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Tesla’s techno-cars are the right answer to the wrong question

With the promise that Tesla’s Model S will “liberate its owners from the petroleum-burning paradigm”, this electric car is an example of just how far technological innovation could take us towards achieving…

More cars, even more better cars, is not the answer. Doo Ho Kim, CC BY-SA

With the promise that Tesla’s Model S will “liberate its owners from the petroleum-burning paradigm”, this electric car is an example of just how far technological innovation could take us towards achieving carbon emissions reduction targets and reducing consumption of fossil fuels.

The technology is certainly impressive but it is concerning to see innovation of this kind being held up as the holy grail of a more sustainable future – especially if it comes at the expense of pursuing other ways to solve the problem.

One reason why the Model S has caused such excitement is its matching of conventional cars in performance, design and desirability. Many of the previous shortfalls of electric vehicles, such as acceleration, driving range and battery life have been addressed. The UK government’s target of “almost” every van and car being emission free by 2050 is starting to look more reasonable and the hype is alluring: technology has resolved the problem and life can carry on as normal.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that although the Model S produces zero emissions, electric cars use electricity and this has to be generated somehow. As a recent OECD report points out, electric cars displace their emissions to the energy generation sector, rather than remove them entirely. In this sense, zero emission vehicles would only arrive with an entirely de-carbonised electricity supply – which is hard to imagine.

Even the Treasury’s 2008 King review of low carbon cars, whose key recommendations underpin UK electric vehicle policy, recognised the extent of progress that was required if low-carbon electricity generation was to meet the 80% carbon emissions reduction target.

In environmental terms, electric vehicles are an answer to the wrong question. For the past decade or so, national policy has framed the problem of private car use and the environment in increasingly narrow terms.

In the early 1990s, sustainable transport policy was concerned with a broad set of issues. These included road congestion, the loss of countryside and the disturbance of rural and semi-rural areas due to road building or the reallocation of land for parking.

Now the problem is debated only in terms of emissions targets. National policy in relation to all forms of transport is heavily focused on vehicle technology to the detriment of other possibilities. These policies actually reinforce current patterns of consumption, tying us to a future in which the use of private cars continues to dominate and increase. This is reflected in the substantial road building programme which comes part and parcel with low-emissions vehicle policy.

Rather than relying on ambitious technological development to provide sustainable transport in the future we might instead invest more in developing ways to challenge the car as the dominant means of getting around, and reducing the car dependence that permeates so many aspects of our everyday lives.

This is not uncharted territory, and there are several places we might turn for inspiration. One example from the mid-1990s is the government’s own planning guidance notes that were explicitly aimed at halting steadily increasing car use. The notes to local authority planners proposed various measures: requiring new developments to be accessible via a range of modes of transport, locating traffic-generating activities such as places of employment so they are highly accessible by public transport, and by making driving more difficult, for example from parking restrictions, limited parking bays and pedestrianisation of roads.

But as guidance and not legislation, local authorities were left in an invidious position. If they applied the guidance then they risked developers passing over them in favour of neighbouring areas. The alternative was to give the green light to projects that further embed car-use. And this kind of planning only creates the conditions for less car use; it doesn’t guarantee it – but at least the policy ambition was there.

There is some potential for optimism when it comes to contemporary policy though. Some recent Department for Transport documents set out ambitious goals which break from the status quo. These include the Door-to-door strategy, which aims to encourage alternatives to private cars for trips of any length (not just those under five miles), and reducing the need to travel through telecommuting and flexible working.

Though less immediately measurable than a car that produces zero emissions, I’d suggest these ambitions for social change hold just as much promise as technology – and more. Our trust in techno-fix solutions, though misguided, illustrates that we have vision. Let’s use this to address some more relevant questions.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Malcolm Whitmore

    Project Manager

    Thank you for the vital critical comment on the way an American billionaire is able to use the media tho create "wants " in our society for our future . You are absolutely correct in your analysis that the dream market of fast sporty cars to show how successful you are have no place in the transport of the future.
    The core point comes down to planning ,in our region there is a forecast increase in population of 25% and n increase in car mileage of 30% over the next /0 years. My enquiry as to where…

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    1. Abe Johnson


      In reply to Malcolm Whitmore

      Your first statement is nonsense. Look at it realistically, cars are not going away anywhere any time soon. Having people desire electric cars by making them good is a step in the right direction. We do not need to chose one or the other, we can chose multiple options.

