In light of the global climate emergency, the Anthony Albanese government has been talking up electric vehicles (EVs) and the need for tighter emission standards for petrol vehicles.
The government, however, would be well advised not to overlook the option of improving and expanding our existing EV network which provides millions of journeys every day in our major capital cities.
These high-capacity EVs run at regular intervals on metal tracks through many areas stopping at popular locations where patrons may hop on and off at leisure.
These sophisticated EVs are mathematically 99.9% driverless in the sense that only one occupant needs to operate the vehicle, while the other thousand or so occupants are free to relax, listen to music, read or send emails.
By contrast, individual petrol vehicles are usually 100% “driverful” given that the most common configuration is a single occupant driver.
The safety record of high-capacity EVs is impressive. Running on their own dedicated carriageways with electronic signalling, collisions are very rare.
Unfortunately, improving emission standards for petrol vehicles, or even switching out their engines for electric motors, will have no impact on reducing the 1100 Australian road deaths a year.
Our existing EV network does not require batteries. Power is provided to the vehicles via overhead wires. This avoids the mining and processing of lithium, which is in limited supply. The newer models even have regenerative braking where power returns to the grid when decelerating, saving on energy costs.
By allowing many people to “ride-share” in the one long EV, rather than many individual ones, it is possible to move 50,000 people an hour. This compares favourably with motorway lanes, which can only move 2500 people an hour.
This spatial efficiency reduces the need to demolish houses or chop down trees, allowing valuable urban land to be used more wisely. It also drastically reduces costs.
The existing EV network largely avoids the problem of vehicle storage. Private vehicles (electric or petrol powered) are stored for 95% of the day in high-demand locations close to where people live and work.
By contrast, high capacity shared EVs can operate 18 hours a day and be stored on the urban fringe, where land is cheap and plentiful.
In areas of lower density, a secondary system of lightweight EVs can operate on the road network and act as feeder services to the primary system.
Sydney once possessed one of the world’s largest such networks but it was completely demolished by 1961 in favour of individual petrol-powered vehicles.
Unfortunately, the primary system was not expanded in proportion to population growth, thereby greatly increasing urban sprawl, further ensuring the mass consumption of individual petrol vehicles and creating a vicious cycle.
Being shared and high-capacity, both the light and heavy models of these EVs need only be manufactured in much smaller numbers than the current 20 million individual petrol-powered vehicles registered in Australia.
They have a long and unbroken history of being manufactured locally with public ownership and operation, providing such enormous economies of scale that journeys can be provided free of charge, funded through existing taxation levels.
Critics often counter that even a properly expanded EV network will not get everyone “door to door” and that the “last mile” problem will remain unsolved.
This is where an ingenious and elegant solution presents itself. By using our organic-based autonomous, bipedal musculoskeletal system, we may traverse these remaining distances using surplus dietary energy and thereby also help solve the global pandemic of physical inactivity.
A bright future awaits any leader who chooses to adopt such a best-practice approach to this often overlooked system.
[Andrew Chuter is a public transport and trade union activist.]