Are electric vehicles viable in rural communities?
Environment Climate Change Electric vehicles

Are electric vehicles viable in rural communities?

Dr. Lindy Whitehouse
Dr. Lindy Whitehouse

In 10 seconds? A recent study has shown that electric vehicles can handle greater distances than previously thought. This new finding suggests that even people who live in remote regions can switch to electric vehicles and still be able to access essential services – but with some caveats.

Why does this matter? In recent years, switching to electric vehicles (EVs) has become a viable option for many people and has gained momentum across the world. However, in some countries, like Australia, there is still resistance to switching to EVs. For example, in 2021 only 2% of new car sales in Australia were electric cars, compared to 15% in the UK and 72% in Norway. Although EVs practically don't pollute while driving (apart from particles released from tires), they are still expensive. Additionally, they require an extensive network of charging points.

Is this why take-up is lagging in some places? Yes. The problem is that a lot of Australia’s rural communities worry that EVs can’t make the long trips needed to access essential services. This anxiety, coupled with limited charging stations and only a handful of EV models available is one of the main reasons the country is behind the rest of the world in EV sales. To this end, a team of researchers put EVs to the test if they are viable options for many remote communities. They found that over 99% of communities could use EVs to travel to their nearest small service hub town.

Interesting, but how does this help with the fight to stop climate change? Transport is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for 25% of global emissions. In Australia, 18 percent of greenhouse gas pollution can be attributed to transportation so switching to EVs could be one way to reduce these gas emissions. While an EV does not pollute while driving, we do still need to consider the power and resources used in its production, which can still be sources of pollution. (i.e. electricity generated from fossil fuels). However, the good news about this is that the impact on the environment caused by EVs will decrease as we start relying more and more on renewable energy sources.

99% is a pretty high number, what methods did they use in the research? The study compiled information on remote communities including the names and locations of indigenous communities, urban centers, and population counts for these locations, and mapped them to road networks to calculate the distances between communities and service hub towns. They then selected from the highest and lowest range models of EVs available in Australia and looked at their specifications and charging technologies to see if their use would be feasible for these remote communities to access essential services provided by towns and cities. While they found that accessing large service towns would not be feasible using low-range EVS, long-range EVs could be used by over 99% of remote communities to access their nearest small hub town.

EVs consume more energy (so their range decreases) in more extreme weather (red). Source: Yuksel and Michalek, 2015.
EVs consume more energy (so their range decreases) in more extreme weather (red). Source: Yuksel and Michalek, 2015.

So, even the remote countryside is now open for the EV bonanza? It will be if the right measures are implemented. The study demonstrates that living in remote areas does not need to be a barrier to using EVs and phasing out the use of diesel and petrol cars. To make this possible, remote communities must be considered in the early planning stages for the electrification of transport (in Australia and other places), and charging infrastructure should be included in small service towns. Local weather (i.e. temperatures) also affects range - for example hot and cold weather can significantly decrease battery efficiency due to climate control use in the car (check out a study relevant to the US here). On a wider scale, these results should demonstrate to other countries that there is no need to be driving fossil fuel-based vehicles and that with the right planning and infrastructure we can make the switch to EVs which would go a long way to helping us cut our emissions and fight the climate crisis.

Ok great, but how do we make this happen? Ahh, the million dollar question – literally. More research is needed to understand how these cars perform in different conditions such as on unsealed roads or in extreme heat to ensure that they can be used even in the remotest of communities. However, what is clear is that the transport industry must rapidly decarbonize if we are to limit the effects of climate change, and switching to EVs is the most feasible way to make this happen. Moving forward, it is important to get this message across to governments and the public to make sure that the necessary infrastructure is in place and that people understand that adopting this new technology doesn't need to compromise their daily lives. In addition, if we are serious about reducing emissions from fossil-fuel-based vehicles we need to look at ways to make EVs more affordable, especially for developing countries - because for many people the cost of a new EV is prohibitive.

EVs – they’ve been around longer than you would think!

You might be surprised but the invention of electric vehicles actually dates back to the 19th century. While there is some debate over who invented the very first electric vehicle, somewhere between 1832 and 1842 Robert Anderson who lived in Scotland, and Thomas Davenport, an American, both designed and built electrical vehicles which ran on non-rechargeable batteries.

The first EV for production was built by British inventor Thomas Parker in 1884.

Electric vehicles became so popular that by 1900 28% of the vehicles on the road were EVs.

In 1908, the London Electrobus Company was using a fleet of around 20 buses with a range of 40 miles. Each bus could carry 34 passengers. Unfortunately, financial fraud put an end to the business.

And, gasoline-powered vehicles became much more popular because they were easy to refuel and could be driven longer distances, stalling the rise of electric vehicles for almost a century.

Lindy has distilled 12 research papers saving you 41.5 hours of reading time

The Science Integrity Check of this 3-min Science Digest was performed by Dr. ASM Mainul Hasan

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