If we want to keep the EV momentum going, it’s time to make small cars cool again

In the world of EV sales, things are shaping up for a showdown between market forces and, well, common sense.

On the side of common sense, authorities in Paris have declared war on ‘auto-besity’, and are going to introduce parking fees that get progressively higher based on the weight and size of vehicles. Deputy mayor David Belliard said SUVs were incongruous in an urban environment. “There are no dirt paths, no mountain roads … SUVs are absolutely useless in Paris. Worse, they are dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture.”

Unfortunately, the higher charges in Paris won’t apply to electric SUVs. Which is a shame, because the market forces that have pushed ICE vehicles towards SUVs seem to be having an even greater effect on the EV market, where an ever higher proportion of the models on offer are SUVs and ‘crossovers’.

The trend towards heavier vehicles started in the US as a way for manufacturers to avoid stricter air quality regulations that did not apply to ‘light trucks’. But it continues on the logic that big vehicles don’t cost that much more to make than small ones, but consumers will accept a proportionally bigger price mark-up. As manufacturers switch over to EVs, with expensive batteries, it’s easier to lose that extra cost in a big luxury vehicle which has a larger profit margin to start with.

Still – does a trend towards bigger cars matter, if they’re electric? Well, yes, for a lot of reasons, but three in particular – equality, efficiency and liveability.

First, equality. A few years ago I fully expected the switch to EVs to reverse the trend towards SUVs, as the desire for greater range would push consumers towards lighter vehicles. Instead, manufacturers have doubled down on size and found they have more space for giant battery packs, which have come down in price to levels which are ‘affordable’, at least in the higher end of the market. But where does that leave ‘mass market’ adoption?

Big, heavy EVs won’t be cheap for a long time (if ever) because they need lots of batteries. If that’s all that European manufacturers want to make, then one of two things will happen. Either the rollout of EVs will stall, and leave the majority of consumers with no option but to stick with ICEs (and you could be forgiven for thinking this has happened if you read the current backlash in the press). Or, more likely, Chinese companies will fill the void and eat their lunch.

Second, efficiency. We are heading for a 100% renewable grid – but we’re not there yet. And don’t forget, we have to switch most of our heating to electricity, which will need a lot more renewables, and that’s predicted to keep the price of electricity high for years. So if your electric car is twice as heavy as it needs to be, and uses twice as much energy, then the extra power you use is adding to demand and slowing our progress towards getting rid of fossil fuels and bringing prices down. (And don’t forget that it’s also taken more energy to build it.)

Efficiency matters – comparing like-with-like, EVs beat ICE. But as of now, smaller, lighter petrol cars still have a smaller environmental footprint than bigger, heavier EVs.

Finally, liveability. More SUVs make it harder to get people to cycle and walk, because they take up more road space and are more likely to kill people in collisions. And they need bigger parking spaces, accelerating the trend to tarmac over more of our urban space, exacerbating flash flooding and the heat island effect.

So, what’s the answer? I think it’s high time to make small cars cool again. I don’t know what they’ll do in America, where their icons are the Hummer and the F150 pick-up, but we’re European. The re-launch of the Fiat 500 was a great success a few years ago, as was the new Mini (even though it’s admittedly a lot bigger than the old Mini).

Our automotive industry has a great history of making small cars profitable, and cool. The ‘European dream’ if there is one, is zipping from a pavement café to the beach, parking in a space not much bigger than a picnic blanket at either end. Michael Caine didn’t need an SUV to transport his gold bullion, ‘Nicole’ and ‘Papa’ didn’t need to impress with a Chelsea tractor. It’s time for the electric revolution to give us new cars that are small but iconic.




Will autonomous vehicles have enough energy for all that thinking?

It doesn’t feel like thinking uses all that much energy, does it? If we want to lose weight, we’re told to go for a run, not play chess.

However, evolutionary biologists have pointed out that our current, oversize brains did not evolve until after we mastered the use of fire to cook our food. That’s because they use a surprising amount of calories. Our nearest primate cousins, with their raw food diets, simply don’t have enough hours in the day to eat and digest all the calories that it would take to support a human brain. Cooking means we can extract more calories from the same amount of food, more quickly.

Is the same true of electronic brains then? Well, there was a great story in the press recently about a swimming pool in Exmouth that is being heated with the waste heat from just a small part of a data centre. A data server the size of a washing machine is enough to heat the pool to 30C around 60% of the time. So yes, all those transistors may not look like they’re doing much, but they are using a huge amount of energy.

What might this mean for autonomous vehicles? It’s generally taken as a given that most autonomous vehicles will be electric, since that’s the way we’re going. And EVs already have a problem with energy storage. If the vehicle also has to do its own thinking, what might that do to its range?

I should credit the Emissions Analytics blog for first alerting me to this question. Back in 2020 they did a few ‘back of the envelope’ calculations, and came to the conclusion that a fully autonomous vehicle, with multiple sensing and processing systems, might use as much energy to do its sensing and ‘thinking’ as it needed to actually drive the wheels.

