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Automotive

Electric cars will cut pollution, but what about congestion?

As electric cars cost less to run, could they encourage people to drive more instead of using alternative forms of transport?

By 2030, Deloitte predicts there will be 21 million electric cars on the road, a significant jump from the 2 million sold in 2018.

While governments and the industry are rushing to make electric cars a viable choice, the jury's still out on whether they really are the answer. They will undoubtedly make our cities cleaner, but are we ready to take the leap?

According to a survey by UK insurance company Aviva, 81% of people said “range" was their biggest concern with switching to an electric car, followed by “finding a charging point" and the “time it takes to recharge". And those results are not exclusive to that survey: it's a sentiment we see time and again.

But what are the alternatives? Hydrogen has been a much-debated substitute, offering the same sort of range and refueling time as a conventional car, with zero tail pipe emissions. But it's a chicken and egg scenario: the infrastructure isn't good enough, so car makers won't build the cars.

One British inventor, however, claims his fuel of the future solves the issues of air quality and range anxiety. Former submariner and nuclear reactor designer Trevor Jackson has created an 'aluminium air' fuel cell that he says will have a range of 1,500 miles. That's about five times more than an electric car.

But where his invention really trumps electric is in the time it takes to recharge. At the moment, charging an electric car from home takes several hours. That's improving all the time but lithium ion batteries have their limits.

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Want a quick top up on the go? That'll take at least 20 minutes from a public charging point.

Compare that to Jackson's fuel cell (he insists it's not a battery). Every 1,500 miles you swap it for a new one – a process that takes 90 seconds – and you're good to go. It's also about half the cost of charging an electric car, which is again significantly less than the cost of petrol or diesel.

And it's this last point – cost – that's so crucial. Because whether the future is powered by lithium-ion, aluminium-air or hydrogen, the lower cost of renewable energy will actually increase traffic congestion, says experts.

The electric car paradox

And that brings us to two of the most fundamental problems with urban mobility: pollution and congestion. According to Shifting the focus: energy demand in a net-zero carbon UK, a report by the Center for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), their forecasts show that as electric car demand increases, so too does car usage. The report concluded that by 2050, “100% electrification has the highest levels of traffic growth."

To compound the problem, by 2050 the world's population is expected to swell from today's 7.7billion to 9.8billion. It's predicted 70% of these people will live in urban areas.

In this clean new future, are cities going to ground to a halt? As the report's author Nick Eyre, professor of energy and climate policy at the University of Oxford and director of CREDS, says: “Clean growth involves more than attending to the carbon implications; it means considering the combined effects of continued car dependency leading to more urban sprawl, inactive lifestyles, congestion and the demand for increased road capacity".

In other words, if we don't fix the 'car problem', we're going to be sat in traffic jams getting tubbier.

Of course, the future of travel in 2050 is going to look radically different to now. Work has already started on hyperloops that can rocket us between major cities in minutes. Flying cars, once the stuff of science fiction, are looking more viable, and the technology exists for autonomous cars, if not the infrastructure. But whether autonomous cars will actually ease congestion is a matter of debate, as we discuss in this white paper.

Right now, what's fundamentally required is a mindset and lifestyle shift that makes us less reliant on our cars, whether that's as consumers or businesses.

It's never been easier to get around most major cities without a car, from shared bikes to e-scooters. And technology makes it easier than ever to find your way using multiple forms of transport. HERE's Intermodal Routing technology gives you seamless start-to-finish directions for walking, driving and taking the train or the bus. It can even provide alternative directions when it detects congestion or delays for a faster route.

Cutting pollution is only half the issue for urban mobility. If future cities are going to work, we'll need to rethink how we get around them, too.

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