LOSING MY ELECTRIC VIRGINITY

IíVE FINALLY GOT AROUND TO DRIVING WHAT MIGHT BE ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CARS OF MY MOTORING LIFETIME. IíM STRUGGLING TO WORK OUT IF THE BMW i3 IS THE FIRST PURE-ELECTRIC CAR IíVE DRIVEN. IN THE CONTEXT OF AN ACTUAL, FEASIBLE, ALL-ELECTRIC AUTOMOBILE, IíM PRETTY SURE IT IS.

MichaelStahl

I suspect Iíve had a proving-ground experience in some prototype or other, and maybe even one of the lead-arsed, limp-dicked production efforts championed over the past four decades by no one besides enviro-loonies and conspiracy theorists. I do remember driving a electric/pedal Sinclair C5, if that helps my environmental credentials.

If Iím prejudiced, itís because Iíve had a lifetime of witnessing slow, overweight, cramped, impractical and unsafe electric vehicles being annihilated by those of a demonstrably superior energy source. Fossil fuelís energy density of around 26 megajoules per litre is still 15 times greater than todayís absolute best rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Uranium is about 600 million times better again, though you donít see anyone using that to power cars. I guess our tyre technologyís not up to it.

Environmental concerns have put the electric

Fossil fuelís energy density is still 15 times greater than todayís best rechargeable battery

car back into the frame for the 21st century, helped by the fact that society itself is heading back to when the electric car was last viable, in the 19th century.

Earlier this year, I wrote a big feature for an airline magazine on the design of future cities. I spoke to a bunch of architects, city councillors, environmentalists, waste disposal experts, even a United Nations consultant on globalisation. I heard a lot of interesting and inevitable stuff. For example, urban agriculture, where you grow, say, an orange in your neighbourhood park (or highrise hydroponic tower) rather than have it grown on the opposite side of the planet, processed, preserved, frozen, flown, trucked, vanned and manhandled to your neighbourhood.

The executive summary is that most people will be living in high-rises, producing a lot of energy and food locally, situated either in a mega-city or a satellite city linked by very-fast trains. Meanwhile, the outlook for the motor car isnít that great. Basically, to go forward, weíll be going backwards Ė not just with electric cars, but farther back, to cycling, walking, sweating, smelling.

Like the example with our orange, however, compare walking 30 minutes to work versus sitting in your car in peak-hour traffic with your gym bag alongside. It makes sense. It actually seems attractive.

Thatís how I found the i3. People will accept and even seek out change when it offers them something better. Where electric cars were always just about compromise, and never did anything better than an internal-combustion car could, the i3 introduces a driving Ė hmm, letís say personal transportation Ė experience thatís tantalisingly different.

As one example, think of the throttle pedal that clearly points towards the notion of single-pedal operation. The deceleration when the pedal is lifted is as much as is usually needed in stop-start city traffic. It makes sense.

At the same time, I despair for all the other cars of my lifetime. I have this vision of myself stealing out to my garage Ė not for me a bicycle hanging on the balcony Ė and starting up my dinosaur-juiced 911. I only get three or four decent revs in before one of the local councilís ĎInternal Combustion Controlí electric Camrys arrives to take me away.

Talking garbage

MY FAVOURITE future tech is Ďgarbage gasifi cationí, a super-heating process that decomposes up to 95 percent of solid waste, producing synthetic natural gas. The only solid by-product is a glassy material that can be crushed for road base. Gasifi cation is the process used in the Ďwood gasifi ersí that powered so many cars, including in Australia, during fuel-rationed World War II.