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The Eco-Worrier on Electric Cars and Covid-19

It is excellent news that the UK’s first electric inter-city bus service has just been inaugurated between Edinburgh and Dundee. This is despite the fact that the most logical initial role for the battery-powered bus should surely lie within cities where air pollution and noise are particularly important issues and a single overnight charge could probably fuel an entire day of typical stop-start operation. It has always been a mystery to me why roaring diesel bus exhausts seem deliberately positioned to blast their toxins at the same level as small children in their buggies on the pavement. Now, however, the arrival of Covid-19 has turned everything on its head and - for the moment at least - public transport is unsafe and therefore unpopular. Much more work is going to be done from home and the number of people seeking a driving licence has apparently soared.

If we are to have more people driving individual vehicles the last thing we need is for them to be buying polluting, often elderly vehicles that occupy a lot of road and parking space. Like the electric bus, the most logical place for the electric car is in cities where those who are unable to cycle or walk can use them or where the climate makes such activities more challenging.

It does seem incongruous that the main push for electrification has been towards luxury models such as the Tesla, but there is no doubt an argument that manufacturers need to generate the high profits from such vehicles in order to be able to finance the production of cheaper city models.

Things are changing, however, especially in view of the development in China of GM’s Honguang Mini EV 4-seater which, at $4,200 is selling fast while in France Citroen’s 2-seater ‘Ami’ can be driven by anyone aged over 14 and is being marketed through a finance scheme which costs its ‘owner’ no more than a mobile phone for short ‘pay per mile’ rental. Along with pedestrianisation and cycle-paths, the silent Ami would fit well with mayor Anne Hidalgo’s plans for Paris to be a decentralised' 15-minute’ city.

Citroen Ami

It seems unlikely that, for the moment at least, either of these tiny vehicles is likely to be sold in the UK where ‘electric’ still means ‘expensive.’ While these tiny Chinese and French vehicles are cheap already, other European countries are much more generous in supporting the sale of electric cars. In contrast to the UK government incentive, which has been cut to £3,000, Germany offers 9000 Euros, Italy 10,000 and, if the buyer is scrapping an older petrol or diesel car, the French government will pay 13,000 towards a new EV. These payments effectively cover the price difference between an electric car and its petrol-powered equivalent.

It is impossible to know how long Covid-19 restrictions will last but it appears that, along with Zoom, the pandemic has reduced the need for commuting, business and shopping journeys worldwide forever and that almost everyone will be driving significantly fewer miles. This adds a further twist to the electric car debate: how many people will want to - or be able to - pay the hefty capital or monthly cost of financing a new electric car when, provided that it isn’t a fume-belching monster, their existing car could cover their reduced transport needs? From the environmental point of view, it has been calculated that the manufacture of a new car demands resources and causes pollution equivalent to driving it 100,000 miles, so there is a lot of room for debate!

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