Having entertained many of us for years with his ill-fated antics in a Citroen green Mini, Sir Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) recently weighed in on the subject of electric vehicles, much to the frustration of those who actually know something about the subject.
“I love electric vehicles—and was an early adopter. But increasingly I feel duped,” wrote Atkinson in an opinion piece for the Guardian that invoked his own early training as an electrical engineer. He referenced the hefty emissions generated in electric vehicle production with no mention of the emissions saved over the life of an EV. He then erroneously declared rare earth metals to be key components for EV batteries, and touted still nascent hydrogen and synthetic fuels as the true path to sustainable motoring.
“Electric propulsion will be of real, global environmental benefit one day, but that day has yet to dawn,” Atkinson concluded.
And it hasn’t been just the green team lining up to take the ill-informed article to task.
Autoevolution, a top European auto mag, as well as self-described “petrol-head” and motoring journalist Quentin Willson. have also objected to Atkinson’s representation of the environmental credentials of EVs. Even the Daily Mail—typically a fount of misinformation on anything having to do with the climate crisis or the low-carbon transition—has weighed in, marshalling expert opinion on Atkinson’s errors.
The Mail informs readers that early-adopter Atkinson’s first EV was the BMWi3, which he bought in 2015 a few months after selling his 1998 McLaren F1 for a whopping US$12 million. It is presumably through this car that he learned that EVs, while “a bit soulless,” are “wonderful mechanisms: fast, quiet and, until recently, very cheap to run,” as he writes in the Guardian.
Intent on explaining his reasons for feeling duped, Atkinson is silent on the one environmental bonus he could not have missed while driving his EV: the fact that it did not burn fossil fuels. Back in 2015, it was the Daily Mail (again, and no less!) that gave a shout-out to this boon in its inimitable headline: “He’s a green Bean! Rowan Atkinson swaps his £8-million McLaren F1 supercar for an electric BMW that does 100 miles on a full charge.” Mentioned in the story is the fact that the McLaren needed to burn almost a gallon of petrol to go 16 kilometres. The Mail added that the BMWi3 “is so cost-effective that it is even exempt from the £11.50-a-day London Congestion Zone charge because it is considered so environmentally friendly.”
Learning a bit more about Atkinson’s luxury car habit from the Mail and Autoevolution throws further shade on his pious observation that “if you start drilling into the facts, electric motoring doesn’t seem to be quite the environmental panacea it is claimed to be.”
At last count, Atkinson’s own fossil stable included at least 10 high-end internal combustion engine vehicles, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe which gets about 17.5 miles per gallon (around 13.8 litres per 100 kilometres) and gifts the atmosphere around 350 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre driven.
As for the substance of the comedian’s own “facts,” the expert drill-down on these could be described as a drubbing (reminiscent of the Mr. Bean skit which shows his beloved Citroen Green Mini being crushed by a tank while he savours a cupcake).
Atkinson’s “big picture” completely ignores the life cycle emissions of an EV. Inside Climate News links to multiple recent studies confirming that EVs more than make up for their emissions-heavy production over the course of their lifetimes, averaging “life cycle emissions” roughly three times lower than what a gasoline or diesel vehicle would generate.
On the matter of EVs and rare earth minerals, multiple experts have piled on to school Mr. Bean on the actual contents of a lithium-ion battery. Describing Atkinson’s Guardian op-ed as “counterproductive nitwittery,” Dutch mechanical engineer and EV battery expert Auke Hoekstra points out that the lithium battery is not the part of an electric motor that needs rare earth metals (they are used in its magnets), that it is possible to make a motor without them, and that Atkinson’s suggestion “indicates he’s not that well-informed.”
Responding to the comedian’s “cranky” but not illegitimate observation about the weight of today’s EV batteries, Hoekstra writes that “next gen batteries combined with lighter drivetrain will actually make EVs lighter than combustion cars long before 2030, but Atkinson conveniently doesn’t know or mention that factoid.”
As for Atkinson’s championing of hydrogen and sustainable fuels, Autoevolution describes the latter—which are hugely energy-intensive to produce—as a “brave choice.” “Let’s see if Formula 1 can make it work and if Porsche manages to come up with a budget-friendly solution,” writes the car mag. “Nobody is willing to pay more for renewable fuel, and expensive gas will only increase the cost of living. As has been proven in the last two years, that’s not something anyone wants.”
On hydrogen, which Atkinson says is “emerging as an interesting alternative fuel,” the Washington Post flags myriad obstacles, from the need for a brand new, purpose-built system to ship the explosive fuel, to the “massive amounts of energy to use electricity to split water to make hydrogen for a car.”
“At $16 per gallon for hydrogen, the math doesn’t work,” writes the Post.
Atkinson ends his op-ed invoking “friends with an environmental conscience” who come seeking his advice “as a car person,” on whether they should spring for an EV. “I tend to say that if their car is an old diesel and they do a lot of city centre motoring, they should consider a change,” he writes. “But otherwise, hold fire for now”—a piece of his own advice that EV experts must wish Atkinson had heeded.
Evidently, it does not occur to Sir Rowan that the greenest option of all would be to ride a bike, or take the bus—options on which Mr. Bean could certainly have offered him some advice.