How would you feel about World Streets if we organize a special edition on electric cars with the sponsorship of General Motors or any other a major automotive manufacturer or upstream supplier? I hope you would feel at least a bit puzzled or impatient. And hopefully actually disappointed that World Streets too has tumbled into that facile, but oh so dangerous trap. Sure, electric vehicles are to be part of our future. No problem there. But they are not going to be the path for moving towards sustainable transportation, sustainable cities, or sustainable lives. Bottom line: in terms of sustainability electric cars are a sideshow. Don’t you forget it!
Against this background, here is an article that appears in today’s New York Times (hey New York Times are getting better all the time) in which GM pulls out all the stops to flaunt their sustainability credentials. And they get some highly distinguished help in this. Which I find very worrying. Do you?
A High-Minded Look at Electric Cars
The setting was the sun-dappled campus of Columbia University, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that today’s forum on “New York and the Electric Car,” sponsored by the university and General Motors, took on a somewhat elevated tone.
Instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of how the city’s many apartment-dwelling electric vehicle owners will plug in, the forum celebrated the prospective role of electric cars in changing the world. Several speakers compared the present period to the revolution from horses to horseless carriages more than a century ago.
John Gilbert, executive vice president of the real estate firm Rudin Management, invoked the transforming technology displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. He challenged the audience to think of the modern building as a smart phone that will blossom when applications are created to aid car charging and efficiently manage the flow of electrons.
A highlight of the morning talk was the appearance of Lawrence Burns, the former longtime General Motors vice president, who functioned as the company’s hydrogen fuel-cell champion and big-picture guru of sustainability. Far from retiring, Mr. Burns is a corporate adviser and has academic appointments at both Columbia’s Earth Institute (as director of sustainable mobility) and the University of Michigan.
Mr. Burns said that 29 or 30 green cars of various types, including his former company’s Chevrolet Volt, would be on the market in the next few years. “The new DNA of the automobile is electrically driven,” he said.
He agreed with Mr. Gilbert that information technology would shape the car of the future, and invoked the “mobility Internet” to imagine a time when cars drive themselves and “don’t crash.”
“Texting won’t be an issue, and driving will be the distraction,” said Mr. Burns. “And because cars won’t crash we’ll be able to reduce their mass significantly.”
Among Mr. Burns’ last endeavors at G.M. was Project P.U.M.A., a collaboration with Segway that posits small pod-like 750-pound city cars that can drive autonomously. A second generation of G.M.’s city vehicles, called EN-V, are being put on display at Expo Shanghai in China.
Jeffrey Sachs, who heads Columbia’s Earth Institute, added a note of impatience to the proceedings. He invoked the specter of global warming and the auto tailpipe’s role in hastening it, and said the electrification of the automobile “will have to happen a lot faster than such a complex process would normally require.” Effective public policy, he said, can help accelerate E.V. adoption.
“We are on the cusp of an historic worldwide transformation in transportation that starts in the world’s biggest cities,” Mr. Sachs said in an interview. “It’s important from a resource point of view and an environmental point of view.”
A pre-production Chevy Volt was parked on College Walk for the event. Tony Posawatz, the Volt’s line director, said the company was “on a very good glide path to deliver the car.” The first retail cars will be delivered in November, he said. The Volt plugs in and will be home charged; Mr. Posawatz said he was looking forward to “having a gas station in my garage.”
So is New York ready to charge E.V.’s? Arthur Kressner, director of power supply research and development at Con Edison, cited the electric delivery trucks that plied the city’s streets 110 years ago and answered in the affirmative. Except for relatively rare peak demand times, he said, “the grid is more than capable of meeting the demands of electric vehicles.”
In an interview after the forum, Mr. Kressner said Con Ed has recently met with several charging companies, including the global player Better Place, and with the owners of city parking garages who are likely to add E.V. charging.
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Since the issue of sustainability credentials of electric vehicles is one that comes up time and again, often with high profile and great help from the communications resources and excellent PR skills of the groups behind them, it is important that this journal provides a clear and consistent statement of our views on these issues. More on this in our recent article, “Honk? Green power for electric cars: Let’s think about it before hitting the road this time” at http://newmobilityagenda.blogspot.com/2010/03/honk-green-power-for-electric-cars-lets.html.
There is an interesting upside to EV story of which we are not hearing very much and which apparently was not a topic for discussion at the joint Columbia/GM high-profile event. And that is the concept of electric cars which behave as they should in a city, meaning that they should be slow enough to be safe on city streets and much smaller so as to take less precious urban real estate. And while this is by no means in itself a magic wand for sustainability, it can serve to offer certain number of improvements which are not to be sneezed at altogether. It is not a big deal really, and that perhaps is part of the problem.
The difficulty is that the automobile industry and there accolates are putting close to zero priority on these kinds of vehicles. Look at the one just your right here: that little lead acid powered electric car provided me with 10 years of reliable, affordable slow speed mobility for my day-to-day transport purposes in Paris which, while once again not the key to sustainable transport, nonetheless represents a kind of pattern break that might in turn create a new set of attitudes about what is really needed. (And the fact that these kinds of vehicles could also be put into a carshare operation (which in fact is she object of discussion and some modest demonstrations), is something which is also worth a thought. Sadly however the bulk of the money spent in this broad area aims to create something rather closer to an electrical Porsche. Pity!)
To conclude on this for now: Let’s not fool ourselves. We have to be very careful day after day to avoid being diverted from the fundamental and huge sustainability challenges that are before us. We need to remain rigorously focused, scrupulously ethical, and relentlessly consistent. Without these qualities, we will never get there. So please, let us not permit ourselves to get distracted. Next?
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Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton