After years being ridiculed and seen as a joke by car manufacturers and by the public, interest in electric cars has increased significantly and governments around the world are already creating plans to ban diesel and diesel cars .

We have seen how there is suddenly a great availability of electric cars, especially in the high range where Tesla is far ahead of other brands more entrenched. Probably very soon electric cars will also be made with the rest of the market, in fact it is expected that by 2025 the prices will be similar to those of conventional cars.

Electric cars are praised as the answer we need to achieve green and clean mobility, but the overall sustainability of electric cars is still unclear. Examining the situation closely, perhaps we should rethink our entire transportation model.

Compared to combustion engines, electric transport has obvious advantages in terms of emissions and our health. Only transport is responsible for about 23% of global carbon dioxide emissions, a figure that is expected to double by 2050.

Motor vehicles are also an obstacle for society, especially in urban environments where they are one of the main responsible for noise and air pollution. The possibility of avoiding these problems is the reason why electric cars are considered as a key technology to help us clean up the transport sector. However, electric cars bring their own problems .

Problems in the supply chain

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To begin with, there is a worrying factor in the distribution chain of electric cars: cobalt is a key component in lithium-ion batteries, a raw material related to child exploitation. It must also be taken into account that it is toxic to extract the nickel used in these batteries from the ground and that there are environmental concerns and conflicts over land use related to the extraction of lithium in countries such as Tibet and Bolivia.

The elements used in the production of batteries are finite and have a limited supply, which makes it impossible to change all the world’s transport to an electric transport with the current battery technology. Meanwhile, there is still no environmentally safe way to recycle lithium-ion batteries.

While electric cars do not produce exhaust gases, there are concerns about emissions of fine particles. Electric cars are usually heavier than conventional cars and the heavier the vehicle, the more emissions that are not exhaust. The high torque of electric vehicles also worsens the problem of fine particle emissions, as the tires suffer greater wear and a greater dispersion of fine particles occurs.

Different engine, same problem

There are many other problems that electric cars share with conventional cars: both need roads, parking areas and other infrastructure, a critical problem in cities. Roads can divide communities and hinder access to essential services for those who do not have a car.

A change in people’s dependence on cars with a combustion engine would not improve the sedentary urban style much because it would not improve our lack of physical activity.

Other problems are related to traffic density. In Australia, it is estimated that traffic jams create an unnecessary social expenditure of A $ 16.5 billion and the figure is expected to increase by 2% per year until 2030. If we take into account the trends in population growth and urbanization worldwide and in Australia, electric cars, despite the obvious advantages they have over fossil fuels, will not solve the problems related to mobility and urban infrastructures.

New technologies or new regulations could solve these technical and environmental headaches. Improvements in recycling and innovation, as well as a greener battery production, could be the key to reducing the impacts of battery manufacturing. Certification systems, such as the one proposed in Sweden, could help reduce the impact on battery production chains and avoid the use of conflict minerals and human rights violations in the industry.

A new transport model

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However, although our concerns about climate change are already a sufficient guarantee to accelerate the transition to electric mobility, it may only be a transition technology . Electric cars will do little to improve the mobility and livability of cities over the next few years. Some traditional manufacturers such as Porsche are already working on new modes of transport, especially for markets as saturated and growing as China.

However, his idea is still based on using personal vehicles in which electric cars would use an intelligent traffic system to avoid traffic jams on the roads. Instead of having fewer cars, something recommended by transport experts, car manufacturers continue to promote individual transportation instead of looking for a greener version.

With the increase in population, a change in the transport model based on a change in urban design is necessary to solve transport problems.

In Copenhagen, for example, there are more bicycles than cars in the city center and it is expected that there will be no cars in the next ten years. Many other cities, such as Oslo in Norway and Chengdu in China, are also on their way to becoming cities without cars.

Experts are already contemplating new designs for cities that are based on the combination of efficient public transport, such as the city of Curitiba, in Brazil with priority for pedestrians, as in the city of Vauben, in Germany . It is a model that combines a development of mixed transport, as can be seen in places like Fruitvale Villa, in California.

But these innovations do not solve only the environmental problems related to transport, but also improve the quality of life by recovering the green spaces in the city . The cost of living is lower because the time and cost of travel are reduced and they provide health benefits thanks to the reduction of pollution and the promotion of a healthier lifestyle. They also improve social cohesion by encouraging the interaction of people on the street and help reduce crime. Nor should we forget that the economy would improve because it would reduce the loss of productivity due to traffic jams.

Electric cars are a quick-deploying technological solution that contributes to solving the problems of climate change and improves urban air quality, at least to some extent. However, the ultimate goal of sustainability is to eliminate many of today’s daily transport needs through intelligent designs by recovering those parts of our lives that we have lost because of decades of car dependence.


  • Martin Brueckner, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability, Murdoch University

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