      Build better mass transportation to get people to use it more. Build cleaner cars so that those that do decide to drive cars do less so. Make cars self driven to fix congestion issues, optimization and get people less set on owning their own cars.

      See this is all converging together. So anything no matter how small as long as it is in the right direction is good.

      I think the direction Tesla is going is a good direction overall. They are working to replace gasoline cars, working to clean up the grid with solar. They are also looking into future prospects for a hyperloop and an electric jet for mass transit.

    2. Malcolm Whitmore

      Project Manager

      In reply to Abe Johnson

      Abe, I can understand why you think that I am talking nonsense ,but if you take a step back and look at where the world is going in its un constrained search to meet the wants of the market ,you will see a world doubling its GDP every 30 years. This cannot continue on the finite planet Earth and we are starting to see the impacts of this in global warming,pollution.water shortages and financial crisis threats.
      Be we need to recognise that the advertising industry is suckering us into chasing cars like the Tesla which are a great example of conspicuous consumption to prove we have what it takes. We are all falling for it,me included,it looks great! But it is not what we need for the sustainable world of our future.That is why we need a fundamental cultural change because unless we set our life goals out for a sustainable world we will come to an unpleasant end.
      Lifestyle that cannot include Teslas ,we will come

    3. Abe Johnson


      In reply to Malcolm Whitmore

      As I pointed out below. With the adoption of EV and self driving cars. People will sly away from owning cars and instead use them as taxis. So the amount of cars in 30 years will actually shrink as people find themselves not needing to own cars.

      With or without Tesla. People will buy cars. Tesla helps improve efficiency and sets us towards reducing reliance on fossil fuels. It is a step in the right direction.

  2. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Good article making sound points about instituting alternatives to individual car use.

    Of course, there are places for which cars make sense - the wide open roads of sparsely-populated lands - but the majority of us don't live there.

  3. Abe Johnson


    Here is how I think it will play out:

    1) Electric cars

    2) Self driven cars

    3) Majority of population decides to stop owning cars and use cheap electric self-driven taxis

    At this point, people will become less bias towards picking their cars and evaluate mass transportation more often. The key is that mass transportation has to evolve to be more modern.

  4. John Doyle


    It's definitely the wrong question, but it's not surprising in today's society that the wrong question is being asked. It ticks so many boxes.
    Unfortunately by 2050 our society will be entering, if not already well into a new paradigm; a society of scarcity. I shouldn't have to keep repeating the conclusions and the close match with predictions after 40 years of that seminal work; "The Limits to Growth"
    Although car sales are still increasing, in mature markets car use is declining. Not because of fuel costs, but changes in the desires of the young where having a car is less desired and also many of the young don't have well paying jobs, a trend that isn't about to go away.
    Public transport is the future, but politicians are so Yesterday in outlook and so focussed on short termism we'll never see that remedied until they are forced to look.
    The future is just as much a different country as we say was the past.

  5. Keith Thomas


    Your penultimate paragraph is where the most effective solution lies: "reducing the need to travel". But it has to go further: It has to be about reducing the desire for travel. There are many ways to do this, but an additional approach that has not been explored is to draw on the ideas behind 'plain packaging' of cigarettes.

    Don Aitkin proposes speedometers that do not register speeds beyond the legal maximum. There are hundreds of others that could make car travel less appealing (and safer).

    Working from home, retaining high street shops, improving walkability, encouraging food production at home, enabling the continued use of cash (not electronic payments) because many people are more comfortable using coins and notes - are all approaches that will help.

    Tesla cars that only the wealthiest among us can afford is not the way to go. "The chief cause of problems is solutions."

    1. Chris Reynolds

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Keith Thomas

      I agree with you, but I don't understand how does the use of coins and notes will help.
      I have to go out of my way to visit a bank or ATM to get cash to spend at a third location. That repository of physical money also needs to be serviced by vehicles to replenish its stock and the shops need to take the cash they recieve to the banks.
      Electronic payments (largely) do away with this and allow greater localism.
      There a local convenience stores that I don't shop at because they have $5 or $10 minimum transaction sizes on electronic payments despite their average sale being under $5 (milk, coffee, etc...). It's a side issue, but once electronic micro-transactions become more affordable (for retailers) I believe it will support localism.

      It's only my opinion. I have no empirical evidence to support it.

