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Is the Electric Vehicle the Latest Manifestation of High-Modernism?

06.09.21 | Blog | By:

Cars contribute 25% of transport GHG emissions in the EU, car pools do not change overnight, 15-20 years are necessary for a full turnover. Action is necessary now if road transport is serious about net zero zarbon in 2050.

The much-hyped and mediatized approach, supported by car manufacturers that find it more and more difficult to meet internal combustion engines vehicles (ICEV) CO2 emission standards, is to go all out for the electric vehicle (EV).  Such a hyperfocus reminds me of James C. Scott’s book, “Seeing Like A State”, detailing how high-modernism repeatedly caused catastrophic failures in the twentieth century, the most striking example being the collectivization of agriculture in the former Soviet Union in Joseph Stalin’s era.

Driving a car is not optional for many in our advanced economies. People need it to:

  • Go to work, when public transport is limited or non-existent,
  • Shop, in rural or sub-urban areas, where shop density and variety are small, and home-delivery not right away affordable or sustainable,
  • Take holidays and visit friends and family, when public transport is not available or affordable.

We are not any more bound to our village limits, thanks to the car revolution of the twentieth century.

The EV revolution is not only about the vehicle itself, its relative silence, its Formula 1 accelerations, its likely reduced maintenance. It’s also about:

  • Charging at home (how do you manage when you live in an apartment building in a dense city, when overnight parking is already a daily challenge?).
  • Charging on the way to wherever you go (can we expect the ubiquity and the fast-recharge of the liquid fuels service-station network?).
  • Universal recharge standards (like the nozzle you stick in the car tank today, a quick and easy affair, and you need the card when you pay for the gas load, after refueling).
  • Predictability of the cost at the pump (super-charging is fast, but costs you as much as a tank-load of petrol; and what about the future price of electricity, especially of the intermittent green version?),
  • Availability and sustainability of those metals that electrical equipment require on a huge scale, not available today, and that may become a strategic supply hazard.

Like the last century high-modernists, EV promoters and supporters discard these trifle side-issues, as they say they will be sorted out in due course (just see public money already flowing to install charging points)? As they were at the turn of the twentieth century, when cars took over from horses, in a few decades? Mind you, the scale is not the same, the vast majority of people then walked or stayed close to home, now we are talking more than a billion cars to be replaced in 30 years.

As in James C. Scott’s exposure of the dangers of high-modernism, all of the above does not matter at small scale, model, level, where excessive cost and hick-ups are just part of the learning curve, but proves problematic when models get scaled-up and the technology faces the public at large. Technology development is of course necessary for performance improvement, but science is not enough. Confidence building for public acceptance is as essential, and it seems quite a minor part of the EV story today.

Failure is not automatic, of course, although high-modernist experiments in the last century did fail big time, but a likely consequence of ignoring the “social” aspects may well be that EVs will need a much longer time to replace ICEV.  Lest we make all efforts today to reduce the carbon footprint of liquid fuels, petrol and diesel, with available solutions like biofuels, recycled carbon fuels and synthetic fuels, like e-fuels, road transport may then not meet the net zero carbon 2050 objective.

If we are serious about EVs, we need to think about public buy-in, look larger than technology, open peripheral vision, avoid blind spots and avoid the pitfalls of high modernism.

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