Wyeth Peterson


Is There a Future For the Electric Car in the Major Urban Centers?

“He's not direct, he's cunning, always betwixt and between. He's a fellow who's always wanting to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. How different from Forcheville! There's a man who at least tells you fair and square what he's thinking. You either agree with him or you don't. He's not like the other, neither fish nor fowl. Anyway Odette really seems to prefer Forcheville, and I think she's right. And then, also, since Swann wants to play the society man with us, defender of duchesses, at least the other has his own title; he's still the Comte de Forcheville,”

Swann's Way p 275


Should cities with a population in excess on 5 million such as LA, New York or Mexico city, which suffer from the adverse effects of smog, implement an electric car society, or a car tax by 2009 or would these measures be too costly to execute and burdensome for the average citizen.

The creation of an electric car city would be a daunting task indeed. For it follows that the car in many countries is ubiquitous. A cultural symbol that is deeply embedded in the world's psyche from the day it was created. To some it seems as though it is an impossible task, that we replace so many cars or that we limit the number of cars in the populated areas Although many argue that it is the car that contributes to the blight on this earth, spewing it's pollutants into the air, and that a society without them would be a better one. To quote The CarFree Society Organization:

“The industrialized nations made a terrible mistake when they turned to the automobile as an instrument of improved urban mobility. The car brought with it major unanticipated consequences for urban life and has become a serious cause of environmental, social, and aesthetic problems in cities. “(Crawford)

Clearly a refining of the argument and its parameters is needed. What we really need is a pollution free-car society. Because when one considers the concept, one realizes it isn't the car itself that we want eliminated, it's the pollutants that it creates. We also have to consider the measure of happiness we gain by banning cars in cities with what we lose which is the means of transportation that makes up a modern society. A creation of a transit system that may include vehicles of any kind so long as they don't create the pollutants that plagues our health in today's society.

The nature of today's world and in today's modern cities demands that we have a form of fast transportation. We would not function at all without it and walking, while it would make us all healthier, would consume too much of our time. I feel that if carefully planned and thought out, we needn't get rid of one without having to lose the benefit of the other.

It is felt by many that the cause of urban pollution is as a result of too many cars. The poor design of many cities with regard to transportation has caused urban congestion. Consider of course the fact that many cars right now in cities are running but not moving. For example, in New York City , trying to find a parking space is both a cause and symptom of poor urban design. Clearly when there is not enough space in the city to house all of our cars, when parking space is considered a rare commodity then we have a problem. But in other cases such as Mexico City or Los Angeles the problem of poor urban design is even worse. Clearly when these cities were built the planners did not foresee the large number of gasoline chugging vehicles that would clog them. In addition there are various health problems that are suffered by urban dwellers as a result of the pollution. Asthma is a prime example, as it is the fastest growing childhood disease in urban areas, and most likely the result of the billions of particulates spewed into the atmosphere.

Mexico City wins hands down as the worst city. There are three reasons why Mexico City has become so polluted. The first has to do with the nature of the city's geography. It is situated in a valley, but also uniquely at a high altitude, 7800 feet above sea level. The lighter atmospheric pressure causes a greater inefficiency in the oxygen carbon consumption, and thus the gasoline consumption, causes a higher rate of smog than normal for a similar city at a sea level elevation. Like a high mountain climber who has to gasp for more air, the cars there have to consume a greater ratio of oxygen in order to keep moving. Secondly, the way the local topography is formed is very significant. Mexico City is in a bowl like formation, a valley, which retains the smog and other pollutants and doesn't allow them to disperse, like it would in another city like New York., situated on a great river at the mouth of the ocean, open to the winds.

Finally, there is the problem with the design of the city itself. Social problems such as rural poverty in the outlying regions caused millions to converge upon the city, seeking jobs and a better life. The city is now swollen and uncontrolled, literally bursting at the seams, as new areas fill with these social refugees, creating haphazardly, what amounts to little more than shanty towns. These areas have grown outward, bleeding outward, as humans have tried to find some place in the urban areas. To quote

“Prior to the 1940s, Mexico City was known for its clear air and spectacular views of snow-capped volcanoes. Today, the city's mountains are only rarely visible due to some of the worst air pollution in the World. Many factors have contributed to this situation national policies that have promoted industrial growth and a concentration of wealth and employment in Mexico's capital; a population boom from 3 million in 1950 to roughly 20 million today; and heavy reliance on motorized transportation.” (AP in Mexico City )

What are the different forms of Pollution and what is it about the car the causes all these problems? A machine that belches out nasty pollutants such as smog. But what is smog exactly? It is nitrogen dioxide, which is actually a by product of the chemical reaction that occurs within the engine. Ironically enough, smog is not part of the necessary reaction that moves the car forward.

