Buy An Electric Car And Save The Planet! Not So Fast, Consider The Alternatives First

First of all, don’t get me wrong, I love electric cars. In a world where cars is something we want, need, and enjoy, the electric kind seems the lesser kind of evil…

A BMW i3 I leased slurping electrons

So, the Tesla Model Y will be revealed today, and undoubtedly this is going to make a huge dent in the fossil fuel based infrastructure we use to move people around on the surface on the planet. It is becoming clear that the Tesla Model 3 is already eradicating the competition, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The Model Y is going to wipe out the first wave of cars based on fossil fuels and human manual driving the same way the smartphone wiped out the first wave of portable communication devices cluttered with physical buttons.

The legacy automakers are trying to keep up with Tesla by presenting compelling electric cars, but they seem to have missed the point: In 10 — 20 years most cars will be autonomous with no need of buttons. Any investment in a brand new car today that is not made for full autonomy, electric or not, will end up as dead weight. Believe me, you will not be happy about the rising insurance premiums.

The Tesla Model 3 just waiting to take you places, autonomously

This is all good and well, if we consider the potential of autonomy resulting in the number of cars servicing us world-wide will shrink from 2 billion to 500 million, and fatalities shrinking from 1 million to 1 thousand, but in the midst of this transportation revolution, let’s not forget that it still is a huge waste to transport people in large metal boxes with interiors like living rooms in which they relax while going to some other place where most will sit and stare at a computer screen, whether that may be at an office desk or on a manufacturing floor. We use a LOT of energy transporting humans.

But we are social creatures. We go crazy if we don’t go out in the world and meet people, and I think it’s wishful thinking to believe everybody will start riding bikes to work, so I guess we are stuck with some kind of metal boxes for transporting all of us.

This graph is a result of some of my own crude calculation and it shows one thing very clearly: When it is realized that the price of dirty energy is way too cheap nowadays due to externalities not accounted for, the internal combustion of fossil fuels is over.

Energy efficiency in Wh/km/person (all seats occupied)

After that, it is a matter of making the energy efficiency of the electric metal boxes as low as possible, and as you can see, nothing beats the electric train in the domain of mass transportation, and I think nothing beats the diversity of the e-bike. Actually, the combination of trains and bikes is a sweet deal. The last-mile-problem solved.

But there is a catch. Humans like comfort. Humans will gladly spend an extra half hour stuck in traffic as opposed to riding a bike, if it is cold or rainy outside. Or too hot…

A Lincoln Navigator slurping happily along in San Diego traffic

So, in order to use as little energy as possible to move us all around, here are some things we could do:

  1. Consider if you need to move at all. Take a walk in your neighborhood if you need to exercise and interact with others.
  2. Use a bike if your commute is shorter than 10 miles.
  3. Work from home as often as possible.
  4. Use the train/subway/bus whenever possible.
  5. Only fly when necessary.
  6. Buy an electric car that’s ready for full autonomy and make sure you have it work for its living out in the world when you’re not using it.
  7. Use autonomous fleet systems (when they become available).

And while you ponder on these choices, remember that a billion people in this world does not have to waste time choosing. They only have the choise of going by foot, while they dream of being able to afford a $100 bicycle. Which, as I hinted, even some consider uncomfortable.

The bike on which a father was transporting his daughter who was in labour. The truck I was riding picked them up and gave them a lift the last 5 miles. A healthy baby boy was born in Mapanza village Zambia that day

All images by the author.

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