Smarter Cambridge Transport

A pollution-free future coming down the road

Think what it will be like when all vehicles in Cambridge are air-pollution free and almost silent. Impossible? No – it’s coming.

Pollution causes about 40,000 deaths per year in the UK – around 250 in Cambridge alone. Many more people suffer ill health. The worst culprit is the noxious gases and particles delivered directly to our pavements and homes by buses, lorries, taxis, cars and vans.

Now, a century-old technology is coming to the rescue.

Batteries have been too expensive, heavy and short-lived for use in most vehicles, but in recent years a massive effort has gone into new technologies. Originally driven by the demand for better laptops and smartphones, it is now led by vehicle manufacturers.

Just ten years ago, battery cost was $500 per kilowatt-hour, and a car needs around 50 kilowatt hours. US manufacturer Tesla believes that the cost will be down to $100 this year. That’s the tipping point, because at that price, electric vehicles will be cheaper to build than conventional vehicles. Decreasing battery capacity is less of an issue too: Teslas now routinely drive over 100,000 miles without significant loss.

Most electric vehicles are charged overnight, and last throughout the day. But on a long trip, quick charging is necessary. The batteries once took an age to charge, but Porsche and others are launching cars with a charging time of 15 minutes. The UK currently has about 17,000 public chargers in shopping centres, petrol stations and hotels. Companies such as Shell and BP are putting them into every forecourt and car manufacturers contribute too. About 5000 new chargers will be installed this year.

Of course this electricity has to come from somewhere. However, fossil fuels (especially coal) are being replaced by cheaper renewables, so displaced pollution is a reducing issue.

There aren’t many electric vehicles on the market yet, but the manufacturers are developing many more, including 50 new models from VW alone.

So electric vehicles can solve Cambridge’s worst air pollution problems. What should we be doing about it? We’ll discuss that in a future column.

This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 4 July 2018.

Tony Bishop

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