Friday, August 12, 2011

The Guardian, Top Gear & Saving the Planet

Shock horror.  Someone writing for The Guardian has written an article complaining about BBC’s Top Gear.  Whereas I wouldn’t usually bother giving such drivel any airtime, I have, on this occasion decided to throw my hat in to the ring.  The article in question is about an episode on electric cars, and as a researcher working in the field of Sustainable Transport I feel that I ought to be in a position to pass comment on the matter.

Anyone who has watched the episode in question will know that it wasn’t unfair of Andy Wilman (the producer) to assert that “the programme wasn't testing the range claims of the vehicles, and nor did it state that the vehicles wouldn't achieve their claimed range.”  Indeed, the point of the episode was not to see how far the cars would go on a single charge, and complaints such as "at no point were viewers told that the battery had been more than half empty at the start of the trip” are an irrelevance.

Instead, I thought that Top Gear highlighted quite well the fact that there can be real problems when such a car runs out of battery power.  Doubling the distance driven would have had no effect on the point made on TV – and besides, are readers of The Guardian really naive enough to think that beginning every journey with fully charged batteries is a realistic expectation?

And although there are complaints about the fact that the breakdown was staged in Lincoln, where there were limited options to charge the cars, I have no problem with this.  It would have been far more irresponsible to cruise around a small area of London, with a network of charging points, and conclude that the electric car really is a practical option for everyone in today’s society.  Like it or lump it, one has to accept that TV sometimes relies on embellishments to make a point and the underlying message here is still very fair.  In this case, the message is that running out of battery power somewhere comparatively rural is not at all convenient (to put it mildly…).

However much you want to see the electric car succeed, you have to accept that it isn’t a complete solution to our transport problems – at least not as things stand at the moment.  Seeing the bigger picture, one must question the environmental damage of mining the materials for the batteries, the carbon footprint of shipping the components around the world and the overall reduction in emissions (given that the electricity doesn’t grow on trees).  The statistics given in Top Gear about the lifetime of a battery are shocking – is it really good for the environment to need a new one every few years? Or, worse, to throw the whole car away because it is no longer economical to fix? I’m not sure that the latter is really a preposterous idea for some (especially if they have that much money to spend on a small car in the first place).

That’s not to say that there isn’t some hope for the electric car.  In cities where there are a network of charging points and journeys tend to be short, they could be a practical way of reducing local emissions and improving air quality.  But in a world where we are told that we need to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 80%, the electric car is not going to help us that much

To really meet the targets, we need to think about whether our journeys are really necessary.  We need to think about walking and cycling.  We need to be prepared to suffer the inconvenience of public transport, and to perhaps pay more for our travel to reflect the level of environmental impact.

Buying a Prius and recycling your copy of The Guardian may give you a smug feeling. And that’s fair enough.  It’s also your prerogative if, having spent £30k on a small Nissan, you want to sneer at “rich banker Tories in their BMWs.”  But however vocally you knock Top Gear and fight for the electric car, the reality is you are probably not actually doing that much to really make an environmental difference.






Gareth P said...

As you now JP, I generally like the Guardian and consider myself left leaning. I must say however I'm with you on this - Top Gear is an entertainment program and not a consumer guide (unless you can afford a Hyper car).

I found the segement entertaining and the points it made valid. I have to say that I disagree with the conclusion though that Hydrogen cars are the alternative. I think the electric car is here to stay and hopefully the car manufacturers can address the good points you raise over the carbon footprints of batteries and the cars themselves.

The bottom line is that most perople won't suffer the inconvenience of walking, cycling or public transport so we need the electic car to work.

Starkey said...

Er ... and how do we make hydrogen? By burning coal to electrolyse water, that's how.

Gareth P said...

I know which is why I said I disagreed with the Top Gear pieces conclusion that it will be hydrogen cars that become the mainstream (making electric cars the Betamax of the car industry).