It'd be stupid to suggest that more efficient, cleaner cars are a bad thing. Surely, getting to a point where cars produce little or zero emissions, and use no oil, would be a good thing - right?
To me, the biggest and most useful role the Prius plays today, is in acting as a technological stepping stone from where we are now, to where we're going to go in the future. It introduces the notion of a car being powered, and driving, differently to what many of us are used to, while still operating in a way we can understand and not looking so odd as to spook people out about our automotive future...
But last night, one unintended consequence of a future with zero-emission cars struck me right between the eyes. Allow me to explain. My own car sits outside the house most of the week, largely because I'm quite dictatorial about it not being used for short, local trips. Pick-ups at the station, shopping in Kingston, popping to the corner shop or supermarket - these aren't jobs for the internal combustion engine, they're jobs for my legs.
Yet at 8 o'clock last night, halfway through a Nigel Slater Japanese noodle recipe, I suddenly realised we didn't have a critical ingredient - the noodles. Normally at this point (besides swearing a lot), I'd have given up and cooked something else, or run half a mile up the road to Waitrose to get some. Yet, with a Prius parked outside, I didn't hesitate to jump in and glide up to said Supermarket, because hey, going in the car certainly was quicker than walking, and this was a hybrid car, so I could do most of the trip in electric mode and hence without guilt or emissions.
The issue this causes - potentially - is that we reach a point sometime in the future, where people stop thinking about the most appropriate mode of transport for a trip, and simply use their car regardless. I may be wrong, but today I think a healthy proportion of people now think about whether their car is the best vehicle to use for a very short local trip. I suspect two primary factors in this are cost and environmental concerns. But if we remove these two factors (which hybrid or electric cars potentially do) the unintended consequences are clear to see - worse traffic, more parking issues, all the usual stuff bandied about by the anti-car brigade. I'm treading a tricky line here. I'm not suggesting the Prius and the green car movement many credit it with creating is a bad thing, or that we should attempt to stop it. Lower carbon, less guilt car travel is largely a good thing. Yet I can't help wondering if we're asking the wrong question when it comes to urban travel. Electric cars are now seen as a panacea. But we should be wary, particularly about the impact on urban environments - of a future where we're using what is still a 1400kg, 10 square metre sized device to move one 80kg human a mile down the road.
Oh, and perhaps because of this type of driving behaviour, our average fuel economy has now fallen to 52mpg. Food for thought.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 16th October 2009