The Case for Publicly Owned Electric Vehicles (EV)

by Nov 1, 2021Uncategorized0 comments

If car owners switched over to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy, the UK greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by 23%. This proposal is predicated on the assumption that the electricity to power EVs would be drawn from renewable sources.  The increase in demand for clean electricity should act to accelerate the transition to renewables in the power generation sector. This is not a small ask. It will require a 30% expansion of the electricity supplied by the grid. To put that in perspective,  it would need all the offshore wind in the government’s target for 2030.  At the moment only a fifth of the licences have been taken up and there is no time table for the licensing of the rest of the offshore wind provision.

We also know that the current generation of EV batteries, not only requires a lot of energy in the manufacturing process (embodied energy), but they also need to be replaced every few years. Significant research is going into the development of new battery technology, particularly by a company coming out of MIT called Ambri. Their technology has potential not only for grid-level power storage by also for powering vehicles.

If we continue with incremental acts to encourage EVs and efforts to reduce emissions of petrol and diesel vehicles, it will not have the impact on the environment we need.  We can only make the required reduction in emissions in time by switching immediately to electric vehicles.

EVs are coming anyway, but it’s at the junction of the changing technology that the opportunity exists to take control of the transition and reap major benefits.

EVs will start to take over from the internal combustion engine (ICE) cars because of falling costs. EVs will happen because of the convergence of four technologies, these being electric cars, batteries, computing power and solar energy. All these technologies are on a rapid improvement path causing costs to plummet by as much as 20% every year.

Left to the market mechanism, the falling costs will mean these vehicles will be bought by the ride-hailing firms like Uber, Lyft and the big Chinese company Didi. The scale is unprecedented, Didi alone has plans to buy one million vehicles in 2020! Already in San Francisco, 20% of vehicle miles are in Uber or Lyft, and in New York, 50% of all trips in 2017, were in ride-hailing vehicles.

If there is not a positive policy intervention at government level, then by 2022, people could face a decision to buy a new electric car for £30,000 or sign up for an Uber subscription of £300 a month. They might sound like good options, but if we let that happen then we will miss the chance to make all the possible cuts in emissions.

If we leave it to the marketplace, the transition will take too long. The monthly subscription from Uber, as a new service, will take a long time to get people to give up their private cars. We need to get the parked cars off the street and out of the way of buses, so they can make their way more efficiently around the city. Space needs to be freed up for walking, cycling or electric scooters. EVs need to be purchased on a large scale to develop the market and bring down the cost of vehicles.

By switching to EVs in one fell swoop our cities will experience cleaner air, a place to be outside and breathe, and a place to walk without having to step around parked cars.

The statistics about the opportunity:

Private car ownership has developed over a long period of time. For many, it has been an ambition to own their own car, so much so, that an alternative model of ownership, like City Car Clubs, have only influenced a tiny proportion of car owners.

We know that 96% of the time, private cars are parked.,.The expensive investment is used only a tiny part of the time. The average household spends around £4,700 a year on a car.  Less than 20% of the current car fleet, would be required to service a city with EVs. Johan Falk from the prestigious Stockholm Resilience Centre, says in their collaborative report, “The Exponential Road Map to halving emissions by 2030,”  that the size of the fleet need only be 3%. But even calculations based on a fleet size of 20% changing to a city ownership model, would reduce the capital costs of a car by 80% and the running costs by 60%, making everyone significantly better off. This would reduce the average spend a year on a car service to £1,332, saving a massive £3368.

How will it work?

Each city would purchase and maintain an optimum number of EVs to service their community. They would establish a perimeter around the city that would be an exclusion zone for non-electric vehicles. EVs visiting from other cities would be welcome.

Along the perimeter, there would be a number of parking and charging points where incoming travellers could park their car and switch over to the city service. Inside the city, vehicles would be kept at charging points distributed around the city. The aim would be to have these points within an easy walk from where people live and work. There would be drivers employed by the city to take EVs to people should they require that additional service.  The city driver would have electric scooters to help them get back to the charging points. The city drivers would maintain, recharge and clean all the vehicles. The size of the car fleet would be continually assessed and adjusted to ensure that people had assess to a vehicle within a 5 minute period.