First we have to examine what it is that is occurring with the gasoline engine. What we have is a machine that ingests and breathes much as we do, fuel and oxygen. While ours uses human food, the engine of a car uses gasoline which when mixed with the outside air creates the force that propels it forward. But only part of the air is being used in the reaction, the oxygen part. It is the reaction of the gasoline with the oxygen in the air which then creates combustion and the exhaust of water vapor and carbon dioxide.

Now where does the smog come from ? Interestingly enough air, although commonly thought to be simply made up of oxygen is actually part oxygen and part nitrogen gas. Two bonded Nitrogen atoms; along with two bonded oxygen atoms is what actually makes up the air we breathe.

It must be explained what exactly the bond of two atoms means. Without digressing into a discussion about concepts such ionization energies and orbitals, we can simply see that two atoms become bonded and must be separated by using energy, usually in the form of heat, but (as we will see) also light can cause atoms to become separated. The bonded nitrogen however is difficult to break in comparison to the bond of the oxygen atoms.

Normally we and most other forms of life rarely use the nitrogen in the air, at least not as part of our normal biology cycle. We do however use the nitrogen in the air to create fertilizer through something known as the Haber process. Only with great heat and pressure can the nitrogen bonds be broken. This heat and pressure is what is exactly found in the reaction inside a car engine! It is the combustion of the gasoline with air that generates in turn another reaction of breaking the two nitrogen atoms, which then recombine with oxygen to produce nitrogen dioxide, i.e. smog.

Thus we have one reaction, rather simple I might add, which creates another. The car generates smog, as one of its air pollutants. Smog and our lungs, however, react badly together. A famous case of this was in London in 1952 when the combination of smog from the coal burning factories and London's own particular combination of weather, that is fog, which combined into a lethal mixture to kill an estimated 4000 people. This however was a particularly extreme case and is what led to many of the reforms in air pollution control that we now possess today.

It must explained the health effects of what exactly smog and the other pollutants do to the lungs, in particular to those suffering from the condition of asthma.. To define asthma first:

“Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that causes recurrent and distressing episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing. Asthma can be difficult to diagnose and to differentiate from other respiratory illnesses…. Airways are the passages that carry air to the lungs. As the airways progress through the lungs, they become smaller, like branches of a tree. It is currently thought that asthma produces its effects by leading to airway inflammation and airflow limitation. This inflammation may even be present when a person's asthma is asymptomatic (that is, when the person does not have any symptoms).”

The smog created by car engines aggravates the symptoms of asthma, causing essentially asthma attacks. This was a particularly famous instance during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City where several athletes with asthma suffered from not only the high altitude but the inordinate amount of smog in the air. There have been other cases such as this during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. And there are questions as to how the air in China which has become increasingly polluted will affect the athletes in upcoming Olympics.

In addition, many cities, where the cars are found in abundance, such as Los Angeles , there is a third reaction that takes place. As smog rises in the lower atmosphere, it is then split by the energy of the sun's rays. The solar radiation is strong enough to knock off one of the oxygen's off of the nitrogen dioxide, making it nitric oxide (another pollutant) the knocked off oxygen then proceeds to bond with the ever present bonded pair of oxygen to create three bonded oxygen or another nasty pollutant, also known as ozone.

There is a certain irony to all of this as you realize we humans seem to be creating too much of something where it is not wanted, ozone in the lower atmosphere of LA and too little of something where it is, ozone in Antarctica . If only we could somehow make it switch places.

There as you have it is the main problem with cars, generating a domino like effect of reactions to our detriment. This is where the concept of a gasoline free car engine society comes in. We do not have to rid ourselves of cars per se, merely of cars that produce the aforementioned reactions, and in great abundance.

To this end we come to our proposal. To create a city that uses electric cars instead of carbon based fuels. A city that relies on efficient and clean transportation in the form of electric motors, which do not produce any such reactions, as does the gasoline based engine. My idea is very simple; we commission a creation of a primarily, electric car city. Most forms of transportation, especially public, in such a city would be electric based. In addition we would have created a system that would allow outside cars to come in, but only at a tax or cost disincentive, with delivery trucks given special exemption.

The second part of my idea comes in part from the belief that part of the traffic problem is caused by too many cars in general, fuel based or otherwise. I feel that many cities, New York among them have too many cars in them. The congestion creates the smothering of pollutants, which comes from the idling engines which burn fuel but don't actually go anywhere.

