed that the drivers operated in a more limited geographic area of London than typical for a vehicle operating on the Uber platform. 

In focus groups, the range was considered an issue on all vehicle models excluding the Tesla Model S, with motorway driving and use of heaters considered particularly problematic as they reduce the range of the vehicle. Drivers reported declining airport journeys or limiting heater use in order to defer the need for re-charging. Over 50% of survey participants believed a daily range of over 120 miles was required to make their vehicle worthwhile on the Uber platform, indicating that range is a key challenge for the adoption of EVs in the private hire sector.

Charging infrastructure is also inadequate

Access to private charging points has been widely seen as pivotal for the adoption of EVs in the private hire industry as it reduces the need for charging during working hours and allows drivers to begin their working day with their vehicle fully charged. The survey data in this regard was considered somewhat anomalous as some 40% of participants claimed to park on their own properties, whereas other internal Uber data suggests that no more than 5% of its partners have access to off-street parking.

The survey did indicate that fewer drivers charged at home than they expected at the start of the trial. When asked at the beginning of the trial how they would charge their EV at home, the most popular option was to use a three-pin plug connected to the property’s mains, however none of the participants in the focus groups mentioned this method of charging.

One possible explanation for this was the lack of understanding of the limitations of home charging, such as the need for a specialist cable for using domestic plugs. Only a small number of participants installed home chargers, suggesting that a number of those wo said they charged “at home” were using on-street charging points close to their homes.

“As the majority of partner drivers did not have access to off street parking, on-street charge points were the most popular option for recharging. However, participants overwhelmingly reported the network as being insufficient in terms of both the number and distribution of charge points across the city, and time taken to charge their vehicle.”

All three surveys taken by the participant drivers (at the start, mid-point and end of the trial) asked an open-ended question on where they would like charging points to be installed. Many respondents wanted charge-points “everywhere”, suggesting the current density and/or spread of the charging infrastructure was insufficient. Many also wanted a greater network specifically in Central London, as well as charging points closer to home.

In the focus groups, participants described situations where charging had a considerable impact upon their daily lives, with some drivers walking 30 minutes from the nearest charge point to their homes, in order to charge outside their working hours, with others getting up in the middle of the night in order to use a charger when it was available.

Living and working in central London, I can see the magnitude of this challenge. Within Zone 1 there is almost no on-street parking, and with the growth in cycle lanes, vehicle access to pavements and kerb-sides is increasingly limited, meaning there are few suitable locations for the installation of charging points. City planners will need to find suitable locations for dedicated bays, reversing decades-long trends of removing parking spaces from City-centre roads.

In addition, appropriate electrical infrastructure will be needed, which may well require larger capacity cabling to be laid, and upgrades to fuses and switching equipment. On the back of a recent extensive sewer upgrade in London which has caused widespread traffic disruption, a further programme of roadworks for the addition of charging infrastructure will not be popular.

EV growth will also affect wider electricity infrastructure

Growing use of EVs will not only present local infrastructure challenges, it will have significant implication on the electricity grid, leading to a requirement for additional generating capacity. According to the European Environment Agency, growth in EV usage will lead to a significant increase in electricity demand, with EVs accounting for almost 10% of all electricity usage on average across the EU by 2050 (and around 15% in the UK) assuming 80% EV penetration.

electric vehicle electricity demand

While this presents challenges, there are also opportunities inherent in EV adoption, providing electricity storage capacity both as in-car use, and in a second life as stand-alone storage services, as I have discussed previously.

Are electric vehicles better for the environment?

There are also legitimate questions to answer in terms of whether EVs are genuinely environmentally less damaging than other modes of transport, when taking into account the production processes and the need for rare metals whose extraction can be energy intensive, and locally polluting.

This paper published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology found that:

“EVs powered by the present European electricity mix offer a 10% to 24% decrease in global warming potential (GWP) relative to conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles assuming lifetimes of 150,000 km. However, EVs exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, largely emanating from the vehicle supply chain.”

Clearly, the direct emissions benefits depend on the prevailing generation modes locally, so regions where electricity derives primarily from coal will see no benefit and perhaps even higher emissions from EV use than petrol or diesel use, however the research cited above widens the discussion to consider other types of environmental damage. The research further illustrates the importance of life-cycle analysis in finding that the emissions arising from the EV production process is twice that for conventional vehicles.

EVs are attracting a lot of attention, almost all positive, but serious practical and environmental challenges need to be addressed. Policymakers should be cautious about jumping on the bandwagon, and should give due consideration to other transport alternatives before steaming ahead with widespread promotion of EVs and all that entails in terms of supporting infrastructure.

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