Flabber-gassed by our noxious air: can electric vehicles save us?

The Flocken Electrowagen shows the way
The Flocken Electrowagen shows the way

Shayne MacLachlan, OECD Environment Directorate

Paris is a beautiful city but has an ugly problem with air pollution. Using 2 wheels to get to work, one becomes acutely aware of this insidious addiction to cars, and the “essence” of the problem, DIESEL. Queuing at the red lights (which unlike many Parisians I observe) sucking up the carcinogenic fumes, should I feel happy or sad knowing that those in the cars themselves are getting a worse dose of “the product” than those using greener ways to get about? Switching to electric vehicles could save some lives and certainly might help the French public purse as the health, economic and financial damages of air pollution are costing the country an estimated EUR 100 billion per year.

Commendable effort, limited results

It’s not like Paris hasn’t made a huge effort to reduce air pollutants like benzene, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone and fine particles PM2.5 and PM10. Over the last 10 years it has put in place the Vélib bicycle system, the electric car equivalent Autolib, constructed bus lanes that can be shared by cyclists, closed roads and built car-annoying pedestrian crossings in an effort to encourage cleaner mobility. The speed limit on the périphérique (ring-road) has been reduced to 70kph and it is even letting cyclists run (certain) red lights. Paris is banning trucks and dirty diesel cars during certain hours in the city. Although there have been some improvements, the level of NO2 (although not all comes from dirty transport) in parts of Paris during 2015 regularly exceeded 100µg/m3 and averaged 66µg/m3 over the year which is way above the EU limit of 40µg/m3.

So why the foul air?

Paris is teeming with 4-wheeled vehicles but many city residents don’t actually own cars. If you look at the number plates of the vehicles clogging and gassing the streets, many of them come from “les banlieues”, or suburbs around the city. Even though the trains are very reliable and generally run on time (except from September-December which is strike season), it seems that for many, the comfort and practicality of the car is just too much to sacrifice. This choice often means you’ll be stuck in kilometres of traffic every morning and evening, but it seems drivers can’t give up their personal space with their tunes, make-up kits and phone conversations all to themselves.

Time for a pit-stop switch

So if we can’t forego this crooked comfort, we need a MASSIVE switch to electric vehicles (EVs). France wants to have two million EVs on the road by 2020 but currently just over 1% of new vehicles in France are electric. In Norway, it’s 13%. Cheap oil isn’t helping us switch to electric, but we must stop subsidising diesel to make dirtier vehicles much more expensive to run. Officials in France recently agreed that diesel taxes will increase, and those on gasoline will fall, “to neutralise the difference” in the next 5-7 years. It has taken a while for the light to turn green, but for the residents of Paris and other French cities, this is welcome news.

Purchase price and low fuel costs matter

In 2012, the ITF (International Transport Forum) reported that battery electric vehicles cost €4-5K more to their owners than an equivalent fossil-fuel car over the vehicle’s lifetime. A friend of mine was buying a car a little while back. I asked him why he didn’t go electric and I got a gruff response “it’s out of my budget range”. This is in spite of a healthy government rebate of up to EUR 10k for some EV switches. Studies have found that among the most important incentives to buying EVs are purchase price and low fuel costs. Even with purchase bonuses, the pricing of new EVs means they are still not a viable alternative for many. There could be other reasons too for the slow EV take-up such as the insufficient battery charging infrastructure, the time taken to charge a vehicle when compared to filling up at the gas station and annoying distance limitations. Some drivers are also concerned about whether the power used to charge their EV is coming from renewable or fossil-fuelled sources, and what the batteries are made from and how they are disposed of.

Driving the point home

While governments must hammer down the purchase price of cleaner vehicles with even healthier financial enticements, strong disincentives such as imposing a London- or Milan-style congestion charge for high-polluting vehicles may also push consumers to switch. Add toll-free roads, access to bus lanes and lower registration fees for EVs to the list, and they might look a whole lot more attractive. And with the recent VWgate emissions scandal leaving a sulphuric taste in diesel owners’ mouths, one asks whether it’s not the ideal time to make diesel the new public enemy number one, as we’ve done with our ex-friend coal.

Off and running

So as I finish up this morning’s “blog/moaning session” and run off for some lunchtime exercise, (wondering how long before I cough up a chunk of coal) it seems that the checkered flag is a long way off for successful policies that ditch dirty vehicles and encourage a massive switch to EVs. An even bigger “helping hand” for new EV purchases, along with a tailored package of carrots and sticks, may help reduce my flabber-gas and boost our life-expectancy by a few years. Failing all of that, more of us could work from home but that sounds like a good topic for another time.