The client would book their vehicle online or by telephone, much the same way that a taxi is ordered now. When the client no longer required the vehicle, they could return it to any charging point or leave it in other designated spots, to be collected by another client of the car service. Before a new driver gets into the vehicle, it would undergo an automatic aerosol disinfection and drying process, a method that was used in ambulances during the pandemic.

If this model of city ownership of EVs was replicated around the world, then vehicle manufacturing would fall by 80%. When the emphasis is on growing an economy as measured by GDP, then this would be a negative result. However, when it comes to saving the world, reducing production, and reducing mineral extraction and emissions in the production process, this mobility model would be beneficial to all.

When cities or countries are buying EVs in large quantities, then with this purchasing power, large buyers can influence the types of cars that are produced. 

For urban areas, we only need vehicles to travel at 30 mph. If we tell the manufacturers to limit the speed of the cars to 30 mph, then the cars will run on smaller batteries. This will reduce the demand for expensive heavy metals required in their manufacture. It will reduce the cost not only of the battery components but also of parts of the cars that are designed to cope with the stress of driving at high speeds. The easiest parts to imagine are tyres. Currently, cars are supplied with big tyres capable of keeping the car on the road at high speeds. If cars only travel at 30 mph, then the tyres could be much smaller, not only saving on rubber and reducing noise pollution but also reducing particle pollution. This is when microscopic particles wear off the tyres and because these particles are lighter than air, they float up into the air we breathe and are responsible for a significant number of respiratory illnesses and deaths in our communities.

We will still need cars for journeys beyond the city, and these cars could be specified to reach maximum speeds of 70 mph. As motorway speed restrictions are 70 mph, it begs the question as to why most cars presently are built to travel at much higher speeds. We can effectively specify a proportion of the fleet to have speed restrictions of 30mph and another proportion to have a speed restriction of 70mph. Both of these specifications will help reduce the cost of manufacturing electric cars. 

The benefits

What would a city be like with an “on-demand transport service”? With a city free from parked cars, there is an opportunity to redesign the urban landscape for people. Congestion would be significantly diminished, journey times would shrink and we could separate the roads into lanes, one for EVs and a second for micro-mobility, like electric bikes and electric scooters, while providing move pavement space for walking. Buses would flow through our cities more efficiently. When they keep better time, we are likely to see a switch towards public transport – reducing our dependence on cars, accelerating the transformation of mobility. This in turn creates quieter roads, encouraging people to walk or cycle with benefits for their health.

People who have been priced out of the current transport options would now be included, effectively delivering a more democratic mobility service.

The new space appearing in the city would make way for more green spaces, play areas, environmental buffers, workspaces, housing, retail and other services. With denser planning, a city would be more walkable and an infrastructurally more efficient city.

Previous car owners would enjoy being relieved of the responsibilities, costs and demands that come with traditional car ownership. No more filling up, inflating the tires or topping up the oil. No more road tax, car insurance, MOTs, parking fees. And no more driving around looking for a parking space. 

For the switch to EVs to be positive for the environment, it was initially assumed that the electricity to power EVs would need to come from renewable sources. However, this is not true, for as the world would be producing 80% fewer cars, the reduction of total manufacturing costs would save almost five times the emissions of business as usual. Making the switch to EVs better for the environment, even if their electricity is sourced from fossil fuel power generation. This realisation should hasten the adoption of this model of mobility. The pressure to power all the EVs with renewable energy should still be kept up, which would result in a win on both fronts.

Why the City?

The speedy introduction of EVs is best done on a city by city basis. This is partly because this is where most people live and the different conditions around a country, will benefit from local knowledge. Local government is better placed to understand the boundaries between city and country areas. They can judge how far to extend the service of their fleet while recognising that people in rural districts, will need to purchase electric vehicles personally.

