The debate at the Oxford Union the other night was a very enlightening experience.
Not just for me, but I would suggest for everyone attending.
The proposition was: This House Believes the Electric Vehicle is the Future of Transport.
What it showed more than anything else was how different this debate is in the UK in comparison to the USA. Due to the torrent of social media and blogging punditry erupting from of the USA, it is not hard to get a handle on the way the argument is split there. If you hate Obama and ‘big government’ and you want to keep your guns, stop women having abortions and believe in God, you hate electric cars with a passion normally held for homosexuals or vegetarians.
If you think electric cars may be one small part of a much bigger set of technological solutions we need to progress as a species, you are a left leaning liberal who may indeed have voted for Obama and you probably don’t hate Mexicans that much.
Or maybe it’s that if you can afford to buy an electric car now you are a wealthy optimist who believes the human race can solve their problems with technology, and if you can’t afford to buy one you are a bitter pessimist who blames lesbians and illegal immigrants and big government and anyway you want more guns.
The differences of opinion evident in the hallowed hall of the Oxford Union last Friday were not split along traditional left or right lines, they were not split on party lines, the arguments were about the technology, the limits of materials and the potential for engineering to find solutions. Indeed as one of the very well informed members of the opposite benches (those speaking against the motion) put it, we have to be led by our heads not our hearts. We all want electric cars to work, indeed they are more efficient and have the potential to do far less damage to the world, but our heads tell us they simply don’t work.
This, obviously, is the point where I stopped agreeing with them. I’d driven the 45 miles to Oxford in the very trusty Nissan Leaf, stopping for a 10 minute top up on the way at a fast charger just outside the city of dreaming spires. (I din’t really need to, when I got back home at midnight, heater and headlights on, I still had 41 miles of range remaining.)
However the disagreements between the two sides were far less interesting (to me at least) than the agreements. Everyone, on both sides, agreed that we had to do something rather quickly, the nice man from BP, Dr. Richard Pearson said that indeed oil was going to run out, not next week or next year, but far sooner than we are prepared for. Not only that but due to a massive increase in demand, from India and particularly China, the price was only going to increase, and soon. He also pointed out a fast that I hadn’t heard before. We are presently using oil 1 million times faster than new reserves are being laid down by natural processes.
Basically, if we stop extracting it now, in about a million years time there’ll be loads more. Excellent news.
The oppositions argument seemed to be that we should develop ever more efficient engines, smaller lighter cars with smaller lighter engines to increase the range of these vehicles to eek out the limited and scarce resource we all rely on. I thoroughly approve, what’s not to like. What is becoming clear is that the term ‘range anxiety,’ originally coined by General Motors at the time they withdrew the EV 1 and introduced the civilian Hummer might well come back to bite the hand that created it.
People who drive heavy, large engined cars are going to suffer severe range anxiety as the fuel they rely on becomes not only more expensive, but more scarce. When I was a teenager in the early 1970’s, the most common site on our roads in the UK was massive queues outside petrol stations. Petrol was rationed, the price went through the roof and everyone panicked, had range anxiety and was stressed, depressed and confused. Except me and my smug hippy mates who all rode bikes.
I think that memory abides and I admit, may indeed colour my thinking, but that ‘oil crisis’ happened very quickly and had nothing to do with lack of supply, simply that the oil producing states who’d been bullied, invaded and fiddled with said, ‘hang on, cough up big time or you can’t have any more.’
We did cough up and, well, you know the rest, or, if you don’t, visit Dubai or Abu Dabi and see what we’ve been paying for. Obviously we can’t visit Saudi Arabia but that’s a whole other can of worms.
At the end of the debate the audience have to choose which door they will pass through, the ‘aye’ door, or the ‘nay’ door. The vote went in our favour, indeed “This House Believes the Electric Vehicle is the Future of Transport by 90 votes to 62. Not a landslide, but a respectable victory.
The debate was very well organised by the Oxford Union Engineering Society and was part of a two week season of talks and debates. I would guess that a full 90% of the audience was made up of engineers and by the calibre of the questions they were asking, fairly well informed ones. They would have been far more aware than I am on the true potential of the internal combustion engine, how much further it can be improved and the true limitations of battery technology, battery management and longevity.
And lastly hydrogen. I expected this to be used as an alternative example by the opposition, whenever men criticise the battery electric car (it always is men by the way) they all too often use the tired old concept of the hydrogen fuel cell being the future of transport. Not this time.
Professor Richard Stone, a professor of engineering at Oxford University closed the lid on the hydrogen fuel cell car myth once and for all. He cited the fact that Daimler Benz spent billions of dollars trying to make small HFC vehicles viable in the 1990’s and utterly failed to do so. The Honda Clarity HFX is magnificent and costs over $2 million per car. Where, asked the good Professor, will the hydrogen come from, how much energy are we prepared to waste in order to extract, store, compress and deliver this incredibly volatile and leaky gas.
I disagreed with Professor Stone on virtually every other point he made, but on this one I’m with him 100%.