You may have heard of Shai Agassi and Better Place (link’s to a TED talk, so you know he was important!), the car company that was going to revolutionize electric cars by separating the battery infrastructure from the car and setting up a number of battery swap stations. The goal was to remove “range anxiety” as batteries could be swapped out in 5 minutes or less. Their first experiment was in Israel and it appears to have not worked.
But such rosy projections never came close to materializing. One of the unexpected things to go wrong was that the company didn’t get much help from Israel. Although Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, was an enthusiastic Better Place supporter, Israel — unlike the U.S. — provides no subsidies to EVs. Local authorities, whose permission was needed to build battery-switching stations, put up unexpected roadblocks
Not surprised one bit. System change requires institutional support.The status quo bias in favour of the current infrastructure is massive. Gasoline cars work well for people who drive cars, regardless of the expense, which is incremental, hence easily disregarded, or pollution concerns, which are unseen and to which people only have shallow affinities for. People don’t like uncertainty or novelty in routine. If we want to produce less pollution in travel, electric cars cannot just be plugged in to the current infrastructure. This quote from David Roberts of the Grist explains it well:
Lurking in the background is the notion that the “promise of electric cars” is false until an electric car can plop down in America’s current transportation system and do everything an internal-combustion-engine car can do. <snip> The problem, however, is not merely that our cars consume too much oil. It’s that our transportation system consumes too much oil. A better system won’t merely involve better cars, it will involve driving less, telecommuting more, using more public transportation, sharing cars, making cars smarter, and building more and better electrical infrastructure.
The current infrastructure was built with sustained government support over decades and is propped up by trillions of dollars in taxes, subsidies to fossil fuel industry and such. It works for the people using it, if not for life on this planet in the long term. If I was driving, if my commute is 20 minutes, an electric car will still only take 20 minutes. If you’re stuck in traffic in a hellish commute, an electric car doesn’t help you at all. An electric car would save some money in the long run, but no individual or market is going to build me a charging station in my apartment or workplace, or set up a range of battery swappers from scratch.
Building a sustainable infrastructure is not something a market can do, or is designed to do. It will be up to us to visualize where we want to go, and spend the money, time and effort needed to make it happen. We are also up against a large and well established system that does not really want this change to happen, and has spent decades eroding trust in the institutions that would have to make this change happen.
What needs to happen for electric cars to be a small part of the solution? The larger part involves system change to reduce daily transport needs, de-emphasize private transport and encourage bike, bus train and walk. For cars to be a part of the solution:
- Governments/communities will need to build millions of charging stations (no, markets will not make this happen magically)
- Regulations must force electric car companies to provide standard battery replacement systems (imagine a different battery compartment for each battery operated appliance you own!)
- Gas stations may need to be retrofitted and eventually replaced with battery swap stations for longer distance private travel.
- We need to fund research in better electricity storage and continuous charging using existing road infrastructure.
- Money? The true social cost of carbon could be $250 a ton, BC’s carbon tax is at $30 a ton, clearly we are all free-riding. Carbon taxes, financial transaction fees, taxing the rich and more need to happen.
Are our governments and institutions up to this massive task?