In the first of an on-going column by a revolving cast of Metro writers documenting their attempts at living more sustainably, Henry Oliver tries ditching the internal combustion engine for an electric vehicle.
We do what we can. Or, we do what we think we can without changing our lifestyles too much.
We know the world is heating because of how we, as a species, are living and have lived since the Industrial Revolution. We’ve dug and drilled and burnt the earth, powering the development of the modern world. With the energy we’ve extracted and released into the atmosphere, we’ve built cities, heated homes, travelled over oceans. We’ve cured diseases, brought millions out of abject poverty. The industrialised world is, by almost every measure, safer, healthier and less violent than the pre-industrial world. And we owe a lot of that to energy. But, for all the good it’s done us, releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere is now, unquestionably, threatening our very existence. So, what can we do about it?
What we really need is comprehensive government regulation around the globe. But, while we wait, we may have to settle for changing our individual behaviours.
I drive a car, or am driven in a car, most days. I wish I didn’t have to, but the way I’ve organised my life — where I’ve chosen to live and work and educate my kids — means that unless it’s a day when I can go straight to work and home again, I am driving somewhere, sometime.
Up until recently, I drove a 2003 VW wagon. I didn’t look after it well and it became tired and heavy. Then my wife and I started talking about how we should replace it. An efficient hatchback? A hybrid? Electric? If we don’t like consuming petrol, why buy a car which just uses less of it rather than none? But are they annoying to charge? What if you forget? What if we suddenly wanted to hit the open road and drive with cinematic freedom? Unable to make sudden consumer decisions, I borrowed a new VW e-Golf to find out.
Living with an EV feels like swapping a car for an appliance, a tool for a device. From the joyful start-up tones, to the electric whir of acceleration, to the phone-like anxiety over range and battery life. I loved driving it. The car is quick and light and made me feel quick and light too. All the digital tools we've become accustomed to are available with the minimum of effort or distraction. Driving it made me feel, finally, that I was living in some version of the future that we've all been promised for so many years.
I had some issues with charging to begin with. While you can plug the charger straight into the wall, you still need an extension cord long enough. Realising the outdoor plug in my backyard was a little too far, and then finding that I must have Marie Kondo’d our outdoor extension cord, I strung three multi-boxes together and hoped for the best. I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of thunderous rain, wondering if waterlogged multi-boxes would be covered by the car’s insurance.
Another day, I pulled out of the driveway only to realise the orange light I thought meant “charging” actually meant “plugged in” and I’d forgotten to flick the switch on at the wall. Dummy. Still, never a better time to learn about the joys of the free fast-charging stations, though I am told excessive use will cook your battery and shorten its life expectancy.
Perhaps the greatest joy of driving an EV is also the most dangerous — it takes the guilt out of driving and gives you, the most virtuous of consumers, an excuse to drive as much as you’d like (it’s nearly free to run and nearly harmless to the ozone layer!). But you’re still another car on the road, lining up in rush hour with everyone else. An EV doesn’t save you from gridlock, where, at 12km/h, you may end up wondering — Shouldn’t buses be electric? Why can’t they take me everywhere I need to go? And, When’s the damn CRL going to be finished?
I loved driving an EV. So much so that I’ve now bought one. Not a new VW, but something closer to my budget. It’s six years old, with less than half the battery life, and the on-board computer isn’t nearly as iPad-like, but it gets me where I need to go for a couple of days on a single charge.
I’m doing what I can. Or, doing what I can without changing my lifestyle too much. I guess that’s a start.
A shorter version of this piece originally appeared in the July-August 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline "Plugging in".