Should we all go 'electric'?

Are electric cars the future of transport? And can they really reduce pollution?
01 April 2016


Traffic at a standstill in a traffic jam on a motorway


Tesla just unveiled their new "affordable" electric car. But will electric cars really make a difference to the pollution levels in cities? Charis Lestrange has been investigating the solution to pollution...

Are you feeling stressed? Tired? Why don't you step outside and take a breath of fresh air? After all, this has been found to boost your immune system, give you more energy and overall make you happier. But, if you're reading this in a city, how clean is the air you are breathing in?

There has been a lot of debate around this subject recently, with the UK government facing new court proceedings over a failure to act on the illegal air pollution ratings measured across UK cities. One of the worst cities is, unsurprisingly, London, with Oxford Street, Knightsbridge and Putney High Street having some of the highest levels of pollution measured across the country. So why would this matter?

What is air pollution and how does it affect us?

Air pollution is the presence of higher concentrations of harmful gases or particulate matter in the atmosphere. These include nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide are caused in their highest amounts by cars, lorries and busses. These gasses are not good for you: air pollution has been linked to heart problems, cancers, and even cognitive decline, Especially over long periods of time. If the particles are small enough, they can even enter your bloodstream to attack your organs as well.

The closer you are to a busy street, the higher your exposure to air pollution levels. Even being inside a vehicle doesn't keep you protected: in fact, this is where the levels of pollutants are at their highest! This is due to being closest to the source of the pollution. The vehicle exhaust releases pollutants that travel back into the car through its air vents.

These busy roads are unavoidable for many people, so how do we reduce these levels of harmful gasses? Cycling and walking provide could immediate solutions to reducing your personal levels of emissions, as well as helping you to avoid breathing them in, but this simply isn't feasible for many people. So, could switching our vehicles to electric be the answer?

What is an electric car?

tesla electric car

The main difference between electric and petrol-fuelled cars is the vehicle's source of energy. A petrol car uses a rotary engine, which generatesits energy from the burning of petrol or diesel. Electric cars instead rely on motors powered by energy stored from a rechargeable battery source is used. Other than that, the cars are mainly the same and look very similar.

Why go electric?

To entice more people to go green, the UK government currently subsidises electric cars in a bid to make them more viable over petrol and more accessible, but do they make a real difference?

On the surface, electric cars seem very attractive. They have no emissions, which straight away contributes to reducing the urban air pollution problem. They are cost effective as with technological advancements both the cost and maintenance of electric cars has dropped in recent years. It costs about two pence per mile to travel by electric car whereas a petrol car costs about 12 pence per mile. They tend to have lower maintenance than petrol cars as there is no engine to lubricate or service and they are very quiet which reduces noise pollution too.

However, there are always two sides to every coin. As attractive as electric cars may sound, they do have some potential drawbacks. These vehicles are limited by their range and speed. Most of these cars have a range of about 50-100 miles before they need to be recharged again and compared to petrol stations, electric charging points are still very much in the development stages. There are around 10,000 charging stations in the UK, most of which are privately owned by the vehicle owners themselves. The charging time itself is also far longer than it is to fill a car up with petrol - typically four to six hours for a full charge.

These are of course potential limitations. As long as journeys are planned in advance, most of these disadvantages can be avoided. By charging the vehicle overnight, shorter journeys should be unaffected by the car running out of juice and many service stations across the UK have charging points for travelling further afield.

With a UK Government grant available and the overall health benefits of no emissions, the electric car is certainly an appealing solution to air pollution. Nonetheless, there is the issue of the long tail pipe debate. This argument suggests that electric carsare just displacing the pollution to other less populated parts of the UK, as coal fired power stations are still needed to generate the electricity used to charge the cars in the first place. This could be considered a good thing as the pollution is further away from the largely populated cities where a high percentage of the population lives. Also, this energy does not have to come from power stations: many new, renewable energy resources are being used to generate this electricity, which produces less air pollution overall.

Hybrid buses

As the technology to create more fully electric vehicles advances, most of the world's roads are full of petrol or diesel powered vehicles that are still releasing harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. One shorter term solution could be to go half way by creating hybrids. These are electric motors that are powered by diesel. There are many hybrid cars already easily available to buy, but what about other modes of transport?

routemaster bus

Vantage Power is a company that retrofits diesel double decker buses with hybrid diesel engines to greatly reduce emissions. Similarly, these retrofitted hybrids look no different to other double-decker buses; the changes are all under the hood.

The whole of the diesel engine is removed to make way for a self contained, fully pre-assembled hybrid system. This merges an internal combustion engine with an electric system, meaning the engine is used to charge the battery pack. This allows the engine to be run at its most efficient point so that fuel can be saved and emissions improved. This allows the engine to be turned off when the bus is sitting in traffic or moving slowly, which means idle emissions are not being produced.

There is a consistent 40% improvement in fuel consumption for these hybrids when compared to normal diesel powered buses. Before, the bus would have achieved a fuel consumption of about 4.5 miles to the gallon, but the hybrids regularly use a greatly improved eight miles to the gallon. This could save bus operators up to £20,000 worth of fuel per bus per year.

Is there a solution to air pollution?

Air pollution is definitely an important and dangerous problem when it comes to public health. Road transport is a huge contributor to this situation and encouraging people to walk and cycle instead of driving is definitely beneficial to reducing the pollutants in the air and also to reduce the health risks associated with it.

Realistically, people still need to travel further distances. While electric vehicles are the long term aim for roads of the future, hybrids seem to be the most successful short-term solution and transition to green transport.


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