Dr Aruna Sivakumar is a Reader in Consumer Demand Modelling and Urban Systems at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London. She is director of the Urban Systems Lab, and leads several smart city and systems modelling initiatives including the monitoring and evaluation work package of the EU Sharing Cities project, decentralised modelling of energy demand in the EPSRC-funded IDLES Programme and the accessibility framework for equity analysis in the Wellcome Trust-funded Pathways project. She is a Research Theme Lead for Low Carbon Cities and Transport in Energy Futures Lab. Aruna is passionate about ensuring an equitable future for electric mobility and has written the following thought piece with this focus.
Decarbonisation of the transport system, which is responsible for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, is one of the most promising means of limiting climate change and achieving net zero targets. Electrification of mobility – i.e. electrification of public transport (rail, buses), passenger transport (personal and shared vehicles) and freight – has thus become one of the priorities of governments worldwide.
Electric Vehicles (EVs), defined for this post as vehicles with batteries that must be charged by an external source of electricity, are proposed as a viable alternative to conventional petrol and diesel vehicles. This includes electric cars and a growing number of Electric 2-Wheelers (E2Ws) and 3-wheelers (E3Ws) around the world. Compared to conventional internal combustion engine vehicles, EVs have several benefits. EVs do not have tailpipe emissions which can significantly improve near-road air quality and can reduce noise pollution of the road network. EVs still consume energy, with electricity from the battery rather than combustion of fossil fuels. Therefore, EVs can be clean only if the electricity and storage system is clean. With the rise of renewable energy, electricity generation is slowly becoming cleaner across the world, though questions still remain about the environmental impacts of battery technology.
Even as top-down policy measures around the world support the growth of electric mobility as one of the pathways toward the decarbonisation of transport, it has become evident that there are several non-trivial demand side challenges. Recognised barriers to adoption of electric mobility, from studies around the world, can be categorised into technological, contextual and consumer factors. Technological factors relate to vehicle technology and include driving range, charging time, noise, acceleration, functionality, reliability and safety. Contextual factors are factors that vary in every city and country such as government incentives, fuel price and electricity price, uncertainties regarding the electricity supply and charging infrastructures. Consumer factors relate to population and user characteristics including socioeconomics, social norms, cultural factors and concerns around climate change and the environment.
Of all these factors, cost and incentives, vehicle reliability, range anxiety, and insufficient charging infrastructure are recognised as the most important barriers to EV adoption1-4. In fact, the key challenge in achieving widespread adoption of EVs especially for passenger transport is a circular problem. The energy sector and charging infrastructure providers hesitate to invest heavily in new charging points until there is a mature EV market, whereas the maturity (or lack thereof) of the EV charging infrastructure constrains the growth of the EV market.
A potential benefit of the electrification of transport that is waiting to be exploited is the role of Vehicle to Grid (V2G) technologies in stabilising the electricity supply, which is already a challenge in many Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) even before widespread adoption of renewables. While High-Income Countries (HICs) have taken a measured and sequential approach to EV adoption and V2G services, there is no reason that LMICs cannot take V2G considerations into account right from the get-go. However, this will require significant planning upfront as unplanned V2G can potentially lead to negative and/or unfair impacts. Since in a V2G system, vehicle batteries potentially provide electricity to homes, this could increase the preference for car ownership, rather than shared mobility and more sustainable travel modes such as public transport. While research is inconclusive about this, V2G may also decrease battery longevity and increase the need for battery replacement which would increase the life-cycle impacts of EVs.
Lessons from successful electrification pathways in HICs suggest that a pathway toward widespread adoption of EVs could begin with tax cuts, real cash incentives and subsidies, and a slow but steady investment in the charging infrastructure, followed by heavy penalties and disincentives to phase out heavy polluting vehicles, beginning with low emission zones and leading up to a complete ban on vehicles that are not zero-emissions. However, transferring the knowledge gained from the experience of HICs to LMICs might not be easy or straightforward. The context of LMICs, though similar in many ways, is also far removed from HICs that are successfully transitioning to electric mobility. In this thought piece, we aim to highlight some of the important differences, challenges and concerns for the electrification of mobility in LMICs, with a particular focus on the consumer perspective.
Why the cost of electric mobility is a bigger deal
The cost of electric mobility is a barrier that is magnified in the context of LMICs where high upfront capital costs might be prohibitive for most consumers, and governments may have constraints for financial incentives (such as tax exemptions) when a large percentage of the population rely on affordable transport to make a living. In LMICs, there is a much stronger and direct link between accessibility via road transport and overall economic prosperity, as well as improved prospects for low income populations5. Therefore, the transition to electrification of road transport must be accompanied with appropriate policies to ensure that accessibility (especially for the poor) is not compromised. Aggressive electrification without consideration of transport planning principles of equitable access will result in major setbacks for the low income populations in these countries. Equity of access can be impacted by the cost of vehicle acquisition and operational costs of electric vehicles (while low maintenance cost is a major plus, the cost of battery swapping is uncertain), as well as the range of the electric vehicles. In LMICs where the poor typically commute very long distances to make a living, the range of the vehicle and, equally, the reliability of this range, is a critical issue.
