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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  • Considering Cambridge has had a problem with congestion and pollution for decades, you’d think the city council would be doing more to promote electric vehicles.
    Why aren’t there fast chargers around the station?
    Why haven’t they put a canopy over the station car park and other car parks covered in solar panels?
    Why haven’t they offered big incentives for electric or hybrid taxis and buses?
    Even the new town of Eddington, touted for it’s green credentials, doesn’t have an EV charger in the supermarket car park.

    Perhaps it’s ignorance? Or laziness? Or a symptom of a council who prefer to talk than act? Chargers are not expensive, but they’re not glamorous vanity projects, no councillor will get their name on a plaque on one.

    • Part of the problem is that most of those locations are not owned or controlled by the City Council. The station car park and Station Square are owned by Network Rail and managed by Greater Anglia. Their business is trains, and it’s likely that nobody in either organisation is tasked with upgrading station facilities to cater for electric vehicles.

      Installing chargers in public places, with associated underground ducting and making them vandal- and tamper-proof, will often be expensive. The ones that the City Council is installing for taxis cost £30,000 each:

      And who will pay for them? It should of course be the users (we don’t expect free petrol), but charger and payment system standards are still maturing, which makes companies and local authorities reluctant to commit and invest in technology that may become redundant.

      The National Infrastructure Commission has recently published recommendations for how to prepare for an EV future:

      • Why not partner with the same company that installs at motorway service stations.
        £30,000 seems wildly expensive.

    • I think that much of this is down to the lack of a strategy – from central or the bewildering array of local governments. Of course such a strategy should involve all the stake-holders. That’ll be the subject of my next piece…