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The problem with electric and self-driving cars? They’re still cars

We're getting duped. We've been told that the electric car and its tech-laden offspring, the self-driving car, will clear away smog, cure road congestion and help usher in a low-carbon economy that will spare the Earth from BBQ status. These rolling eco-gadgets will transform mobility as radically as steam trains did in the 1800s and gasoline-powered cars did more than a century ago, minus the lung-choking and planet-warming emissions.

It's time for a reality check. The electric vehicle (EV) is not as clean as advertised and the advent of self-driving cars could stuff millions more cars on the road. Those objections are not coming just from EV and self-driving-car deniers—typically petrol heads who think civilization peaked with the recent launch of the 580-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro ZL1—but from sober consulting firms and academics. They argue that Tesla and Google aren't necessarily the infallible gods of future personal transportation, even if they admire the ingenuity of the inventors and developers. Sadly, the skeptics' voices are getting buried in the mountains of hype surrounding the new car technologies.

Yes, pure EVs—the ones with no gasoline engine—have already made a mark in the marketplace, even though they still account for less than 1% of passenger vehicle sales in North America and Europe (their share fell in 2015, probably because of plummeting gasoline prices). Shoppers' bible Consumer Reports last year rated the $100,000-plus (U.S.) Tesla Model S P85D sedan the best car it had ever tested. Almost every big carmaker has electric cars in the showroom or in development.

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Dozens of big companies—including Google, Tesla, Mercedes-Benz and Bosch—are also throwing billions of dollars into digital technology that will allow cars that steer themselves to deliver Junior to the paintball arcade or Grandma to the bingo parlour. The first self-driving cars should be in showrooms within five years, and hundreds of thousands of jobs will allegedly be created as cars are reinvented from the wheels up.

But a lot of those hopes may be misguided at best, and based on fraudulent claims at worst. Take the boast that EVs are zero-emission vehicles. It might be technically right if you ignore the pollution created in building the cars. Once the EVs are on the road, however, they often just transfer emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack. In the United States, coal is still used to generate about 39% of electricity, and natural gas supplies about 27%.

Canada faces similar challenges. Last year Christopher Kennedy, a professor in the University of Toronto's environmental engineering research group, determined that, in parts of the country where fossil fuels are burned to generate electricity—Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia—driving an EV could create more emissions than a gasoline engine. "You're better off filling up at the pump," Kennedy said on CBC Radio.

EVs will only be clean when renewable energy dominates the electricity grid. But that transition could take decades, and it is dependent on a big breakthrough in electricity storage, because solar panels are useless in the dark and wind turbines are useless unless the wind blows.

A recent North Carolina State University study looked at projected U.S. emissions levels in 2050 under more than 100 different scenarios. The authors concluded that even if more than 40% of the passenger vehicles were EVs, there would be little or no reduction in air pollution.

Would self-driving cars be any better? They, too, will be electric. And proponents argue that the robo-cars would dramatically reduce road congestion, partly because they can travel very close together, and partly because of the advent of a vehicle-sharing economy, which would reduce the number of private cars. Many—maybe most—of the self-driving cars would be in fleets that could be booked like Uber taxis.

Hold on. What if the ownership model does not change and these cars stay in private hands? If so, they would probably be an addition to the traditional family car—as so many EVs are now. Plus they would be used more often, because even people without a driver's licence could use one. A study by KPMG concluded that if driverless cars retreat to cheap parking spaces outside the urban core after passengers are dropped off, or circle the block for an hour to avoid parking charges, traffic on U.S. roads could double. The on-demand cars would also make public transit and walking less attractive.

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Lost in the debate about EVs and self-driving cars is the fact that they are still bloody cars. They still pollute. They still need parking spaces, and roads still need to be built for them. They still contribute to urban sprawl. Imagine if all the engineering talent and investor fortunes funnelled into these iPhones-on-wheels were put into public transportation instead.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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