Greenwashing Hong Kong Further…?

Besides the hot and humid air that greeted me after the red-eye, the first thing that caught my attention once on Hong Kong soil is the number of Tesla cars whizzing along the motorways — I must have lost count during the barely 1-hour trip on a bus from the airport, and decided to settle on 30-plus. For a city well accustomed to the allure of traditional luxury brands, this popularity does appear to be highly irregular, at least at first glance.

It must be all bells and whistles, or perhaps electrifying, for Tesla — a manufacturer with barely a mark on the field, for achieving this latest round of sales and marketing successes with its all-electric line-up. Much has been said and written about the otherworldly performance and environmental benefits of this Model S, and pre-orders were oversubscribed for the smaller Model 3 saloon, even before the finished article reached HK’s shores for test drives. The city is seemingly charging up (pun intended) to a bright future devoid of noxious fumes and friendly to not just environmentalists, but the future generations. Is this even possible? What’s actually cloaked under the curvy, flowing sheet metal of these latest automotive creations?

Electric potential in abundance? Just another Tesla EV among Hong Kong’s jam-packed cityscape. Also note the clever play of a traditional number plate (in the AB 1234 format), with HU 1 likely denoting the surname Hui (許), and the triple 8s in-line with many East Asian cultures where the number 8 symbolises fortune and prosperity.

While the electric car, aka Electric Vehicle (EV), is still seen as a novelty and triumph in engineering, leading the way to sustainable transport and mobility, its roots actually run at least as deep as that of its common IC engine counterparts. As early as 1820s-30s, the electric car had been independently invented in various locations on both sides of the Atlantic; at the turn of the last century, electric taxis had been whisking New Yorkers back and forth the metropolis with respectable comfort and serenity, though the bold experiment ended as a financial flop within just a few years due to over-speculation and –expansion. Nevertheless, over the course of the development of the motor car, EVs have always been portrayed as the centerpiece to sustainable urban mobility, the ultimate panacea to the chaotic hustle and bustle of the city, and one struggles to find any city car proposal without the involvement of electric propulsion.

The most recognized advantage of the EV is obviously the elimination of any trace of tailpipe emissions, thus contributing significantly to the improvement in air quality, particularly in a densely-built urban setting with a high footfall; furthermore, electric motors have a straight output curve with maximum power and torque starting from 0rpm, which equates instantaneous response and acceleration, ideally suited to the frequent start-stops that typifies city driving; the simplicity of the electric drivetrain — the electric motor only contains one moving part, and its output characteristics could render the need for a gearbox obsolete — also ensures less maintenance on wear and tear items.

As a close follower of anything car-related worldwide, it should then be of no surprise that Tesla has gained a considerable market share since its Hong Kong debut some 2 years ago. The virtues of the EV, coupled with the series of concessions offered by the Government (free registration tax, free charging top-up points, and the 8-year comprehensive warranty by the official dealer, all contribute to the increasing number of EVs, Tesla or not, on Hong Kong’s and other cities’ roads.

Still, the implications of the wide adoption of EVs seem to evade public attention. The term EV is used to describe a variety of powertrains that involve the use of electric power, as the sole or auxiliary propulsion method to the vehicle. The simplest of such is not any different from your mobile phones or laptops in principle, with the wheels powered by one or more electric motors connected to rechargeable batteries as the energy store — the Tesla model lineup and most EVs on the market fall into this category. The lesser-known and -detailed hybrid technology, as the name suggests, is a transitional approach with a traditional IC engine as the primary power source (to be discussed separately), while fuel cell EV technology has also gained a considerable following with some manufacturers.

The most recognized benefit of EVs relate to what is known as “roadside air quality”, as to top up the electric charge the car has to be plugged into a charger, which draws electricity from the grid network, which in turn draws from power stations. As the majority of Hong Kong’s power production is still dependent on coal- or natural gas-fired power stations, the reduction in the net carbon footprint by adopting EVs en massemight be just an eerie case of not-in-my-back-yard-ism (or nimbyism, though just how many have the luxury of a back yard in Hong Kong remains questionable), where the short term, localised improvements within the urban core are hyped over, at the expense of an overall detrimental effect on the environment in the not-too-distant future.

Furthermore, the main form of the energy store still relies on batteries that contain toxic chemicals, that only typically last a maximum of 5 years before the recharging capability drops to impractical levels, and that could not be disposed easily without causing significant harm to the natural environment. Observing the explosion in the number of EVs in HK and the trends worldwide, one could only describe the situation as shocking and its potential consequences chilling, should such planned obsolescence not be matched with an appropriate disposal scheme. Engineers have also attempted to address such by replacing the energy store with supercapacitators, or otherwise applicable, but these tend to give rise to other issues such as reliability and cooling efficiency–after all one could only cheat physics so much.

The fact that conventional EVs are “better” and “greener” should not be seen as a default — careful examination, review, and comparison with any possible alternatives should be sought in responding to the sustainable mobility challenge. Personally, hydrogen fuel cell technology seems to show promise and potential, with its fuel store in the guise of compressed hydrogen and the only tailpipe emission water vapour. Still, it is not without its problems, as the extraction and pressurized storage of hydrogen require substantial energy consumption and investment in large-scale infrastructure such as hydrogen fuelling stations, which, given current technology, tend to be financially and socially costly at best, with its carbon-emission gains on the road negated in extreme cases.

Tesla has, together with other EV manufacturers, showcased the technology to the masses, proving that environmental sustainability in the automotive world is, at least, not a fantasy. Many have since jumped on the bandwagon, which is initially encouraging; however, EVs are only as “green” as the method of power generation. Blind faith in such technologies might create equally blind spots in our analytical minds. One should preferably be alert, avoid the mental circuitry of self-deception, and approach the challenge to “green” mobility with a suitable balance between idealism and pragmatism.