The electrification of public transport is also key to an equitable electric mobility future in LMICs. Electric buses are a clear win-win on several counts. The adoption of e-buses has accelerated in recent years, and the sale of e-buses shows an 80-fold increase between 2011 and 2017 with the majority of e-buses currently operating in China. However, the adoption of e-buses in cities, especially in LMICs, has not been rapid enough. In addition to technological and contextual barriers, financial barriers including rigid procurement structures, the lack of sustainable financing options and the higher cost of e-buses has hindered the growth of widespread adoption of e-buses in the LMICs.
Vehicle charging barriers in the context of LMICs
Lack of proper and widespread charging infrastructure is a known barrier for electric mobility, which can be greater for LMICs due to financial constraints and longer distance travel patterns. Charging time and range anxiety are observed to be equally important concerns for electric mobility, as demonstrated by consumer surveys. In LMICs, where the poor typically commute very long distances to make a living, the range of the vehicle (and the reliability of this range) is a critical issue. Charging time and vehicle range issues can be exacerbated if we consider the low income or rural populations in LMICs.
To paint a potential picture from the perspective of a low income individual living in a large and crowded metropolis in a developing country:
Esperos lives outside the teeming city, where he can afford a small one-bedroom apartment for his family of four. He commutes 3 hours every morning, a distance of 40km, walking to the minibus stop, and squeezing into a minibus of capacity 15 that carries 22. The driver of the electric minibus charges him 25 cents more due to increased capital costs, which is 5% of his daily wage. The 3-hour commute takes 3.5 hours because the minibus has to stop twice to swap batteries, as the vehicle range is affected by the aggressive driving style, the old tyres and degraded battery conditions, and the overload of passengers. Every so often, the now 3.5 hour commute can be further delayed (unexpectedly) due to the lack of a fully charged battery at the battery swap as the power network had an untimely outage. This further delay costs him his entire wages for the day.
It is not only shared electric vehicles that face challenges of charging, or vehicle range issues, rather, middle income households who may own an electric 2-wheeler or car will also be similarly affected. While it is true that electric 2 and 3 wheelers do not need significant charging infrastructure and can be handled more easily with portable and swappable batteries, this does not address the uncertainty in power supply. E2Ws also have lower purchase and operational costs and, if substituting car trips (which is an entirely different challenge in LMICs), they can help in relieving congestion and opening up spaces. However, in order to compete with cheap fossil fuel powered two wheelers in developing countries, governmental support is necessary. The quick wins afforded by the electrification of 2 and 3 wheelers has spurred significant government investment and private enterprise in many LMICs worldwide6,7.
Cultural norms and contextual considerations
Cost and charging barriers may be exacerbated in the context of the LIMCs, however these logistical factors are relatively well understood, in contrast to the complex cultural norms and contextual considerations in LMICs.
For example, while electric 2-wheelers (E2Ws) clearly have the potential to offer sustainable transport in LMICs, in many countries women do not drive powered two-wheelers. Moreover, E2Ws are often used to carry multiple people and freight, which will significantly affect their real range. Low cost E2Ws with a heavy lead-acid battery, overloaded with people and freight is a significant safety issue, one which will inevitably affect lower income households more than middle or high income households in LMICs. Gender differences also lead to safety and security considerations, as women in e-cars cannot afford to be stranded in the ‘wrong part of town’ or at the wrong time of day due to a dead battery. Reliability of the EV is therefore not only more critical but also an important consideration to ensure fair and just distributional impacts across the population8.
For car dominated cities, an increase in the use of two-wheelers (electric or not) would also create additional challenges including crowded sidewalks, deteriorating road safety and reduced speeds of traffic flow. A variety of measures have been introduced in several south Asian cities to tackle these problems, such as exclusive lanes, wait box and turn box at signalised junctions, and dedicated parking spaces. More fundamentally, however, the car remains a symbol of prosperity in many LMICs, a sign that a struggling household has ‘made it’ and can afford to travel in greater comfort. So the incentives to switch to E2Ws or small e-cars must overcome these cultural challenges. It has also been observed, for example in China, that preferences are not driven so much by a concern for the environment (where the individual benefit is not so apparent) as by the desire for ‘smartisation’9. Having said that, research suggests that younger populations in LMICs are more inclined to be concerned about the environment and are more willing to adopt an E2W10, and it is important to draw in this segment of the population more proactively.
