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Shared e-mobility: it's now cheaper to do the right thing

Ashwin Mahesh Dec 16 2017, 23:49 IST
Ashwin Mahes

Ashwin Mahes

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) took shape in the early 1990s, when I was a graduate student looking at clouds and warming in the Antarctic. Back then, we were beginning to acknowledge that the way humans live affects the climate of our planet, and the IPCC was a hopeful step towards accepting the responsibilities that accompany that realisation. We must be good stewards of the 'blue dot' on which we live, we told ourselves; this is the only world we can ever call home.

That didn't work at all. Some 25 years later, we must admit that our love affair with fossil fuels has been undiminished during all this time, and that we would happily have burned all of them out of the ground before turning to alternatives. Climate change tested our ability to act responsibly towards ourselves and future generations, and we failed miserably. Heating up the planet was inexpensive, and nothing we said to ourselves could overcome that.

But now, in the nick of time, we may be about to receive a 'get out of jail free' card. Incredibly, and unexpectedly, it is now cheaper to do the responsible thing. Cleaner fuel from the natural forces of the world now costs the same or less than the power we source from burning fossil fuels. Coupled with this, the technology of powering mobility through electric power has also matured, and is about to hit a tipping point.

And so, we now look to a more hopeful future, and even plan for it. Many countries have declared that clean fuels and electric mobility are the future they will seek, and begun to put in place the policies that will get them there. India, too, has taken the first steps, with bold declarations of intent from both the central and state governments.

In the next 20 years, the three great transformations that we are witnessing -- the falling price of clean energy, the growing sophistication of computer networks, and the potential for human collaboration unleashed by the two -- will dramatically reshape many things. And more than anywhere else, large cities will be the stage on which this drama is enacted with the most vigour. For those of us who live in such places -- the megacities of the world -- this is an exciting time, but also one that calls for foresight and response to the changes we will surely see.

The first set of electric vehicles on the roads seem like a bother to own, with limited range and slow charging times. But don't let that fool you -- the speed at which technological developments are overcoming those barriers is nothing short of astounding. In less than a decade, it will be possible to own a car that charges in five minutes in your garage, and stores enough charge to run a thousand kilometres.

Electric vehicles are far more modular than their diesel and petrol counterparts, and could therefore potentially last much longer, providing better value for money. They will also be much cheaper to run, typically costing only a sixth that it does to run a diesel vehicle per kilometre; most of the diesel in your car does nothing more than heat it, whereas an EV is actually pushed forward much more efficiently. And every building with a power connection is potentially a charging point; once we recognise that, we'll see that we already have more than enough infrastructure to charge EVs.

The combined effect of these realities is that a much larger number of people will be able to afford motorised vehicles in the future. If you think today's urban roads are congested, wait till this future arrives.

Adding to this the fact that owning an electric vehicle will be a relatively guilt-free decision, unlike owning one that is powered by depleting fossil fuels. This guilt is an important part of the armoury that cities have tried to use to encourage people away from personal vehicle ownership, and without it, we'll have a hard time encouraging people to detach themselves from their automobiles.

What should governments do, in the face of these likely changes? The answer, to my mind, has nothing to do with EVs. In fact, by trying to address the EV question directly, governments may be missing the forest for the trees. Rather than focus on the cleanliness of the fuels, governments would do better to focus on two other things: the shared economy, and connected management of mobility.

Subsidies for the purchase of electric cars are not needed; rising volumes of production and better-packaged financial products will bring EVs within reach of plenty of people soon enough. Charging infrastructure in public places may also prove to be a waste of money; very few people will rely on these, preferring to charge vehicles at home and in workplaces, and using public options only in emergencies.

Governments should instead focus on the things that the markets will not naturally deliver. They should anticipate the likely consequences of electric mobility on power grids and infrastructure, and build better capacity to manage distributed energy generation and consumption. They should promote shared use of vehicles as a counter-measure to offset their inevitable affordability, and encourage digital applications that do this.

They should build walkable and cyclable cities that reduce the need for motorised transport over short distances, regardless of the fuel they use.

In short, the things that we have always known to be good choices are the ones that will need to be made in the future, too. The real test before us is not in the novelty of the world that EVs will create, but the familiar problems we have thus far failed to overcome.

(The writer is founder, Mapunity, a social technology firm, and co-founder of the EV-based transportation services company, Lithium)

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