Useful links


OECD work on the cost of air pollution

Rest in peace Moped, electric scooters are here

Moped killer

Minh Ha-Duong  Clean Energy and Sustainable Development lab (CleanED) at the University of Science and Technology of Hanoi (USTH)

In the last decade two-wheeler electric vehicles have been taking over the streets of Asian capitals, to the point that it is time to declare the gas moped commercially dead. Rest in peace.

While in the western world electromobility remains the domain of a technological elite, it has already arrived to the masses in Asia. China counts over 180 million e-bikers and produced nearly 37 million e-bikes in 2013 and 450 million bicycle users are waiting to buy an e-bike as their next mean of transport. In all South-East Asian countries where driving a two-wheeler vehicle is more popular than driving cars, electric vehicles are displacing gasoline vehicles as the dominant mode of urban transportation.

Two-wheel electric vehicles come in different kinds. If it has pedals, then it is called an electric bicycle, the equivalent of a moped. Otherwise it is called an electric scooter. It is dignified by an upgrade to the motorbike category if its top speed is above some legal limit – 50km/h here in Vietnam. All are powered by batteries which are recharged by plugging into a domestic wall socket, demonstrating that the need for a dedicated charging infrastructure was a myth.

The advantages of this means of transportation are that it generally does not require a driving licence, is faster than a bicycle, more convenient than bus and cheaper than a motorbike. Indeed the average e-bike in Asia costs only $167. The market is very different in the western world, where the average e-bike costs $800 in the USA and $1500 in the EU. The savings on fuel costs are also real, even in a dirt cheap oil year.

In some places electric two wheelers have an image issue, as the first segment to have taken the market is e-bikes designed for high schoolers. But producers upgrade technology and design every year. For example, for $720 in Vietnam one can have an electric scooter which goes up to 50km/h, carries two adults thanks to a 1200W power motor, has a 100km range and copies the design of the Vespa Primavera, an iconic Italian model. This cost is about the average monthly salary in Hanoi, or six times the monthly minimum wage in Vietnam.

As the technological frontier moves, the market shifts from basic e-bikes, that already pushed the good old gasoline moped into obsolescence, to bigger electric scooters. This is mostly happening without government subsidies or targeted policy. The market shifts because there is demand and technological progress. The demand pull is allowed by light regulatory constraints, in contrast with motorcycles which are more heavily regulated, not to say banned from some downtown streets in many Chinese cities.

The number of road accidents with e-bikes and e-scooters can only increase a lot, along with the popularity of these vehicles. The accumulation of risk factors to the drivers is worrying: teenagers, people with no driving licence, riding a vehicle with high acceleration, high speed, wearing no protection, riding in urban traffic; weakly enforced vehicles standards and traffic regulations. Risk factors to others also include no registration makes it easier to flee after hitting someone, and the use of the bike lanes endangers slower traffic. There is a controversy about the low noise of electric vehicles: pedestrians can’t hear them coming. Most available studies look at electric or hybrid cars, not at two wheelers, and the other risk factors listed above make it difficult to determine causality, and conclude with robust confidence that silence is a risk factor. I would prefer to make the rest of the traffic quieter than to make the electric vehicles louder.

Is this technological shift a good thing for the environment? Electricity is not yet so green everywhere. More advanced chargers and systems are required to make the electric vehicles a part of the smart grid. Another problem which remains to be managed is that the most popular models have a lead-acid battery. Lead pollutes, especially in countries where the recycling system is inefficient, and each battery contains 10kg of it.

But at the city scale, the environmental benefits are clear: the e-vehicles are silent and release no exhaust fumes. The advantages regarding the local air quality are especially important in Asian capitals, which are the most polluted cities in the world. According to our estimates, a typical gas scooter emits 0.1g of fine particulates per kilometer, or 400g per year. A typical electric scooter causes ten times less emissions in a country like Vietnam where half of the electricity comes from coal.

The market cannot be trusted to produce lighter and cleaner gas vehicles. The switch to electric two wheelers and cleaner power appears a more powerful way to solve the Asian cities air quality crisis.

Useful links

Shifting Towards Low Carbon Mobility Systems OECD International Transport Forum Discussion Paper

Green Car Congress