Vans and Trucks

The conversion to EVs should also be applied to trucks and vans. The city authority can have a fleet of vans for commercial use within the city, and truck owners can be required to run only electric trucks. As these are largely used between cities it might not be viable for cities to own and control electric trucks. Between cities, the government should step in now, to make transport fleets switch to electric trucks within 12 months. The UK Committee on Climate Change lightly states that we have all the science and technology we need to address climate change. We do not. Trucks and big vans make up around 30% of the emissions in the transport sector and current battery technology is too heavy to work efficiently with the bigger loads that trucks present. The technology deficit here sounds yet another alarm bell that should be loud enough to be heard around the world.

Autonomous Vehicles

There is a lot of publicity around the development of autonomous vehicles. The idea of a fleet of autonomous vehicles serving a city is very attractive, however, the introduction of the technology continues to be in the future and might always be just out of reach. This does not mean that there cannot be a benefit from the quest for this technology at the moment. Cities, as high-volume buyers, can specify that vehicles should come with the technologies as they are developed, such as collision avoidance technology, automatic parking or automatic aerosol disinfection between users.

Special needs Drivers

The proposition of switching car ownership from privately-owned petrol vehicles, to publicly owned electric cars, throws up many questions for car users with specific requirements. These issues should not be seen as a barrier to the grander vision, but as a call for imaginative solutions, as there really is no other option if our planet is to be saved.

Early Adopters

There are two enormous opportunities for early adopters, on a city basis and a country basis. For a city, the early adopter will have the financial advantage of being able to sell their existing petrol vehicles. This could be a practical inducement, but as the idea spreads, the demand for second-hand petrol vehicles will disappear, and an environmentally responsible way of dealing with large numbers of unwanted petrol vehicles will need to be found. For an early-adopting country, there is a big opportunity to start manufacturing the cars that will be needed nationally. There is also an opportunity to gain leadership in the export market, as countries around the world make the inevitable switch. Along with the manufacturing opportunity will come the consultancy skills required to help cities around the world make the transition.


We have seen the introduction of bike-share schemes, and now this is extending to scooters and other micro-mobility devices. This has been done on a city by city basis and it is possible that publicly owned EVs will develop in a similar way. It will be a challenge, though not unimaginable, for local political leadership to introduce a publicly owned, “on-demand transport service”. However, executing this strategy on a national scale would bring even greater benefits, if only the political leadership existed. 

Pricing Flexibility and Mobility as a Service”

Several cities around the world provide free public transport, notable Tallin, Luxembourg and Mariehaun. These cities have seen a rise in their economies, as more people move into the city attracted by this free service. The issue of how to price transport services, whether it be a bus or an EV becomes very interesting. Earlier, I stated that a city would require 20% of the current privately-owned fleet of cars. However, there is no certainty in this estimate. RethinkX actually estimate 11% and “The Exponential Road Map” think 3% will be enough? I prefer the more conservative estimate because the scheme can’t afford to fail. However, there are so many variables at play here that early schemes will need to be ready to buy or sell cars, in response to what actually happens when the scheme is introduced. We can expect a switch to public transport as the service improves, reducing the demand for cars, but we can also expect people previously priced out of private car ownership, to increase the demand for the car service. How this balances out will also be determined by the city’s pricing policy. One option would be to provide free travel on the buses, a higher toll for using EVs, and lower charges for micro-mobility services. This policy should reduce even further the need to buy EVs. 

Whichever way a city chooses to go, one thing is certain. The move to city-owned EVs will be the advent of a much better transport system and a massive reduction in CO2 emissions. It could also be an economic success story.

A Vision of the Future

There is a further step to optimise transport. This is to integrate all the different modes of transport “on a digital, multimodal urban-transport platform for both information and payment.” In this vision, “mobility as a service” is available to everyone, on an Internet platform where one enters one’s destination. The platform would then advise on the best route and select the appropriate mode or modes of transport. A single journey across a city might start on a form of micro-mobility suited to the “last mile challenge”.  It might then switch to an electric car or a bus and then return to a form of micro-mobility.

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