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Pathfinders: The Fall and Rise of the Electric Car

Connoisseurs of outlandish conspiracy theories will fondly remember one set of nerdy non-petrol-heads who, a few years ago, were desperate to tell us at great length why and how the electric car industry had been effectively 'killed' by the existing fossil car producers. Not that the carmakers were entirely innocent of any ill-will, but the failure of this early horizon tech at that time didn't require any complicated or conspiratorial explanation. There was simply a lack of market demand and social infrastructure including charging stations. Fast forward a few years and these same nerds must now be mourning the death of their pet conspiracy, killed off by a changed political, environmental and commercial landscape. Now that France has announced a plan to phase out all diesel and petrol cars by 2040, and the UK has followed suit with a similar scheme, the electric car industry is well and truly plugged in and heating up once again.

Just last month UK inventor James Dyson announced plans to launch an electric vehicle (EV) by 2020, a time-scale some commentators say is close to impossible, given the densely-packed hurdle race of regulations the EV will have to negotiate first (Guardian, 26 September). The design is being kept under wraps, very possibly because there isn't one: “We don’t have an existing chassis … We’re starting from scratch. What we’re doing is quite radical,” says Dyson, which might be code for 'we’re making it up as we go along'. But he clearly means business as he's already invested around a billion in battery technology and now plans to invest a further £1.5bn in developing the prototype. What's not a secret is that it'll be a high-end vehicle made in China for the China and East Asia market, the market which is most keen on 'clean' technology and which also buys the most luxury cars. So don't expect your next school run or shopping trolley to be a Dyson. Wags will say it sucks anyway.

The conspiracy nuts do have one small consolation while mourning the corpse of their theory – they were right that the car industry as it was would not innovate into EV development, and that the impetus would have to come from outside. And so it did, with Elon Musk’s Tesla start-up, which somehow managed to sell thousands of cars last year while still making a loss. Now Dyson’s involved you’d really expect intrepid balloonist and media babe Richard Branson to pile in some cash too, but Mr Galactic has instead plunged his millions into Elon Musk's weird and wacky maglev tube idea, which proposes to fire people across the country in bullet-pods with their faces presumably contorting into rippling G-force playdoh (Guardian, 12 October).

It’s no longer just outsiders who are making the EV play. All the carmakers are scrambling to meet the deadlines set by the UK and French governments. Jaguar Land Rover aims to have 'clean' versions of all its range by 2020, and BMW is working on an electric Mini, while Nissan is already selling its Sunderland-made Leaf EV.

Alert readers might wonder why the word ‘clean’ appears here dressed in quote marks. The filthy truth is that the electricity that powers these cars has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is almost certainly going to be a power station using gas, oil or coal for fuel. All that an EV owner can truthfully claim is that they have shifted their carbon footprint out of sight by a trick of ventriloquism. Naturally carmakers are not inclined to emphasise this point. When Tesla markets cars with the proud label ‘Zero emissions’ they are actually dealing in ‘Zero admissions’.

And why not indeed, when governments propose do the same thing and call it a carbon-trading scheme? In this ventriloquist act, heavily polluting countries buy and use the ‘polluting potential’ of cleaner (because poorer) countries. They then don’t have to clean up their own act, which means they can continue to clean up on sales. Meanwhile the poor countries at the watery end of climate change, like the Maldives, can use these carbon credits to buy themselves whatever they like, such as rubber rings or scuba equipment.

Currently what’s putting off most potential buyers of electric cars, apart from the fancy prices, is ‘range anxiety’, the fear of being stranded somewhere remote with a flat battery. Added to this is the well-known fact, after a spate of exploding Samsung phones, that lithium-ion batteries, which also power laptops and EVs, can get very hot. This appears to have been the case in June when motoring star Richard Hammond crashed an electric supercar which then caught fire and burned to a crisp. One reason why Dyson is avoiding liquid batteries and opting for the less-volatile solid-state alternative.

Technical niggles aside, the EV is sure to find ready approval among the more moneyed liberal set who don’t realise their trendy wood-burning stove is a much worse domestic polluter than gas central heating, whether the fuel is North Sea, Norwegian or fracked methane, or that their family dog is in carbon terms roughly equivalent to running two SUVs. But in the bigger picture, isn’t there something more fundamentally off-course about electric cars? Instead of building a whole new generation of EVs to run people over, clog cities and sit idle in motorway tailbacks, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves whether the world really needs individual modes of transport on this vast scale?

Well, some people do ask that question. But capitalism isn’t about what people need, it’s about what people want and are willing to pay for. And if people want personal transport, because public transport by ‘loser cruiser’ is not an aspiration of the upwardly-mobile, then that’s what the machine will gear up to produce, to the detriment of any logical public transport solution.

We often say that socialism is a system of society based on material abundance, however the word abundance can be taken the wrong way. It doesn’t mean that everyone can have everything they can possible imagine, including their own palace and ocean-going yacht, or ‘Cartier for everyone’ as propounded by optimistic advocates of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. ‘Abundance’ is perhaps better thought of as ‘sufficiency’, and sufficiency entails some prioritisation over production. When ordering those priorities, what socialism will have in mind first is food, shelter, sanitation and healthcare for every individual on the planet. In this context, the idea of building individual electric cars or other adult toys is likely to take a back seat. 

PJS