Electric vehicles can play an important role in reducing emissions from transport, and are a promising avenue to pursue – but policy-makers should not focus too heavily on a single technology, writes the secretary general of the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association
A commitment to sustainable growth is a driving principle for business in the 21st century, and through its work on technological development, the automotive industry in Europe is affirming its place as the principal provider of sustainable personal mobility in Europe. In this vein, the industry is taking a lead role in reducing environmental emissions, particularly through dedicated research into decarbonisation and other mobility solutions.
Electromobility increasingly dominates the debate about the future of transport, with policy-makers looking to electrification as potentially representing the next stage of personal mobility. Authorities at all levels already support the introduction of electric vehicles, both directly through financial incentives and indirectly, through such means as unrestricted city access, free parking for EVs and so on. Electromobility covers everything from battery EVs, which rely solely on stored energy, to various forms of hybrid, which use some form of motor, be it an internal combustion engine or another power source that is activated either when the electric battery is depleted or when the vehicle exceeds a certain speed. Beyond the powertrain, many types of vehicle can be made e-mobile – not just passenger cars, but everything from powered two wheelers to quadricycles, commercial vehicles and more, with a diverse range of powertrain arrangements.
The automotive industry and policy-makers both agree that advances need to be made in promoting clean mobility, and research and investment into e-mobility is just one of many avenues being pursued. Given the wide range of potential solutions for clean and sustainable mobility, the strategy on the part of the industry has been to diversify technologically and test a variety of solutions.
E-mobility is not the only option when considering sustainable mobility. The objective of decarbonisation and of reducing the environmental impact of economic activity should be enshrined alongside that of technological neutrality. In this respect, incentives towards carbon emissions reduction need to be fair and consistent. For instance, measurement of environmental impacts from transport should consider the well-to-wheel impact of specific vehicles and their powertrains, steering clear of blanket labelling or pigeon-holing of specific technologies. An EV is only as zero carbon as its energy source and this is an important consideration when determining the transport mix.
Any deployment of e-mobility, beyond simply incentivising uptake and persuading consumers of its merits, will require a significant degree of cooperation between different stakeholders. Vehicle manufacturers can build the vehicles, but battery producers need to develop the technology, mobility service providers and service infrastructure need to adapt, and energy supply and distribution must evolve in order for the transition to e-mobility to avoid simply becoming a restructuring or relocation of existing problems. Finally, consumers still remain unconvinced about the merits of e-mobility. Despite fantastic advances at product and industry levels combined with generous government financial incentive schemes, electric car sales are still a fraction of the total.
Concern for the environment has led to policy targets on carbon emissions both globally and at European Union level. The EU is committed to a 20 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions levels by 2020 compared to the level in 1990. For many authorities, this coincides with the objective of improving air quality. In transport, this is being achieved by encouraging greater emphasis on increasing the efficiency of existing means, while promoting reduced-carbon alternatives. While refinement of traditional technologies, such as the internal combustion engine, will remain significant contributors to greater eco-friendliness, e-mobility will play an increasing role in the transport policy mix – but not an absolute role.
The EU has outlined its view of the direction of future transport policy and has set requirements for vehicle efficiency. However, it has to be consistent in its policy if e-mobility is to succeed; this includes being fair and transparent as to the relative costs and benefits of any eventual transition to a world in which EVs are commonplace. This must include the realisation that, with the existing energy mix and with forthcoming internal combustion engine technologies, the proposed policy of favouring EVs to the exclusion of established technologies is strikingly inconsistent with its stated objective of reducing CO2 emissions. The EU strategy must ultimately deal with the environmental issue, not merely delocalise it.
Maximising the decarbonisation of transport in a sustainable and economically beneficial way requires a re-evaluation of EU-level policies. This includes an objective reassessment of the relative real efficiency of existing transport technologies. It should be understood that the internal combustion engine and the electric powertrain are complements rather than substitutes when planning for sustainable future mobility.
Additionally, infrastructure policy needs to address disparities between member states and encourage the same degree of concern for and investment in eco-friendliness as in the European automotive industry. Without coordination, e-mobility cannot be harmonised, standardised and rolled-out across the EU in an
effective way. In order for e-mobility to succeed, policy-makers must begin to target objectives, rather than mandate specific solutions. In this case, the goal is decarbonisation. To achieve this, the industry calls for a balanced and rational appraisal of the most suitable solutions.
First, policy-makers and authorities must respect consumer choice and not attempt to trivialise user concerns. Education rather than compulsion is the key to successful uptake. As it stands, sales of electric cars are still small, which implies that EVs still don't match consumers' preferences. Second, standards must be agreed and met by all players. The industry has recently approved common standards on EV charging, and is working on the development of e-safety requirements. Third, energy suppliers need to develop eco-friendly solutions enabling them to cope with the demands that e-mobility will place on the energy supply and distribution infrastructure. Finally, carbon and energy-efficiency ratings need to support transparency and consistency, to reflect the actual well-to-wheel impact of the various transport technologies.
Changing technologies will shift the shape of the market; however, current predictions suggest that by 2025 between three and 10 per cent of new cars sold will have some form of electric powertrain. This is between 450,000-1.5 million units per year. This market share prediction is based upon the industry understanding that consumers use their vehicles in specific ways. Traditionally, the debate over e-mobility has encouraged the EV to be considered as the replacement for the internal combustion engine vehicle. However, put simply, at its present level of development, purely electric technology is insufficient to fulfil society's personal mobility needs.
This need not be a barrier to uptake, but presently consumers tend to buy vehicles based on the extremes of their estimated usage. The automotive industry provides to consumers the products they require, and current demand for low emission vehicles exceeds those for battery electric because the former corresponds better to their preferences.
The move from traditional engine vehicles to an e-mobile world is not inevitable: any eventual transition relies on consumers actively making the transition from the internal combustion engine to electric – and this will stall if they are compelled rather than persuaded of the relative advantages of such new technologies. Education is key in showing what e-mobility has to offer, but policy-makers also have to be sure that EVs are as environmentally friendly as they are presumed to be before ruling out the alternatives.
For all the great advances in e-mobility technology, there remain significant uncertainties as to the practicality of EVs in the current socioeconomic climate. Furthermore, deployment of EVs heavily depends upon the development of a support network. EVs require charging and specialised maintenance, and existing infrastructure systems – particularly in the energy sector – are struggling with even present and anticipated future demand. Millions of EVs connecting to the power grid will raise questions about energy utilities' generation capacity that are presently unanswerable.
Finally, there are also challenging policy obstacles that require attention. While authorities should support decarbonisation as being in the interests of all of humanity, they should not attempt to double guess market outcomes by focusing unduly on a given technology. Electrification and e-mobility play a pivotal role in reducing the carbon impact of personal mobility, but will not be a panacea for decarbonisation just yet. Despite this, it remains a promising avenue to pursue as part of the EU and the automotive industry's plans to provide clean and energy-efficient transport.Ivan Hodac is secretary general of the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association. This article first appeared in PublicServiceEurope.com's sister publication Public Service Review: Transport