Monday, July 22, 2019

Replacing fossil-fueled automobiles:

Unexpected consequences

I continue to be struck by the number of times I've found reports that reveal an unexpected downside of current technologies--or even more so, of the advanced technologies that are supposed to help us address some of the shortcomings of the current technologies.

I have recently come across several articles that revealed potential issues in the transportation sector that somewhat surprised me.  Now, these are clearly not nuclear issues, so one might wonder why I am writing about them here.  The fact is that the similarity to issues that have come up in the energy industry are striking and suggest that there are lessons that can be learned from other industries.

The first issue I learned about concerns electric-powered automobiles.  Electric vehicles have long been promoted as a transportation alternative that will result in lower vehicle emissions and cleaner air.  I have been aware that this assertion is controversial, but my understanding was that the main concern revolved around the source of the electricity used to charge the batteries of electric cars.  If the source was a fossil-fuel fired electric power plant, at least some of the benefits of not burning gasoline or diesel fuel would be offset by the carbon and other emissions from the power plants.

A recent article, however, points to another potential concern:  particulate matter from electric vehicles.  This article summarizes a literature review that suggests that electric vehicles may not reduce particulate pollution as much as expected.  Electric vehicles weigh more than their non-electric counterparts, and that there is a correlation between weight and non-exhaust particulate emissions.

Another article I came across focused on the pollution from tire wear from all kinds of vehicles.  We all know that tire treads wear down, and as drivers, it is one of the things we have to watch to maintain our vehicles.  We don't often think, however, of what happens to the tire material that wears away.  This article asserts that some of it ends up in particles small enough to circulate in the air we breathe, and that this factor has not been sufficiently recognized and studied.

A third article looked at the impact of electric scooters on reducing emissions.   While it is clear that  that electric scooters use less energy and create less pollution than much larger, fossil-fueled vehicles, this article points out that the real question is what forms of transportation electric scooters replace?  I was surprised that a recent survey of electric scooter riders in several European cities found that a large majority of them would have walked, biked, or taken public transportation if they didn't have an electric scooter.  Only 14% said they would have used an automobile!

After thinking about that, it occurred to me that the proportion of people who would have used a car might be much higher in the United States.  And indeed, the article also cites a report by one of the electric scooter companies that one-third of the electric scooter rides around the world replaces an automobile trip.  Clearly, this number may vary a lot depending on where surveys are done.  That fact alone points out the complexity of predicting how much impact a new technology might have. 

Some of the same uncertainties surround the reports in the other articles.  The article on pollution from tires indicates that the tire manufacturers claim that the tire pollution does not result in health effects.   Therefore, there may be a need to look in more detail at issues of particulate pollution from tires and its health effects.  Likewise, it strikes me that the correlation between vehicle weight and particulate emissions might be complex. 

Clearly, the fact that some issues are beginning to surface about electric scooters or electric automobiles does not suggest that we should abandon these technologies.  Rather, these findings reinforce the concern I have had that it takes time to recognize the full range of impacts, positive and negative, of any new technology, and as we do recognize these impacts, that appropriate responses need to be developed.  These can include further studies in some cases to fully understand and confirm the impacts, and the development of measures to respond appropriately to those impacts.

In fact, most of these articles do propose some next steps.  The article on tires points to an interest in developing biodegradable tires.  While I'm not sure that everything that is biodegradable is healthy to breathe, that may be a step in the right direction.  That same article notes the potential value of longer term efforts to reduce the use of the automobile altogether.  The article on e-scooters also promotes the idea of measures that would encourage people to give up private cars.  And the article on electric cars points out the need to set standards on non-exhaust emissions, and to encourage weight reduction in all types of automobiles, electric and internal combustion.

The analogies to the energy industry are clear.  Probably every technological development in the energy industry, from the introduction of fossil fuels, to nuclear power, to solar, wind, hydro, biofuels, etc., has started with great optimism about all its potential benefits, only to have us discover, as time goes on, that there are negative byproducts as well.  I have written before about many of them. 

Therefore, in identifying and reporting on these types of issues, I am not implying that we should not pursue new and advanced technologies.  Rather, my purpose is to serve as a reminder that every new technology--be it for energy production, transportation, or anything else--has both potential benefits and possible drawbacks.  The technological community and policymakers need to be proactive in identifying and addressing any potential negative impacts of new technologies.