Boris Johnson's electric cars will not be as green as those powered by the French, so why not just hop on a bus instead?
Aiming to make London the 'electric capital of Europe', London Mayor Boris Johnson told the London assembly on 25 February that a working group was considering a plan along the lines of the Autolib' electric car rental scheme planned for Paris for 2010, and wanted to greatly expand support for charging points around London.
Johnson hoped for a "sizeable chunk" of the £250m government funding for electric vehicle initiatives, and added that he wanted to see at least half the 8,000-vehicle fleet owned by the Greater London Authority replaced by electric vehicles as soon as possible, while warning that considerable sums were necessary in order to invest in a technology that is "almost there ... but not quite".
Last October, the Paris authorities announced plans for an 'Autolib' electric car-sharing scheme to do on four wheels what the successful Vélib bicycle sharing scheme has done on two. Paris proposes 2,000 EVs to be available from 200 city centre underground car parks and 500 parking bays, and another 2,000 in the city's suburbs. These vehicles could be booked online, picked up in one bay and left in another at the journey's end.
Electric cars still have teething problems. Problem one is that these cars - some are not technically cars, but 'quadricycles' such as the REVA and Aixam Mega -- are produced in small numbers and cost more than comparable ordinary cars, despite offering limited range, utility and space.
Problem two is the infrastructure EVs need, given their batteries' present shortcomings. Most EVs' batteries need recharging for 7-8 hours after around 100 miles. The 40 Elektrobay street-side recharging units already in place in London cost around £7,500 per unit installed - multiply that by 700 units as with the Paris scheme - and it adds up to a huge sum of cash.
Then there's the cost of telematics and accounting systems and associated hardware to charge users for the 'juice' and the rentals. Elektromotive, the UK firm which has supplied London's recharging points to date, recently signed an agreement with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which hopes for global EV market leadership from the launch of its first electric cars in 2012, but solutions to large-scale recharging/parking infrastructure issues remain unproven.
London is likely to start, as have some other local authorities, by buying more electric vehicles for the GLA fleet, whose journeys start and end at depots where off-road recharging units can more easily be installed.
To date, car sharing clubs have remained small-scale, though in London, the City Car Club saw membership rise 109% last year, and rival Whizzgo's rose 42%. One such company might take on the management of an EV sharing scheme. But it would provide electric car access only to the few, so might not deserve big subsidies.
The question of whether electric cars in London are the greenest option should also be asked. France relies on nuclear energy for around 80% of its electricity and therefore has a much lower carbon electricity supply than the Brits.
And according to estimates cited by the French EV maker Aixam, on average people only need cars in London for 4-mile journeys. Might they be better off taking a bus? Improving bus services might cut urban CO2 emissions more efficiently than a token fleet of electric cars available only to the few.
However London decides to pump-prime electric transport, the Mayor should reflect on the fact that some of the latest small diesel cars from European manufacturers emit CO2 emissions below 100gm/km, well below the 2012 limit proposed by the EU, and scarcely more than the average 87g/km calculated for electric cars by the UK's King Review of Low Carbon Cars, factoring in the UK's renewables-poor generation mix.
France is ahead of the UK and the EU as a whole in cutting car CO2 emissions, with a French average of 139.4g/km emitted by new cars sold in 2008, against the UK's 158.0g/km and the EU average of 153.3g/km. 458,787 new cars emitting less than 120g/km were sold in France in 2008, representing 22.4% of the total market, and 55% of them were built by French manufacturers. Among them, Renault, with alliance partner Nissan, plans to be the world's biggest electric carmaker by 2012.