With carbon-free road transport a major environmental and economic ambition, the introduction of electric and hybrid vehicles could play a starring part in a future of reduced CO2 emissions. But while being the solution to one major challenge, these vehicles pose new questions on how to build and manage our roads. A recent meeting of international experts, organised by the UK Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) and the Department for Transport (DfT), explored these challenges with automotive and transportation experts from 15 countries, including the UK, US, Japan and Spain.

But companies such as Better Place are already busy planning for a future with electric vehicles. The venture-backed company, which aims to develop sustainable transportation free from oil dependency, is building plug-in stations in Israel and Denmark and is creating electric-vehicle networks in the Australian cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. With Australian utility AGL powering the system with renewable energy, the plans envisage each city offering between 200,000 and 250,000 charge stations by 2012 with points located at homes and businesses, car parks and shopping centres. Also underway are plans to introduce switch stations to cities and freeways, where electric batteries can be automatically replaced in drive-in stations.

Battery recharging – when and where?

While preparations are being made for the electric car’s introduction, debate is raging on exactly how prominent take-up will be. Brett Smith, assistant director of the manufacturing, engineering and technology group at Michigan’s Center for Automotive Research says electric vehicles will have a market in urban areas and contained communities but beyond that, infrastructure will present a challenge. “There are several business models that bring electrical access to those without a dedicated parking space but it will be a real challenge. Battery changing will help but only in very controlled markets,” he says.

“Car manufacturer Chrysler recently revealed its all-electric-drive prototype – the Dodge EV – which offers to travel between 100 and 150 miles on battery power.”

James Cascio, consultant for research group the Institute for the Future, says the plans for recharging present problems in that we will still experience congestion and disruption. “Turning parking spaces into power spaces so that wherever you park you can recharge won’t help with recharging along the way on a long trip but suggests where we’d see major disruptions to business-as-usual,” he says.

Centre for Automotive Research spokesperson Richard Wallace agrees, claiming that for electric vehicles to become viable recharging needs to be less than 10 min – which is impossible at present. One way around this has been a battery-swap scenario, where batteries can be replaced at service stations but even this, according to Wallace, is impractical. “It raises issues of who warranties/guarantees the battery packs and requires significant labour. Gas stations usually have one employee who is barely qualified to run a cash register; now we need technically-trained crews for the wholesale replacement of several thousand-dollar batteries per vehicle? Not to mention the time factor again,” he says.

Car manufacturer Chrysler recently revealed its all-electric-drive prototype – the Dodge EV – which offers to travel between 100 and 150 miles on battery power. As most electric vehicles currently on the market are capable only of travelling short distances, any ‘juice points’ in major cities will be for vehicles that can be charged between one or two hours. Chrysler has both hybrid and electric vehicles in its range and does not envisage any infrastructure changes to be necessary but can see that governments and businesses would collaborate to provide recharging outlets near business places or congested city centres.

“Most of our customers will be able to recharge their electric-drive vehicle at home overnight by plugging into a common household outlet,” explains Chrysler spokesman Cole Quinnell. Although the 200V recharge time of four hours makes recharging while at work or out shopping a possibility.

Electric dreams

Richard Wallace says electric cars will seen as luxury vehicles at first, owned by well off buyers that can recharge at home in the evening. However, the first vehicles will easily work on today’s road network for the first five years at least, while the market for the electric car heats up. Wallace believes it may take little more than 50 years for the electric car to make an impact on US roads, given that today there is no legislation or mandate in the country, for example, and that the US took from 1956 to 1991 to complete the building of its interstate system.

For Wallace, the real future for transportation is derived from what electrification enables us to achieve: the electronics, sensors, and actuators that come with the development of electric cars. “With electrification and electronics, we can envision a new paradigm; GM calls it a new DNA, for vehicles: 360-degree awareness, persistent and seamless connectivity, and autonomous driving. We can lower vehicle mass, reduce crashes and fatalities and perhaps even reshape the entire transportation-land use equation,” he says.

James Cascio, however, says a widespread roll out of electric cars remains on the near horizon, but with a twist to how we currently envisage the future. “In the ten or so years that the emergence of a mature electric vehicle technology is likely to take, a parallel technology will also be accelerating, one that could turn our experience with driving upside-down – ‘robot cars’.”

The most recent Grand Challenge – a competition for driverless cars, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – saw a variety of fully autonomous vehicles successfully navigate busy urban streets, avoiding various obstacles and surprises. For Cascio, this technology is likely to become part of the solution to our accident-, carbon- and congestion-free roads.

“One specialist estimates that upwards of 40,000 deaths a year in the US alone could be avoided through the use of autonomous vehicle technologies.”

“Technologies somewhat shy of full-automation, such as crash avoidance systems, already eliminate human control of a vehicle under certain limited conditions; as these technologies improve, the range of conditions under which the car can ‘take over’ will grow,” explains Cascio. “One specialist estimates that upwards of 40,000 deaths a year in the US alone could be avoided through the use of autonomous vehicle technologies.”

Naturally, for this transport future to be realised there are plenty of concerns that need to be addressed from software reliability to legal responsibility. It took 35 years for the US to create its interstate system and it is certainly a belief of both Cascio and Wallace that vehicle designs and infrastructure could change more readily and more quickly than urban layouts.

“Concepts such as ‘traffic calming’ and ‘walkable cities’ indicate a pretty fundamental shift away from car dominance with some planners envisioning an era where cars are rare (almost always rented or shared) and people rely on walking, biking and transit as their primary ways to get around,” says Cascio.

Futuristic possibilities

So what changes to our infrastructure will occur in our long-term future? “Imagine,” says Cascio, “rather than having to drive around until you find parking near your destination your car could just drop you off right at the door then go and find parking on its own.”

A concept like this would reshape our infrastructure and urban design as we know it. But in order to know if this type of future for our cities and roadways is likely we will have to see how the next decade progresses (it would certainly solve the problem of recharging in parking spaces).

“For the next decade or so,” says Cascio, “a shift to new ways to power our cars – and the possibility of automation for safety – offers fairly radical changes. Either way, the roads of 2010 will almost certainly be visibly different from the loud, polluted, gridlocked streets of today.”