  6. ted rees

    Retired Read-Write Engineer at disk memory

    The article presumes that people will move into dense cities, and further away from open land. It presumes that big agriculture will continue to feed us poisoned, processed and GMO foods, shipped over great distances.
    The future I see is where people are spread out more, and have more local food production. The electric car has already proven economical and suitable for trips of 60+ miles without charging, and they will only get better. The electric rail will be used for the longer trips, and the shipment of goods. Of course there will be variation depending on the history, geography, and population density. The authors vision is already implemented in Japan, but their population density is very high, and the geography very narrow.

    1. John Doyle


      In reply to ted rees

      Moving into dense cities will leave those populations without access to food. It will be disastrous for residents in mega cities. Survivors will be those on the land, possibly the poor of today, still able to produce food for themselves. Those cut off from the food supply will be in dire straights. It's going to be a poor society. The tipping point could come at any time, but I doubt it will be immediate. It is however inescapable.

  7. David Mills

    logged in via LinkedIn

    To me, electric cars are a major source of extra pollution. I've read that the electric grid wastes about 50% of the energy just to move the power through the system. So that means every 100 Watts of charging power for the electric car takes 200 Watts of generated electricity. A smart grid I've read will only waste 20% of the power, so they say, but we don't have one of those.

    I've also read that batteries currently used give back about 85% of the power used to charge them. So for that 100 Watts that you use to charge them, you get 85 Watts of motive power.

    That means, that from the power plant making 200 Watts, you get to use 85 Watts to move you. I don't know how accurate those figures are that I've read, but if true, it means electric cars are a major step backwards, and will be the cause of much more fossil fuel burning.

    1. Abe Johnson


      In reply to David Mills

      That is a myth. In the UK, transmission and distribution loss averages only 8%.

      Battery charge/discharge efficiency depends on the battery. Lead Acid batteries are about 85%. Buth Lithium Ion batteries used in EVs have 97%+ charge/discharge efficiency.

      I have been following electric cars for a while, and every study I have seen(which is a lot) point that cradle-to-grave. EVs are more efficient than conventional gasoline cars.

    2. Johnny Le

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Mills

      Oh, boy. Maybe you should find a couple more legit sources to read. We need more well-informed citizens to make better decisions for our future.

      None of what you said is true. Even with wireless charging, it's still 80%-90% efficient. So 50% is definitely not true for the grid, but you may be talking about off-peak hours. That's when the electricity is produced but not being used, like in the middle of the night. So in a day we use only about 50% of generated energy. The other 50% is wasted. This…

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    3. Pierre Riteau

      logged in via email

      In reply to David Mills


      For demystifying the impact of moving to electric cars (and many other energy-related changes), I recommend reading "Sustainable Energy – without the hot air" by David J. C. MacKay (available for free online at

      The figure of 50% that you recall having read is not for moving electricity through the grid, it might be the efficiency of generating electricity from natural gas. Coal is less efficient.

      But you must also take into account the energy lost in running…

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  8. JT Sunderhill

    logged in via email

    They may not even be the right answer. Batteries are heavy, take a long time to recharge and they aren't environmentally very clean.

    Next year will see the introduction of Toyota and Honda's hydrogen fuel cell cars. The new Hyundai FC is up for lease now in S.Calif. They are electric cars but instead of a battery they make their own electricity. And the only exhaust is water.

    Here's an article that makes the same point as the brave author here (brave because the assault from tesla lovers can…

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    1. Johnny Le

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to JT Sunderhill

      JT, the problem with hydrogen fuel cell is this:

      Let's say you use solar power to generate electricity. Now you have two choices:
      1. Put the generated energy into an electric car and drive.
      2. Use the energy to produce and compress hydrogen. Is this process 100% efficient? The answer is no. After you produce it, you have to maintain this liquid hydrogen. It's not easy. You then put the cell into a car and now the cell produces energy to move the car. Is this process 100% efficient? The answer is no.

      So why should we do two more steps? Why should we convert energy to liquid hydrogen and then convert it back to energy? It doesn't seem to be very efficient.

  9. Johnny Le

    logged in via Facebook

    I find it interesting that whenever there is a solution, people always criticize that it doesn't fix 100% of the problem. It's a tough problem. If it could fix 20%, 30%, 50%, or 70% of the problem, I think it's a good solution, especially since the solution is just the beginning. Yes, "electric cars displace their emissions to the energy generation sector, rather than remove them entirely," but it takes the emissions away from children, the elderly, and people with breathing problems. It may not…

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