Ross Clark

The hidden danger of electric cars

The hidden danger of electric cars
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Wasn’t the whole point of electric vehicles supposed to be to civilise our cities, making them safer and less-polluted places to live? I just wonder what the mung bean-eaters who act as cheerleaders for the industry are making of the latest performance by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. Launching his latest vehicle, a £150,000 ($200,000) roadster which apparently does 0-60 mph in 1.9 seconds, he was asked what the point of the vehicle was. He replied: “to deliver a hardcore smackdown to gasoline cars”.  

A hardcore smackdown, eh? I am not sure that is quite what environment secretary Michael Gove had in mind in July when he announced that, as of 2040, no new conventional petrol or diesel cars would be sold in Britain. Electric vehicles are evolving in exactly the opposite direction than many of their chief advocates envisioned that they would. They are being marketed as rich men’s playthings, their chief advantage being their rapid acceleration.

Motor cars have brought all manner of problems to the environment, human and otherwise. Electric cars provide a partial solution to only one of these: pollution in the immediate vicinity where they are driven. I say partial solution because their tyres and brakes emit particulate pollution just like any other cars – it is all part of the toxic soup which can make urban air so unpleasant. What they don’t do at all is to ease congestion (although perversely they are exempt from the London congestion charge). Neither do they deal with problems of land use created by the need to park them, they don’t necessarily reduce carbon emissions, either, if they are ultimately powered by coal.

But there is one problem which electric cars could make very much worse: the physical danger associated with road vehicles. Elon Musk is not wrong in marketing his playthings: if acceleration is what you want, an electric car makes a lot more sense than an internal combustion engine. An electric motor provides maximum torque, or turning force, when starting from stationary. That is one of the reasons why electric trains tend to speed up journeys without necessarily running at higher maximum speeds.

But high acceleration creates huge danger on the roads, especially when combined with the quietness of an electric car. It is going to be extremely difficult for pedestrians, cyclists and indeed other drivers to cope with louts in electric cars pulling away from traffic lights or pulling out of corners. I will make a prediction: the widespread introduction of electric cars on British roads will be accompanied by a sharp rise in pedestrian and cyclist deaths, and that lawmakers will only appreciate the problem when it is far too late.

Removing petrol and diesel cars from the roads ought to be an opportunity greatly to improve the quality of life in cities. But it will be little consolation being able to breathe a little easier if you then get run down while crossing the road.