Here we see that the effect of too many cars has the opposite effect than perhaps intended, with traffic jams being created at bottlenecks, such as the Holland Tunnel, and to gain of no one. Reducing the number of cars on the roads in a city would actually help everyone travel faster, a sort of quickening of the arteries by thinning the life blood of the city. With fewer cars, you would get more transportation, as there would be fewer traffic to contend with and faster movement for everyone.

Already London has a plan in effect that limits the number of cars in the city. By the creation of a "congestion tax," the government has been able to limit the number of cars that actually enter certain central zones of the city. They accomplish this through a system of license plate scanning cameras that register and charge a car the equivalent of $8 per day, a car coming into the city. A similar idea could be used for other cities as well.

There is another reason, though obvious, that we should concentrate on the creation of such a system. With fossil fuel burning cars kept a minimum within city limits, the chemical reactions would reverse themselves over time.

For example, my if idea was to be implemented in a place such as L.A. or Mexico City , the smog haze that seems to have become a permanent way of life there would eventually reverse itself. This would be a particular boon to people residing in Mexico City where smog is the bane of their existence and has transformed their once clean air into the worst polluted air in the world, or at least South America .

This transformation to an electric car society would not come over night, but nevertheless it is clear that as mentioned earlier, several cities, most notably now London ,are taking radical steps to eradicate air pollution within their confines.

It must be mentioned that in an earlier paper, I discussed some of the flaws of the electric car, especially its lack of range due to its small battery power. However I believe we could address this problem by having small recharging stations positioned strategically throughout the city, for the benefit of anyone who wished to use them. By having recharging stations available one could recharge the batteries when needed and simply use the electric grid of the city itself, designed to support large loads , I imagine, such as the fleet of taxis, buses and privately owned electric cars. Because the actual distance of transit used by most urban dwellers is limited, the factor of range and battery life doesn't become problematic as it does with longer ranges; say that of the open highway.

It is the open highway that would still be the domain of fossil fuel cars. The gases and pollutants emitted there would not be concentrated as they are in cities and therefore would not cause the damage in the same amount. And again as mentioned earlier, the reactions reverse themselves over time. It is only when there is a constant source and buildup of gases such as Nitric Oxides that it becomes the problem that cities have to deal with. Outside the city the gases are in too small a quantity and over a large area, so that they quickly disperse.

The one final benefit to mention is that the electric car makes absolutely no noise. This is because the engine isn't having internal explosions constantly going off, instead the battery simply transmits electricity to an electric motor, which in turn moves the wheels. Imagine if you will, living in the city where most of the cars make little noise and the honking of horns would be less because of the reduced traffic and stress. A small gem to be considered in addition to the earlier benefits explored.

I believe that all of this technology is already within our grasp and can be used to make for a pollutant car free society. We would simply have a transition period in which car companies could make new fleets of electric buses and taxis for cities around the world. The benefits are considerable and furthermore we do not have to give up the car completely, only to transform its power source and the quantity that exists in our present day life.

I found one particular argument online which provided some valid counter argument to the use of electric cars. In the article the author posits that the problem of pollution and congestion are not solved by the electric car.

The first point is that although the electric car doesn't pollute it still requires that electricity. One critic responded to the idea of the electric car not needing more electricity by the following:

"If automobiles went onto the electric grid, how much more energy would we need?"

He responded, "We wouldn't need any more energy at all because electricity for automobiles would be generated at night when the cars are in their garages and when electric demand is way down."

So I said, "You mean that would not require more water pouring over the dams, or burning more oil, gas, coal or nuclear fuel, more power lines from wind farms? You can't collect solar energy at night, can you?" (Register)

So in the end might it require trading in one polluting system for another? Does the increased demand for electricity on the part of some many electric vehicles produce more pollution than what would have been produced had we simply stuck with normal cars instead?

The second point the author points out is the question of load capacity. Obviously our electrical grid would have to be expanded and the amount of electricity generated increased. It is a question that I myself have asked occasionally. Can the electric grid of a modern city sustain the addition of so many electric cars added?

To the first point I would point out that the greatest pollutant currently in existence is the car itself. Whether driving or remaining idle in a traffic jam, the automobile consumes enormous amounts of gasoline. All of these millions of cars produce exhaust and pollution on an on told level. Yes coal burning plants produce carbon dioxide too but they can be controlled. Even now coal burning plants have developed filters systems that screen out most of the pollutants that they used to belch out. The relatively small number of power plants can be controlled and monitored much better than the millions of individual cars that are out there on the road. Further upgrades and investments into electrical power plants would also be easier than making any improvements to the car itself which would be upgraded on a large scale.

