Electric vehicles are gaining popularity around the world. But what are the implications for traffic and vehicle safety management?
Electric vehicle purchases continue to grow in Canada and the United States, following trends in Europe and China, where 31 and 44% of the world’s electric vehicles are owned respectively. North Americans have been slower to adopt the electric vehicle than drivers in Europe and China, but a turning point was reached at the start of this year, when electric vehicle registrations in the United States shot up 60%.
While European countries, such as Norway, offer big tax incentives to consumers who choose electric, it’s not clear what’s driving the interest in electric car sales in the U.S. One answer may lie in the pain of rising gas prices, fueled by international politics and oil production cuts. Another answer may lie in state level legislation aimed at lowering greenhouse emissions. California, America’s most populous state, has banned the sale of new gasoline powered cars by 2035.
Pros and cons
There are many benefits to electric vehicles, the most obvious being freedom from the gas pump. Electric vehicles run on lithium-ion batteries, eliminating the need for gasoline and reducing the pollution and emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. Electric vehicles have a low carbon footprint, fewer maintenance requirements (no oil changes needed!), and save consumers money on fuel costs. As an added bonus, many jurisdictions offer electric vehicle buyers tax-based incentives or rebates. There’s even a public safety argument to be made: electric vehicle drivers drive more slowly and brake more gradually to conserve battery charge, and the time it takes to charge an electric car means there are more relaxed, less rushed drivers on the road. What’s not to love?
Despite all these benefits, electric vehicles do come with disadvantages. Electric cars and trucks are virtually noiseless at low speeds, causing safety risks for children, distracted pedestrians, and the visually impaired – especially in busy, low-speed areas like parking lots. In fact, the risk of silent vehicles has been recognized both in Canada and the United States, prompting legislation and regulations requiring that sound emitters be equipped on all new electric vehicles. The danger from silent electric vehicles already on the road, or from a failed sound emitter, can be ameliorated by installing detectable warning plates for the visually impaired at crosswalks, or creating purpose-built pedestrian walkways in parking lots by separating rows of parking stalls using sidewalks or bollards. Other electric vehicle risks include the potentially flammable lithium-ion batteries and the shortage of vehicle charging stations. At the end of their lifespan, electric vehicles can be a hazard to towing, recovery and salvage workers who may come into contact with their high voltage batteries. Finally, electric vehicle batteries are expensive, and, in some cases, the cost of replacing them could outstrip the cost of the car.
Because they weigh more than gas vehicles, and can accelerate much more rapidly, electric vehicles may force us to rethink many of our current vehicle barrier infrastructure. Crash-rated bollards, for example, are rated based on the average weight of a gas vehicle and the distance that vehicle needs to get up to speed. Electric vehicles give maximum torque in record time and there’s no need to wait for gear shifts when changing speeds, a factor that wasn’t accounted for in older pedestrian barrier installations. Higher-rated crash bollards may be necessary to protect property and pedestrians as ever more cars and trucks go electric, and existing bollards may need upgrading.
Bollards can also shield and protect electric vehicle charging stations from vehicle impacts cause by driver error. Damaged or non-functioning charging stations are costly to replace and frustrate drivers. A lack of functional charging stations could potentially slow down widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Bollards provide an excellent barrier between vehicles of all sizes and makes and one-size-fits-all charging stations. Bollards can also prevent vehicles from getting too close to chargers and snagging loose charging cords. It’s recommended that bollards or other barriers protecting electric vehicle charging stations are placed in a way that maintains accessibility for drivers of all sizes and abilities.
Though there are many obvious benefits to electric vehicles, as they become more widespread, they require some additional considerations in safety planning. Some risks can be reduced through the installation of certain types of infrastructure, such as bollards, and many can be mitigated through pedestrian awareness.