Greening your transport: Where does an electric car fit in?

A case study by Adelaide-based specialist and DEA SA committee member, Hubertus Jersmann.

As a medical practitioner interested in the good health of patients and society it is important never to lose sight of the big picture of how overpopulation and our current economic model cause climate change and the associated direct and indirect effects on health.

However, when it comes to day-to-day decisions, like how a family may deal with the issue of transport, one has to be very specific about choices and at the same customise one’s choices to the specific needs of the family. In our case we live 3.5km from the GPO.

Influenced by the German way of life, we prefer to walk to local places such as post office, pharmacy, shops etc. However, distances in Australia are generally larger than in Germany and thus the bulk of our transport is by bicycle. My wife and I both ride to work, in quiet street bike lanes and through the Adelaide parklands. The children ride to school, which is only 2km away. On days of extreme weather, public buses come to the rescue (I recommend the rechargeable Metrocard). Some years ago as a single car household (2 parents, 2 children under 10 and one Aupair) we needed to replace an old family car. The search was on for a 7-seater, fuel-efficient vehicle, without the dreaded ‘Mum’s minibus’ appearance. In Europe this would be no problem at all, but in Australia it was a major challenge. The only option was the Peugeot 308 1.6L turbo diesel, a smallish concept car where 5 of the 7 seats are removable. Five-star looks and the impressive consumption of only 5.5L per 100km were the final straw for purchase. However, diesel technology works at its best over long distances; short trips leave the engine cold and drive up consumption. This and the fact that older children pursue activities in different ends of the suburban sprawl eventually led to the search for a second car as a ‘city shuttle’.

An electric car seemed an attractive option providing for silent, emission free city travel. The big question of course is where is the electricity coming from and how green is it? We are quite fortunate in South Australia that the current percentage of electricity sourced from wind and also photovoltaic panels already adds up to an impressive 33% (and rising). We test-drove the only two available models in Australia, sadly again only a fraction of the choices available in Europe. In the recent past, purchase prices for electric vehicles used to elicit acute vasovagal responses. Luckily, recently both Mitsubishi and Nissan have dropped their price tag to acceptable “within the ball park levels”.

Our family decided on the Nissan LEAF. The decision was based on great looks, the 5 seat capability (Mitsubishi MIEV has 4) and the long warranty period (8 years) on the potentially expensive battery. The LEAF has an impressive range per charge of 160km, 25km less with A/C but 25km more in ‘ECO’ mode. This makes it the perfect second or third family car. The most frequently asked question by colleagues and friends is concerning the acceleration. The answer is simple: this thing takes off like a rocket, beating any other car minus the TESLA (fully electric sports car). However, dragging others off from the lights is bad for fuel economy in any vehicle, including this one and thus should be discouraged. The current model LEAF only takes 16A charge and comes with a 10A charger. Thus, no need to modify your home electricity yet (future model a said to accept 32A charge) and any odd household socket (up to 16A) copes with the 10A charger without problems. Using this so-called “trickle” mode it takes about 9h from empty to full, in other words and over night job. Cheaper options could have been the conversion of a conventional vehicle to electric with some bravery, knowledge and skill required. The Australian Electric Vehicle Association can help,

The “fuel” economy of the LEAF is as such that at current prices about $3.20 worth of electricity are required to charge for a 100km drive. That compares to roughly 2L of fossil fuel per 100km, a feat not even VW or Mercedes can achieve even with their latest engine technology. For us the biggest challenge is now to resist the temptation to drive the LEAF all the time and to continue to walk and cycle!

As a general principle I think it is important that doctors “walk the talk” (in this case almost literally) and are not shy to lead by example. Someone has to, so why not us doctors, highly educated, caring and moderately wealthy?

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