That, frankly astonishing, conclusion suggested this might be a bigger problem than one might think – even if Emissions Analytics’ calculations were a fair way out. At the time I wondered if any other evidence might back this up.

Then last year I went to visit some guys in a start-up based in Millbrook, called Hypermile AI. They were kind enough to take me around the Millbrook bowl in an HGV tractor unit that was basically being driven by a mobile phone. Their very clever kit combines with the truck’s cruise control to anticipate the movement of other vehicles much better than the usual crude adaptive cruise control algorithms, thus achieving fairly impressive fuel savings.

While we were chatting after the demonstration, I asked about the energy use of fully autonomous systems – could they be as energy hungry as Emissions Analytics had suggested. The reply – ‘absolutely’. That’s one of the reasons the Hypermile System only uses a single camera – as soon as multiple sensing systems need to be integrated into that type of system, the processing power (and associated energy use) increases exponentially. Anecdotally, they told me that many Tesla drivers report that when they are using full autopilot, the range of the vehicle drops by around 25%. (I checked this later, and found the Tesla owner forums are awash with discussions that absolutely back this up.)

Of course processors are constantly getting more efficient, and system designers will find things to optimise, but the scale of energy use would appear to be too big to ignore. This may be yet another argument for the real benefits to autonomous vehicles being found around level 4 (where sensing and ‘thinking’ can be streamlined to particular use cases) rather than level 5, where the AI needed to handle all those open-ended situations may need so much power that it destroys the business case.



Tiny data centre used to heat public swimming pool:


Could vehicle automation make carbon dioxide emissions and air quality worse?


Is the electric revolution going to run out of key metals?

For years, whenever I went to an event talking about electric vehicles, there would always be some chap jabbing his finger and saying, “Yes, but where’s all the lithium going to come from, eh?” I’m sure you’ve met the same type of guy (and it is always a man).

It’s a fair question, but the way it was asked tended to undermine the argument. It was always obvious that this was someone desperate for the EV lobby to be proved wrong, so I had to suspect whatever they said was guided by motivated reasoning. History makes the ‘we’re running out’ argument just feel like crying wolf – Limits to Growth never happened, Peak Oil never happened, we’ve been here before surely?

“… the age of electricity and of copper will be short. At the intense rate of production that must come, the copper supply of the world will last hardly a score of years. … Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.”

Copper mining expert Ira Joralemon, in 1924

Now, however, the argument seems a little harder to dismiss. Every few days I see a new article or report about the coming supply crunch for the various metals needed in EVs (and solar panels, and wind turbines, and everything else electric).

Most recently I saw a presentation using copper as an example – it’s the third most used metal in industry, after iron and aluminium, and of course it’s used in everything electrical. It’s easy to paint a pretty dire picture, using reports from mainstream sources like the International Energy Agency and S&P Global. Inventories are down, we’re having to process ores of steadily lower quality, and new mines take over 10 years from discovery to production.

But again, we have been here before. Wikipeadia points out that in 1924 geologist and copper-mining expert Ira Joralemon warned: “… the age of electricity and of copper will be short. At the intense rate of production that must come, the copper supply of the world will last hardly a score of years. … Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.”

So what are we to conclude? Without pretending to be a minerals expert, here’s what I think we need to take away:

First, in the long term, metal shortages won’t stop the move towards electrification of society. We’ll find new metal deposits (astonishingly I just read that only 40% of US territory has been geologically mapped in detail). We’ll make more of our wiring out of aluminium, we’ll commercialise different battery chemistries. We’ll do things that nobody has thought of as yet.

Second, in the short term, prices will go up. It’s fair to say that we’ve left tackling climate change to the eleventh hour, and so we have ridiculously steep targets to reduce emissions. Transforming our energy system in a matter of just a decade is going to bump up against the timelines to build new mines or take a new type of battery from the university lab to the car showroom. We’re already seeing battery prices increase after decades of falling.

Third, we (obviously) need to be as efficient as possible in our use of energy and resources – and those high prices will help force this. In the case of transport, it means that SUVs are still a bad idea, even if they’re fully electric. We may want to re-examine the case for plug-in hybrids vs fully electric – more on that in a future post. And we will need diverse strategies – a variety of low carbon liquid fuels, travel demand management, modal shift, i.e. every tool in the box.

Finally, there will be winners and losers, and we are probably right to worry about the destabilising effect of that on global politics. It’s true that China currently processes a huge proportion of many of the key metals. It is unfortunate that this supply deficit is looming just as governments around the world are backing off from globalisation and returning to national interest and protectionism.

It is worrying that in pushing for domestic resource extraction, the US and Europe may well prioritise this strategic interest over nature, indigenous communities and clean air and water. And in countries with less stable institutions, concentrated mineral wealth historically does more harm than good, propping up corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

To end on a slightly more optimistic note, our response to the pandemic has proved that technological developments that used to take 10 years can happen in two, if there’s the will. Let’s hope that applies to new types of battery, motor or mining techniques as well as vaccines.