The justice considerations in promoting electrification
Finding the right motivations and incentives is clearly the main challenge to be addressed in achieving more widespread adoption of electric mobility, and this can vary significantly across LMICs. In a context where issues such as health, education, safety and security, and employment are more important to be addressed, it is a bigger challenge to come up with electrification policies that ensure equity and social justice. Several LMICs have nevertheless taken firm steps towards the decarbonisation of transport, for example, initiatives such as the Smart Cities Mission in India11.
Space is also a limited resource in urban areas of many LMICs, and the space allocated to charging infrastructure competes against public transport stops, bus lanes, cycle lanes, public spaces, and (often non-existent) pedestrian pathways (i.e. the ‘fight for the curb’). EV charging will require more parking spaces at employment and commercial centres. EV charging and V2G will indirectly increase the value of parking spaces and thus might demand preservation of parking spaces which would be in contrast with sustainable development and might also lead to more sprawl. Building on current parking lots or repurposing parking buildings to create more compact and dense areas in cities is shown to be an effective policy to reduce car travel. Charging infrastructure would also increase the rent and housing costs in multifamily residential buildings which might create a new form of unintended gentrification.
In most of the discussion so far, the focus has been on urban populations. The distinction between urban and rural populations, in terms of their needs and the land use-transport infrastructure, is quite significant. Reliable access to electricity, longer travel distances, lower affordability are all important issues to be considered. In countries where energy access is still an issue and inequitably affects low-income and /or rural households, the additional demand that EVs place on electricity demand has the danger of further widening the energy poverty gap. Energy justice in LMICs is not only about being able to afford electricity, but also having access to energy (electricity) which might vary significantly between urban and rural regions, and across countries. In countries with intermittent electricity, the electricity required for electric mobility must compete with the demand for other essential needs which could result in high-income households charging their EVs at the cost of the essential needs of low- and middle-income households.
Despite the many challenges identified above, some of which are common to HICs and LMICs while others are unique to LMICs, the situation is not all dire. There are many potential benefits of the electric mobility revolution which, if harnessed appropriately through the right policies, can lead to an equitable and just rollout of the electrification of road transport in LMICs. For instance, the low maintenance costs of EVs, the relative ease of electrifying 2- and 3-wheeled vehicles, the greater potential for battery swapping in the land use-transport networks of LMICs, the jobs and opportunities created by the electrification process (provided initiatives are undertaken to appropriately upskill the population), and the generally good level of acceptance of EVs among fleet owners, including 2-, 3- and small 4-wheeled taxis as observed in several trials across Asia and Africa. In addition, smart grid and V2G technologies have the potential to alleviate electricity supply issues in LMICs while at the same time supporting the decarbonisation of road transport.
However, without massive targeted and progressive government subsidy and appropriate urban policies, it is not possible to ensure widespread and equitable uptake of EVs in a swift and efficient manner, and this is as much true in HICs as it is in LMICs12. Since 2010, upper middle class families living in wealthy nations and global cities have been the early adopter target market for EVs and have benefited the most from EV subsidies and privileges. For example, in the US, nearly 80% of people who received tax benefits due to owning an EV were from households with income over $100,000. It is therefore very important for LMICs that transport electrification policies are designed hand in hand with urban planning policies that ensure accessibility is maintained, or even improved, and appropriate consideration must be given to understanding and reducing the energy poverty gap.
There is significant resource invested worldwide (e.g. the Climate Compatible Growth programme, Smart Cities Mission India, the Sustainable Mobility For All programme13,11,14) toward research into the decarbonisation of transport in LMICs. While these research efforts began with drawing on the expertise and findings from trials and studies in HICs, they are increasingly becoming aware of the need for generating local evidence and research based on the unique needs of the country in context. However, the needs of the consumer and the socio-cultural context within which these needs are set are not really quantified or modelled – it is important that the various research efforts should focus also on gathering evidence to capture the consumer perspective and its implications for future transport and energy infrastructures in LMICs.
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(7) Goletz M. et al. (2021) Electrification of Urban Three-Wheeler Taxis in Tanzania: Combining the User’s Perspective and Technical Feasibility Challenges. In: Ewert A., Schmid S., Brost M., Davies H., Vinckx L. (eds) Small Electric Vehicles. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-65843-4_8
(8) Sovacool, B.K., Kester, J., Noel, L. and de Rubens, G.Z., 2019. Energy injustice and Nordic electric mobility: Inequality, elitism, and externalities in the electrification of vehicle-to-grid (V2G) transport. Ecological economics, 157, pp.205-217.
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(12) Sovacool, B.K., Kester, J., Noel, L. and de Rubens, G.Z., 2019. Energy injustice and Nordic electric mobility: Inequality, elitism, and externalities in the electrification of vehicle-to-grid (V2G) transport. Ecological economics, 157, pp.205-217.