September 07, 2012

We do not need electric cars except for public transport

We have been witnessing euphoria about electric car production in our public discourse, with the government aiming to mass produce 10,000 such vehicles in 2014. The talk about electric cars emerges hot on the heels of a government policy to curb fuel subsidies.

As part of that policy, the government once planned to promote the use of gas for the transportation sector. Electric cars, however, are a more likely answer to address mounting pressures on fuel subsidies resulting from increased fossil fuel consumption.

Moreover, with growing public awareness of global warming and the increasingly urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, the role of electric cars in our transportation system looks unavoidable. The next questions are: “How ready are we?” and “How should we deal with this electric car discourse?”

Electric cars are not new.  Technology for electric-powered cars was first developed in the 19th century, although it is unclear who exactly started developing the technology. Some sources say that in 1828, a Hungarian, Anyos Jedlik, developed an early type of electric engine, which was used to power a car. In the United States, Thomas Davenport developed an electric engine, which installed in a mini car model in 1834.  

However, the development of electric-powered cars did not last long due to the development of technology using internal combustion offering more powerful thrust, the capacity to power a vehicle longer distances and energy that was relatively cheaper than electric cars in terms of battery installation. The battery in an electric car is still more expensive and less economical than that in a conventional car.

Indeed, there are a number of social benefits of electric cars when compared to petroleum-fueled cars.

First, the use of electrical energy derived from domestic power generation will increase economic growth. Second, the reduction of air pollution in cities will improve public health quality. Third, there is a reduction in noise levels. Fourth, the intensive use of electricity infrastructure will optimize the value to be gained from the electricity infrastructure; and, fifth, the potential for reducing renewable electricity integration costs.

However, a number of potential social costs arising from the use of electric-powered cars can also be identified when the cost per unit in electric car usage is becoming cheaper. First, the increasing traffic congestion; the use of electric cars will certainly increase traffic density, particularly in places where a car culture is prevalent.

Second, the pollution problem, which will occur when there is “competition” in power resource utilization between cars and other electric devices needed by households and industries. Electricity, which can be used to reduce air pollution in industrial activities, will instead go to electric cars.

Third, unlike conventional cars, electric cars are relatively less noisy so there will likely be an increase in traffic accidents involving pedestrians. Fourth, the rising potential cost of electricity infrastructure if smart-charging technology is not well developed (Conrad, 2011).

If we look at the population of motor vehicles and traffic conditions in Indonesia, such as in Jakarta, the country has been engulfed by a car culture. Based on 2010 data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), there were about 76.9 million motor vehicles on the roads at that time. Private cars accounted for around 8.8 million and motorcycles dominated the population with around 61 million on the roads. As for public buses, the total only reached 2.25 million.

This data clearly demonstrates that a strong car culture prevails in Indonesia. Studies conducted by the Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA) and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) show that the increase in the number of vehicles in Jakarta averages about 11 percent per year, while new road infrastructure accounts for less than 1 percent. In addition, fuel subsidies still exist, making public transport less competitive when compared to private cars. Moreover, electric car technology is still very expensive compared to internal combustion engine cars.

Under these conditions, it appears that the discourse about electric cars is not timely. Furthermore, Conrad (2011) indicated that if electric cars were to be mass-marketed, the technology would have to accommodate both casual users of electric cars, ie: those who only drive their cars occasionally, and frequent users of electric cars.

As long as the technology remains expensive and battery capabilities are unable to store lasting power in an efficient manner, and for as long as subsidized fuel remains available, electric cars will be less economical compared to conventional cars. Not to mention the electricity infrastructure, which is not yet ready.

If electric cars obtain electricity from power plants that rely on fossil fuels, then the argument that electric cars will be environmentally friendly cannot be justified. If that happens, it only shifts fossil fuel consumption from power plants to electric cars.

If the government really wants to develop electrical energy for our transportation system, there should be a consistent logical sequence ranging from upstream strategies and technology in generating electrical energy that should already be environmentally friendly and sustainable, to the downstream in the form of convenient and reliable electric mass transportation.

There is no use in promoting electric cars for personal use when our roads are already congested.

The writer is a researcher at the Center for Economic Research, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta



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