In the before time, when we still had a fossil car we had a rule, we did not take the car out for one errand. One errand was a walk or a cycle to the closest store, not perhaps the cheapest but we saved on gas to make up the difference. We tried hard to make sure we had at least three errands to do in the same end of town before we pushed another dinosaur out into the atmosphere. When we reached enlightenment with Electric Alice that rule went out the window. With no pollution, low costs and even lower guilt, we were freed to drive whenever we felt like it.
In the last couple of weeks and after driving 12,000 km since July, it has become clear to me that this freedom comes at a cost – traffic. Arriving late somewhere we, like most people say we were stuck in traffic, but this a lie, the honest way to phrase this is “we were traffic and traffic was slow”. EVs are great in traffic, quiet, easy to drive and with one foot driving being in traffic is far less taxing than a fossil car.
But we are traffic too, we might not pollute but we can contribute to congestion and by the same measure contribute to pollution indirectly.
With an EV, the personal cost of being in congestion is reduced. An EV is easier in traffic, and more relaxed generally, so it is more tolerable to sit in a traffic jam. The personal cost gets less as the cars get smarter. Tesla, Nissan and VW all sell EVs that will just follow the car in front in a jam, taking over much of the driving task. If we take this to the extreme with autonomous cars (should this turn out to be possible, more on this point in a later post) the personal cost of traffic congestion is almost completely removed. You could work, sleep, play just as you might on a train. You have to wonder if autonomous cars are going to need a washroom and a club car to be really successful. There is a real chance that the move to more automated EVs will mean more traffic. A lot of the rest of traffic will still be burning dinos, reducing the benefit of electrification through congestion.
Fleets of shared self-driving cars, such as Waymo and Uber are proposing would be catastrophic for traffic if they succeed as a large scale replacement for personal cars. Each trip with passengers will require an extra trip for pick up. 50% of traffic from these services will be empty. As a replacement or supplement to transit, the issue of traffic is even worse.
Widespread electrification could impact cities with congestion charges like London. With the current system, EVs are not charged to enter central London, but if significant percentage of all vehicles are electric there is quite the potential for gridlock. Policies will have to be adjusted to ensure traffic can flow and that the streets are not totally given up to cars and trucks, no matter how green they are. Oslo, perhaps the most electrified city in the world will start to charge EVs to enter the city centre as of January. The charge is small (€ 1.1 vs € 4.7 for a petrol car) but will rise again in 2020.
So, my plan is to try to go back to the three errand rule, at least when there is a lot of traffic. Walking and cycling are still better for the world, even if you drive an EV.