Once upon a time, pollution – specifically pollution caused by transportation – was a massive problem in the world’s largest cities. It was such a huge problem, in fact, that many of the leading thinkers of the day felt that the problem was unsolvable. An urban planning conference held in New York aimed to provide possible solutions, but none could be proffered. Ever-expanding cities and ever-growing transportation needs were causing uncontrollable levels of pollution. The world seemed doomed.
And then everything changed. Seemingly overnight, an unexpected solution presented itself. What was this solution that solved the world’s pollution problems? The automobile.
Prior to the invention of the automobile, you see, horses were primarily used to carry people and goods around. And horses generate manure – a lot of it.
With global city populations growing at an unbelievable rate, and transport needs growing right alongside it, manure was literally piling up in the streets in the late 1800s. It was everywhere, and it was making cities unliveable. So in its day, the automobile was seen as a solution to pollution needs.
This example, found in the entertaining book Superfreakonomics, neatly shows how our current pollution woes are not a new phenomenon. Yes, the problem is now bigger, because the world’s population is bigger and transport needs are bigger, but there is an important similarity: a cleaner solution to our transport needs is required.
Of course, it could be argued that a solution has already presented itself. With major automotive manufacturers such as Volvo and Nissan throwing their weight behind the electric vehicle, it appears destined to put the internal combustion engine out to pasture, just like the automobile did the horse.
Or does it? After all, electric vehicles have limitations. The biggest problem is certainly range. At present, EVs can’t travel very far before having to be recharged, causing often mentioned and amusingly titled “range anxiety”. Secondly, electric vehicles (and hybrids, for that matter) are overpriced. They might be fashionable to own, but they certainly don’t offer good value for money. Lastly, the environmental benefit of running an electric vehicle is dubious, especially in a country such as South Africa. Replacing a vehicle that runs on petrol with one that uses coal-generated electricity is pointless.
Still, I would argue that the electric vehicle has a future. Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed before the use of EVs can become widespread, but these problems are not insurmountable. Societies forced to transition from the horse to the automobile certainly had it worse.
Electric technology will undoubtedly be refined over time, which will result in cheaper EV prices and better range. And most importantly: an electric vehicle is fun and easy to drive.
Having ridden a horse for 30 or 40 years, learning to drive an automobile could not have been easy. Getting to grips with an EV if you’re used to driving a traditionally-powered car, however, is effortless.
I recently had the opportunity to drive Volvo’s electric C30, and I was very impressed by it. It is silent, comfortable and refined. And like any EV, it offers a lot of torque from the moment you touch the accelerator. I think it would perform excellently as a daily commuter. With very low NVH levels, one gear and typical Volvo comfort, it would be easy to live with on a daily basis. It would almost certainly also offer enough range to deal with most people’s daily trips to and from work.
Considering that EV technology is very new, the C30 proved to me that it is already surprisingly sophisticated. It won’t be long until – at least in an urban environment – the use of an electric vehicle becomes completely viable, even in South Africa.
I recently stumbled across an interesting product on Amazon. It is a wall-mounted charging station for electric vehicles designed by GE. It costs $1100 and reduces charging times by 50 to 70%.
What other clever EV related inventions are waiting just around the corner? Who knows? That’s the problem with clever inventions, they only seem obvious and inevitable in retrospect.