However I wish to go further than this and expound upon why I feel that we would come out ahead. To this end we have to do a bit of math by asking ourselves the following. How many cars are in the city? How much fuel and by extension how much pollution do they create. Then take the same number of electric cars and work out the formula. Please consider in these calculations the following; one I am using the statistics of the EV1, Generals Motors electric car as the base. However as of now there considerable improvements being made in both battery power capacity and ability.

Each second generation EV1 had batteries that held 26.4 kwh (95.1 MJ) of energy (Wikipedia EV1), which on average took 8 hours to charge. We assume that most city dwellers would be recharging the cars at night, so we assume that electricity demand on the grid is at low demand with most people in bed. Furthermore we assume that there are on average 150,000 car commuters in the city daily (NY Magazine). While this is rather simple, we replace all of those cars with electric ones which leave us with a total energy demand of 26.4 x 150,000 = 3.9 million kilo Watts per hour or 14.2 million MJ (Mega Joules). Since at the present moment America derives roughly half its electricity from coal burning power plants we will use the model of a 500 MWe power plant for our energy requirements. A typical plant will produce 3.5 billion kwh a year so for simplicity let's multiply our electric car demand by 365 which gives us 1423 million kilo Watts per hour or 1.5 billion kilo watts per hour. Now fudging a little bit basically with the numbers means essentially that half of the coal burning 500 MWe power plant will be devoted to powering our new fleet of electric cars for the city of Manhattan .

There are however a few more calculations to do. How much coal does that power plant burn per year? Well firstly, a power plant will burn one ton of coal to produce 2,460 kWh (HTW). So that comes to 1.42 million tons of coal produced each year and roughly 5000 tons of sulfur dioxides and 5000 tons of nitrogen dioxides. Now for the final stretch we must find out how much smog these 150 thousands cars create on their own and compare the two numbers.

First of we realize that one gallon of gasoline produces roughly 2.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Just as a side note a human being produces roughly 900 grams of carbon dioxide daily from regular activities. Although we realize that New York is a special case with a large number of households in New York not owning a car and relying exclusively on public transportation we will assume that each of the 150 thousand cars burns an average of 3 to 5 gallons of fuel with 20 miles to a gallon, with a lot of commuters coming from the outer boroughs. So the total calculation comes to about 2.5 kilograms x 4 gallons x 150000 equaling 1.5 million kilograms of carbon dioxide per day with that coming to a total of 0.5 million metric tons per year . When compared to the amount of carbon dioxide produced by produced by a power plant each year which is 1.4 million tons, we must remember that only half of the energy and thus the carbon production goes to the electric cars, with the number coming to about 0.7 million tons. When we compare that number to the 0.5 million metric tons produced annually we see that the numbers come very close to each other. However these emissions it must be pointed out can be controlled as opposed to the emissions of each individual car. And with the technology of clean coal burning technology improving every day I believe that things will improve.

The second point is admittedly a bit more complicated. The demands of the electric car on the power grids on cities would be enormous. Therein lays a problem which although I have addressed, does not have as much of simple answer. The fact remains that we would need to expand our electrical grid to accommodate the new power drain. Although there is this to be said, that most of the cars would be recharged at night and not at peak hours, therefore lessening the demands on our grid. Still while the second point is more valid, it merely means that we would have to make some upgrades to our electrical grid within the city itself.

The other line of argument that I investigated was the position that there is no such thing as global warming. Although my argument for electric cars does not stem from the countering of, CO2 in general, obviously, because my plan for more electric cars relies on more power plants, especially the coal burning kind. I can only respond that there seems to be a considerable amount of evidence to back up the claim of global warming despite the claims of certain people such as Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who has said of global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people" and Michael Crichton ,who published a book entitled the "State of Fear" in which he claims there is no global warming and that it is being used as a scare tactic for political purposes.

My argument for the electric car society still works whether or not it turns out that global warming is real and has a truly detrimental effect on our daily life. I have concentrated on urban areas where pollutants such as smog and ozone are the source of health problems. I contend that the efficiency with which an electrical car society could consume less fuel in general and solve in part the problem of global warming. Again my reasoning is that the few power plants that produce electricity by various means could be controlled; upgraded or new forms of electricity generation (fusion?) could come about. The millions of cars cannot be so easily controlled and they are the real main source of pollutants, the global warming kind or the health threatening kind. Although some will feel that I am side stepping the issue entirely by making my argument about smog rather than CO2, my main premise has always been that it is the congested urban areas which must have electric cars, not the large areas of the country which are more open, less populated and less built up, with no mass transit.



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