Could zero emission vehicles usher in an era of 'road calm'?

Cars on road
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Driving in central London is hell. Actually, scratch that. Driving in any major city is hell. We hear a lot about how our cities are designed for cars, but if that is the case who is doing the designing? A misanthropic Heath Robinson who hates clean air and is terrified of speeds that are faster than a horse and cart?

To get into a car in the heart of any major metropolis is to condemn oneself to a blizzard of stress stimuli while strapped into a small metal cell. And yet millions of us do it every single day; many of us have no choice but to add to the congestion they curse.

There are, of course, alternatives. Public transport offers massive environmental benefits compared to private vehicles, while home working has the potential to eradicate the daily commute altogether. Car clubs are encouraging ever more city-dwellers to forgo car ownership in favor of only getting behind the wheel when they really need to. Some fascinating projects around the world have shown how simply banning cars from urban centers can deliver cleaner air and safer, more connected communities without necessarily shifting congestion into the suburbs. At the same time congestion charging and ultra-low emission zones are starting to demonstrate how smart technologies and advanced traffic management systems could ease congestion and nudge the most polluting vehicles away from our streets.

But for many individuals and businesses, a car- and traffic-free future remains a very long way off. They are condemned to spend many more days of their lives crawling up to the lights, riding the clutch as they take 20 minutes to travel a mile and a half.

All of which brings us to one of the most significant and yet rarely discussed benefits offered by electric vehicles (EV): They are genuinely relaxing to drive, even in heavy traffic. Speak to anyone who uses an EV regularly and they will tell you about how much simpler, quieter and just plain more enjoyable a zero emission car is to drive. The removal of so many moving parts not only makes EVs easier and cheaper to maintain, it also makes them much more comfortable for those behind the wheel, without any loss in power and torque.

To date this mental health windfall, the replacement of "road rage" with "road calm" has been largely anecdotal. But late last year Hyundai set out to get a more detailed insight into how EVs inform driving style and enlisted your correspondent to help.

The auto giant has developed "The Different Driving Test" with input from expert driving instructor Gary Lamb, kitting out its petrol Hyundai KONA and its newly launched electric KONA with dashboard cameras, pupil tracking and facial recognition software, steering grip sensors, artificial intelligence functionality and pulse monitors. Willing guinea pigs — such as yours truly — then get to drive both models while metrics relating to their awareness, ability, confidence, fuel efficiency and calmness are monitored. The resulting reports then attempts to reveal whether or not EVs really do make for better, calmer drivers.

My test drive on a crisp clear winter's day in central London is not a precise scientific experiment — for that you would need to ensure the journeys in the electric and the conventional KONA were precisely the same in terms of route and traffic conditions so as to provide comparable data. But as an indicative exercise the journey from Drury Lane to Euston in the petrol car followed by a journey back in the EV model is hard to beat, not least because the central London traffic is even more miserable than usual.

With the pulse monitor strapped to my arm and the steering wheel sensors firmly gripped I endure a mess of diversions, bus lanes, building sites and gridlocked traffic, all the while being filmed from a particularly unflattering angle for a middle-aged man who forgot to shave. I repeatedly fail to correctly answer the driving instructor asking me to identify the make and color of the vehicle two cars ahead, and as an irregular driver am provided with a real time reminder of how physically arduous it can be to crawl along in heavy traffic. I get up to third gear only once. A road closure and short diversion through Soho means it takes 48 minutes to travel a little over two miles.

In fairness to the petrol KONA the journey back in its electric cousin is blessed by slightly more bearable traffic and a more direct route, taking a still ridiculous 29 minutes as the average speed climbs from four to five miles per hour. But that can't be the only explanation for the resulting report that draws on all that pupil tracking and pulse monitoring data and concludes I was more aware of my surroundings and demonstrated higher levels of driving ability in the EV. Significantly, the data suggests the biggest improvements came in terms of efficiency, which jumped from appalling to moderate (I'm blaming the terrible traffic), and calmness, where my score doubled to approach zen master levels of automotive relaxation. Notably my "confidence" score remains constant, which probably says more about me than the form of propulsion on offer.

The key thing about the results, however, is how utterly unsurprising they are. Like every EV I have ever driven, the KONA is a wonderful piece of engineering. It has taken a functional small family car and blessed it with the souped-up torque and intuitive handling that characterizes electric mobility at its best. Crucially, it is also at the forefront of the new generation of EVs that has dispensed with the standard sub-150 mile range and delivered up to 278 miles between charges. There's no clutch, no gear stick to wrestle with every few seconds and no noise. Hyundai's high tech monitors simply confirm what is obvious. Driving an EV is a comparably low stress experience.

And this matters. Helping drivers become calmer also helps make them safer, more efficient and healthier. Insurers will note the emerging evidence with interest and look to calculate how they can manage risks and price premiums accordingly. Moreover, companies and fleet operators have a duty of care for their drivers and will add calmer and safer employees to the long list of financial and environmental benefits already offered by EVs.

Hyundai is one of the growing battalion of auto giants to bet big on the transition to electric vehicles. It has launched the KONA and IONIQ Electric as well as the NEXO fuel cell model and has announced a further $36 billion investment plan over the next five years, which will result in 44 electrified models by 2025. As charging infrastructure and vehicle ranges improve over the next decade, Hyundai and its peers quickly could discover that plenty of drivers will conclude that if they have to be stuck in traffic hell, they might as well make it as relaxing an experience as possible.

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