Even in 2022, with high energy prices and inflation back with a vengeance, fueled by post-pandemic supply constraints and the dramatic situation in Ukraine, frugality does not rank high on the political agendas, and the message heard these days in the West is more like “we will not consume less, ergo we will not produce less”. Is the recent about turn in Germany regarding the sunset date for sales of the internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV), proposed by the European Commission for 2035, a sure sign of this political standpoint regarding a legacy industry, emblematic of the 20th century? France has already said no to this proposal, the Italian car makers trade association is now supporting this rebuttal. But, at the same time, car manufacturers are investing billions to produce, as fast as possible, electric vehicles (EV). Even Stellantis CEO, Carlos Tavares, a regular critic of the EV business model, has just announced a 30 B€ plan to electrify his catalog before 2030. (Stellantis is also considering hybrid-ethanol vehicles in Brazil). Why?
Fear to be cast aside by existing competitors or newcomers, like these Chinese EV car makers popping out like mushrooms?
Fear of regulators, castigating ICEV with ever-more severe emission regulations, centered on the Tank-to-Wheel side?
Fear of getting late in responding to customer’s shifting demand, following the impressive new sales growth of EV (in the EU: 1 % of sales in 2018, 9 % in 2021)?
A mix of the above, quite likely.
If gasoline and diesel prices soaring through the roof, thanks to supply-demand imbalances or carbon taxes, do not deter motorists to drive, some do not have a real choice, will electromobility help change the way we use the car and drive down even further the road transport greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? Technology and Usage.
But, first, one comment: EV sales awesome growth could be misleading. In Norway, European champion for electromobility adoption, it is worth to note that the 10% richest households have been buying 37% of EV, and these people normally own at least two vehicles, a small EV to be able to drive around towns where this mode of mobility is heavily promoted (free parking, use of bus lanes, to name a few), and a larger ICEV, family-size, running on biofuels-spiked gasoline or diesel, to drive to the lakeside chalet, that can be several hundreds of kilometers away. Some experts even say EV adoption grows alongside battery range.
Range does matter.
As much as purchase cost, up-front cash to cough right away, even if Total Cost of Operation is eventually smaller over the useful life of the vehicle: as long as acquiring an EV is significantly more expensive than purchasing an ICEV, which also come in cheaper second-hand versions, there could be a limit or, at least, some hesitancy, to electromobility mass adoption. And prices for battery components, on the rise due to increased demand, may push the EV-ICEV break-even price target date further out than 2026, Bloomberg expectation.
Of course, meanwhile, increased use of electromobility in large cities may also help change our way to use cars in urban environments, as a higher up-front purchase price can boost car-sharing and financing through short-term leasing, making car less property, more usage.
Some EV car makers also seriously consider reverse-charging, from idling EV to grid (bingo if you charge for free at work or in a shopping mall and resell electricity you have not purchased on your home-charger).
And EV will likely last longer: fewer parts imply maintenance is simplified, batteries used-up cells can be replaced over time, software upgrades can be remotely downloaded. Making EV a basic, standardized, home equipment, much less of a status symbol, compared to the ICEV you had to change on a regular basis: with significant consequences, for car makers profitability, for which margins will have to replace volumes, and for the car pool average energy efficiency performance improvement, that will slow down if car ownership duration increases.
Innovation around electromobility at large will not stop and, providing we enjoy in the future available and affordable renewable electricity for fuel and materials for equipment, transition from endothermal propulsion to electromobility may eventually happen, but when is not known and the trajectory in terms of carbon footprint reduction is less than obvious to chart: for an efficient adaptation to climate change, policy makers should remain pragmatic and rely, for the time being, on technology neutrality, measuring and certifying GHG emissions on the whole life cycle, Well-to-Wheel, and getting the lowest carbon footprint, here and now, whether from ICEV with biofuels, e-fuels, even hydrogen, FCEV (hydrogen fuel cells), or EV, whether battery-operated (BEV) or hybrids, plug-in or not. The winner of this competition, if ever one can be picked up, is not to be known that quickly, regardless of the opinions preached by the zealots of electromobility only.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).