Electric cars in the city: an answer for the mobility of tomorrow?

Faced with the challenges of urban mobility in France today, as well as for the years and decades to come, the State and local authorities must act. How can we allow citizens to move around freely while limiting greenhouse gas emissions? What means of transportation should be developed to better serve urban areas? How can travel times be reduced? What are the available solutions in terms of urban mobility?

These are some of the questions that some people are answering with a solution: the electric car. Although it has undeniable advantages, there are still many things to perfect before it represents thefuture of urban travel. So why encourage the development of electric cars in cities, and what are the limits?

Voiture électrique et mobilité urbaine : une solution d'avenir ?-1

Less CO2 in use, but not zero environmental impact

One of the main arguments for making the electric car a solution for the future is that it is a "clean", "sustainable", "non-polluting" vehicle. This is, of course, partly true, because when in use, the greenhouse gas emissions of an electric car are almost zero. Over the entire cycle of the car (from raw material extraction to end of life), electric cars are also cleaner. Depending on the place of production and the type of energy used, an electric car, for example, emits between 22% and 79% less CO2 than a combustion engine car. In this sense, electric vehicles represent future solutions to limit urban pollution. It is beneficial for the quality of daily life, health risks, biodiversity, etc.

However, we should not forget that electric cars also emit fine particles. The extraction of the raw materials required for their manufacture (oil for the plastic and tires, for example) generates pollution in the areas concerned. This is the same as for internal combustion engines. On the other hand, the production and processing of batteries induce new sources of pollution. Far from our cities, we do not perceive them when using an electric car, but they are real and have an impact on the environment.

If we want to make it the clean urban vehicle of the future, we need to work on more efficient technologies, other raw materials, other extraction methods, etc. Not to mention the sources that produce the electricity used to drive the vehicle, which are sometimes polluting. This is also true for machines such as scooters or electric bikes, for example.

Less noise pollution, but safety problems

A study by ADEME and the Conseil National du Bruit published in 2021 indicates that noise has a social cost of more than 106 billion euros per year in France. Not surprisingly, the number one culprit is road transport, especially in cities. Electric vehicles have the advantage of being silent, especially at low speeds. An urban fleet composed mainly of electrically powered cars and vans would significantly reduce pollution in the city center and suburbs.

The problem is that in the city, where pedestrians, cyclists and other soft mobility users also travel, the absence of noise presents a safety risk. In response, the European authorities required electric and hybrid vehicles to produce sound. They must be at least 56 decibels, from the moment the car is started up to a speed of about 20 km/h. The quietness of electric vehicles then loses all its meaning. Wouldn't it make more sense to keep cars quiet, while educating and raising awareness among the general population? By putting in place initiatives to share the road more safely for all?

Lower transportation costs, but until when?

Today, electric and hybrid vehicles are several thousand euros more expensive than thermal vehicles of similar models. Government subsidies, as well as subsidies from certain manufacturers and dealerships, help to close this price gap. But these subsidies and advantageous financing will not last forever. In a few years, will everyone be able to replace their gasoline or diesel vehicle with an electric model? Will the price of electric vehicles fall as the fleet grows or will it rise due to the scarcity of raw materials? These are questions that should not be overlooked when seeking to meet the challenge of mobility for all, including the least well-off households.

As for the cost of recharging at charging stations or at home, it is presented as particularly advantageous. To date, to travel 100 kilometers, you spend 3 to 4 times less driving an electric vehicle than with a combustion vehicle. But this is less true when you want a fast recharge, using a supercharger type of terminal. These terminals save time for "refueling" and answer one of the brakes to the purchase of an electric car. However, the cost can equal or even exceed that of a full tank of gasoline or diesel.

In a context of energy crisis and tensions on the EDF network, it remains to be seen which of electricity or fossil fuel will be more financially advantageous in the future. Because if the cost of electric charging does not allow for real savings, it is doubtful that these vehicles will be attractive to city dwellers.

Voiture électrique et mobilité urbaine : une solution d'avenir ?-2

Autonomies rather low, but adapted to city driving

One of the criticisms levelled at electric cars is their lack of range, with city cars able to travel just over 300 km and some sedans reaching 500 to 600 km. The range is therefore reduced by about half compared to a vehicle with an equivalent petrol or diesel engine. For long journeys, this can be stressful and time-consuming, with the worry of having to find a recharging point and wait several dozen minutes to fill up.

On the other hand, for urban mobility, this is much less of a problem: the type of driving consumes less electricity than on the freeway and the short distances covered mean that it is not necessary to recharge every day.

However, there is still the question of the possibility of recharging one's vehicle when living in the city: without a shared or individual garage, it is necessary to have a charging station close to home. The transition to an electric fleet therefore requires the development of infrastructure by companies, property developers and local authorities. The deployment of car-sharing, with areas dedicated to parking and recharging of self-service electric vehicles, could also be interesting. Indeed, this type of service facilitates access to those who cannot or do not want to own their own vehicle. It offers them the possibility of renting a car only when necessary, favoring the use of other sustainable modes of travel when possible.

Conclusion: the electric car, a solution with room for improvement

In a desire for ecological transition, improved quality of urban life and reduced transportation costs, the electric car has undeniable advantages. But there are still many challenges and it is not yet a miracle solution. It is through public investment in charging and parking infrastructure, appropriate legislation and serious technological advances, that electric vehicles could become even less polluting and less expensive, and more convenient to use. They could then have a prominent place in our cities, alongside other forms of mobility.

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