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Calculating the cost of green motoring

Compact Cars, Bridgend

July 25, 2017 at 12:23 PM

The relationship between vehicles and the environment has always been an uneasy one. From the earliest days, some have seen cars as polluting, noisy, dangerous things and rue the day that the Red Flag Act was repealed and mechanically powered vehicles were permitted to travel faster than 4mph.

It is easy to complain about cars, but few of us would get by easily without one, and this is where the difficulty arises. How much are we really willing to do, spend or sacrifice in order to improve air quality and take green motoring seriously?

Bad to worse 

Modern engines produce far fewer pollutants than older ones. Unleaded petrol, catalytic convertors and ultra low sulphur diesel have all become part of the everyday motorcar’s standard diet over the past quarter of a century or so. And now with the advent of hybrids, electric cars and even hydrogen fuel cells, surely we are over the hump and green motoring is finally here? 

This is not necessarily the case, though, at least not yet. Intuitively, you might think that the most polluting days in the automobile’s relatively short history were in the 1980s or thereabouts, when four star leaded petrol was the norm and the roads were full of ageing trucks from the 1970s, coughing out clouds of diesel fumes. Yet, the continuing headlines from Paris and other major cities throughout the world do not bear this out, as many places in the world report the worst pollution levels ever. 

Is electric the answer?

Cars like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius were seen as groundbreaking pioneers in green motoring. We had all seen and heard of electric vehicles before, but until these vehicles hit the showrooms, our experience was mostly limited to milk floats and the infamous Sinclair C5, a vehicle that holds a special place in people’s hearts for all the wrong reasons and was voted the biggest innovation disaster of all time.

Yet, Japan’s hybrid mid-rangers fought through all that to make electric power a viable option. When people started buying, the manufacturers ramped up the R&D, and now we are in a position where commentators are arguing over when, not if, electric will overtake petrol and diesel as the fuel of choice. 

Every silver lining has a cloud

The facts are that electric cars are now even more viable. Volvo is leading the way in promising us an electric version of every car in their range by 2020, and incoming President Emmanuel Macron says France will completely outlaw petrol and diesel cars by 2040. It sounds a long way away, but it is only 23 years – if the pledge had been made in 1994, it would be happening today.

But does it solve the problem? Electrical energy still has to come from somewhere, and a large proportion of the national grid is still powered by fossil fuels. And then there are the manufacture and disposal costs. A hybrid car uses far more energy to create and dispose of than a conventional one, and who can forget the furore over just how much oil is burned transporting those huge batteries half way round the world by ship, only to assemble them into Toyota Priuses and ship the completed cars back again?

Classic car enthusiasts are quick to remind us that the daily use of a well-maintained vehicle from those dreadful days of the 1960s and 70s will leave a far smaller environmental footprint than the manufacture of a “green” car.  

Perhaps the solution is to return to the “red flag” days and go back to a slower pace of life! 


Category: Blog