How driving an e-car has changed the way I think about driving, cycling and our relationship to the landscape through which we travel.
I have recently started driving an electric vehicle from a car club. I have always understood one of the benefits of electric vehicles being that when you slow down you can convert some of your kinetic energy back into potential energy. In practice you can see this happening when you drive. Motoring along a flat or uphill road, the dashboard display shows a steady flow of current from the battery to the motor. And when you crest a hill and take your foot off the accelerator, the display shows the current flowing the other way.
But this engine-braking effect only gives you a slow rate of deceleration. If you need to slow down more quickly then you need to use the old-fashioned breaks, converting that kinetic energy to heat – which is lost.
For now at least, managing battery consumption is the principal concern of the electric car driver. The longer distance journeys I do usually require a 40-minute stop in a supermarket carpark at some point on the return journey to top the battery up enough to get home. Seeing the current flowing in towards the battery on the display when engine breaking is very satisfying because the dial also shows your projected range increasing. It actually feels like free energy; and puts off that supermarket layover a little longer.
The effect is so strong that managing battery power is changing the way I drive. Rather than drive fast up to a junction and then break, losing the energy to heat, I will, for as long as is feasible, let the engine do the breaking and keep as much of that hard-earned energy in electrical form for as long as possible.
Doing this in turn makes me much more aware of how to drive with the landscape. Say I can see a junction up ahead. I will now be actively thinking about judging the distance from which I can safely use engine breaking to do as much of the breaking for me before I finally have to put my foot on the actual breaks . I emphasise safely – all I am doing is advocating taking your foot off the accelerator a bit earlier and arriving a bit more slowly at a junction.
(At this point car drivers wondering if this leads to tailbacks behind me should note that I already tend to accumulate a tailback of people behind me by doing annoying things like sticking to the speed limit and maintaining good breaking distance.)
This in turn makes me more aware of how the road is working with the hills. Not just whether we are going up or down hill, but noticing how the road builders plotted a route across the land. Does the road follow the natural contours or ignore them?
One of the things I dislike about car driving is the way the mode of transport disassociates the driver from the landscape. With the concentrated fire power of fossil fuels under your pedal you can run roughshod over any hill. The landscape is in effect rendered flat, the same, undifferentiated, devalued. Looked at it this way, the only reason we can afford to travel in ignorance of the contours is because we are energy-rich.
It is also a poverty of experience. A whole level of detail of the world between A and B is wiped. The landscape – that guiding dimensional factor that has shaped human travel and navigation for millennia – ignored.
At least when I am driving an electric car, that ‘power dynamic’ is shifted. I have literally and metaphorically less power over the landscape. The shifted relationship invites me to pay more attention to relief of the road and how I will work with it. I won’t feel the benefit in my body, the way I feel it when cycling, but I will feel great satisfaction when I can add a few kilometres to the range. And I will also feel some pleasure in being somehow more present in the journey along the way.
The irony is that this mediated experience of the landscape via an electric vehicle is in turn having an effect on the way I am cycling. The payback for a long uphill cycle is a freewheeling downhill. So why do I pedal downhill? If I am not in a hurry to get somewhere, then pedalling downhill seems like a use of energy extra-over that which I put in to get up the hill, and that I will never recover.
I have therefore started experimenting with seeing how long I can freewheel for. My journey home from the centre of town to my house is one long uphill along a cycle path. Today I discovered I can get all the way back with just ten turns of the pedal cranks (needed to get up a short steep uphill out of an underpass). This slower, self-propelled journey made me pay much more attention to details I have sailed past along the way.
On longer journeys, this contour surfing encourages me to pay closer attention to how the landscape is changing as I move through it. I imagine that I am like water trying to find the route of greatest slope down the hill. When I am being more cautious about my route, I will try to seek to maintain altitude for as long as possible to avoid the time when I have to put in more pedalling.
This morning I had flashback to a lecture I went to over 20 years ago on kinetic theory of atoms. Nineteenth century chemists and physicists attempting to calculate the trajectories of two atoms colliding into each other in a gas had some complicated sums to solve. Without the computing or analytical power to resolve these equations, they built a wooden landscape of the potential field through which the particles would be travelling, and then fired marbles through this landscape to see which way they would roll.
Freewheeling downhill, I feel like I’m letting the potential energy equation resolve where to take me and how quickly, and I’m rolling along like the physicist’s marble, enjoying the ride.