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Electric vehicles

One oft-spoken of alternative to fossil fuels is electricity. Electric vehicles (EVs) have been around for nearly as long as their petrol-powered counterparts. In the 1890s, New York even had a fleet of electric-powered taxis and in 1911, the New York Times wrote that the electric car “has long been recognised as ideal because it was cleaner, quieter and much more economical than gasoline-powered cars.” As time drew on however, oil won out.

Today, the push for, and discussion of, electric vehicles as a green option is surging along, however little progress is being made. According to Jack Haley, senior policy adviser vehicles and environment, government relations and public policy, NRMA Motoring and Services, the whole concept of ‘green motoring’ is far more complex than most people imagine.

In terms of advantages, “EVs are cheap to run if electricity prices do not increase enormously; servicing should be simple and therefore cheap as there is only one major moving part in an electric motor; fast take-off as electric motors develop maximum torque at zero revs and are very quiet in operation”, says Haley.

But there are also disadvantages. “The range is limited with current battery technology (although if you count the Chevrolet Volt with a small IC engine as an EV that is irrelevant); high initial purchase price for a small car; very few fast charge stations currently available; you have to remember to plug in if charging at home and are very quiet in operation which sneaks up on pedestrians.”

In environmental terms, Haley points out that electric cars are only as green as the energy source that is charging them. “If they are recharged from solar panels or other renewable energy sources this would be justified, but we can expect that most will be charged from the grid, which in Australia is predominantly coal-fired”.

Gail Broadbent, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) Sustainable Transport Campaigner reasons, “Unless it’s an electric vehicle that’s charged by electricity from sustainable sources, it’s not a green car”.

Still, presuming we can start to look at charging them from renewable energy sources, why aren’t we all driving EVs? “The reason we are not yet all driving electric in Australia is that we don’t yet have a recharge network available to the public and the price of the cars is just a little bit too expensive as yet for ordinary people”, says Broadbent. “The price will come down in the next few years to be competitive with petrol cars. There is quite a selection of vehicles either in production or due for release in next couple of years”.

There are other issues stopping the spread of electric vehicles in Australia, not least of which is safety. For example, the Reva G Wiz, which is becoming a common sight on the streets of major European cities like London, fails to meet Australia’s stringent crash standards. Green or not, it is classified as unfit for Australian roads.

And according to Haley, the safety issue is one that resonates across the whole EV sector. “There are only two EVs available at present, the iMiEV and Tesla, and the Tesla [at $206,188] is essentially too expensive for most people, so it is not possible to rank them yet [for safety and crash testing results]. The Nissan Leaf, due to be on sale here next year, has just scored a five-star crash test rating, whereas the i-MiEV is a four-star”, he says.

Car production and shipping

Many people forget that a car is made of many materials that in their manufacture generate huge volumes of greenhouse gases – processes such as steel, plastics and rubber manufacturing that emit large volumes of CO2 and other noxious gases. Recent findings by the Volkswagen Audi Group show that many “eco” cars are in fact worse for the environment in their production than the manufacture of regular cars due to their liberal use of precious metals like aluminium in production in order to keep the weight and fuel usage down. However, turning bauxite into aluminium is one of the most energy-intensive production processes in the world. The group said production typically accounted for a third of a vehicle’s CO2 output.

As such, advances are slowly being made in some areas. In constructing the front dash panels and door skins in the third-generation Prius, Toyota has used a new range of plant-derived ecological bioplastics, including cellulose derived from wood or grass instead of petroleum. Meanwhile Audi says it is also finding new, more environmentally-friendly ways to manufacture materials.

Where your car is manufactured and how far it is shipped will also affect its carbon footprint. This gives Australian-made cars, such as the Ford Focus and Toyota Camry Hybrid an edge. However, it’s important to look at the overall picture. Professor Julia King of Aston University in the UK calculated that 85 per cent of a car’s CO2 emissions are from fuel, 10 per cent from production and five per cent from end-of-life destruction, so savings made predominantly through usage of the car should be your main consideration when purchasing.

Location, location, location

When it comes to being green, your postcode matters almost as much as your choice of engine. In fact, depending on how you drive and where you live has a huge impact on how much CO2 you produce.

For example, if you live in an inner-city area and if you need a car at all, then an EV or hybrid would work the best, as they are useful in stop-and-start situations where you only need a small amount of energy to propel the vehicle the short distance you actually travel. However, if living rurally or travelling considerable distances fairly often, then it’s diesel-powered technology that should top your shopping list, as travelling a long, uninterrupted distance at a constant speed with a bigger engine means less work and less fuel the engine needs to do in comparison with a smaller engine.

Driving greener

Broadbent points out that until green vehicle technology is readily accessible, one thing you can do now is modify your driving behaviour as a way to keep your environmental impact to a minimum. She shares her tips for greener driving.

■ Reduce the amount you drive by shopping locally;
■ Enrol children at a local school and either walk or carpool with other parents;
■ Work as close as you can to home so you reduce travel time; catch public transport or walk instead of driving where possible;
■ Drive more smoothly, don’t have a heavy foot;
■ Keep tyres pumped up;
■ Only use the air-conditioner as a last resort;
■ Unload your car: keeping heavy items in the boot increases fuel use;
■ Drop the speed a little: 25 per cent more fuel is used when travelling at 110 km/h than at 95 km/h.
■ Pick the right gear, go to a higher gear when you can.

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