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Kei Cars, a Solution to Electromobility Fast Deployment?

04.08.24 | Blog | By:

Renault used to be an innovator in Europe, with models like the family car Espace or the low-cost Dacia Logan. Recent years have been more chaotic, dubious leadership being one reason for losing the battle of French primacy against arch-rival Peugeot, now part of the Stellantis multinational group. Noteworthy though, Renault, true to its innovative DNA, has been a front-runner in Europe for the development of electromobility, with its city car ZOE, which appeared eleven years ago, when electric vehicles (EVs) were seen as a fad (much like e-VTOL today, just to bring a fresh example to mind). In its short life, ZOE eventually scored less than half a million sales, too early, too limited in autonomy, too expensive. A true precursor.

With sales of EVs approaching 20% in 2023, the fad has become a reality this decade, but is facing strong headwinds, the persistent hefty price premium compared to equivalent thermal models, the range anxiety due to battery limitations. Professional social networks abound with heated, and meaningless, exchanges fiercely opposing EV supporters and detractors.

One argument of electromobility advocates posits that EVs cover 90% of the average motorists’ needs, and is immediately countered by the lack of suitability of “affordable” EVs for longer trips than daily commuting, weekends or holidays, concluding that not every family can own two cars or that acquiring a family size EV (Tesla, e-SUV) rhymes with paying an extortionary price.

Indeed, statistics may be right that the majority of car trips are short and feature one passenger only. But many smart people, Mark Twain, for instance, have argued in the past that statistics are the third type of lies. And we can see every summer a living proof that many families do need a large car to spend some quality time away from home, if just to avoid by the way the obscene train fares required to travel with a low carbon footprint, at least in countries where train run on electricity, and said electricity is low-carbon, not a universal truth today.

File:Honda Life Pastel 005.JPGBack to the financial hurdle faced by electromobility deployment toward mass market level. Besides solutions like public transport instead of solo-car usage, car sharing or hail-an-(EV)ride for commuting, one interesting idea brought by the Renault CEO is to consider ultra-small cars for urban usage, what Japanese call Kei Cars, aptly meaning “light vehicle”. Like this Honda, Kei Cars represent one third of the market in Japan, and Japanese car makers are top producers of this segment.

Kei Cars respect a regulation. The first one, promulgated in 1949, limited size (in length: 3.40 meter, in width: 1.48 meter, in height: 2 meter, in engine: 0.66 liter) to facilitate financial access and urban usage, including parking.

If electric, the benefit on price is obvious as such lightweights do not require huge batteries, easily one third of any EV manufacturing cost. It saves on critical materials as well, one big worry about electromobility deployment today. It is also fit for solo-car usage, easy to park and maneuver in city streets getting crowded with bike lanes and other restrictions.

On the negative side, granted, their allure is not as fashionable as a Ferrari, not a good point for social status, an argument to deal with by salespeople in showrooms. And safety is unlikely to be as tight as in an SUV, inside I mean, not outside (pedestrians or cyclists facing SUVs are more at risk). However, Kei Cars do not travel fast, limiting damage in car crashes to fender-bender.

Then two questions: Would Japanese (or Chinese) imports flood the European markets or would EU car makers develop such models, which takes time? Would motorists fall for this car concept, as far away from recent and present trends (SUV reaching the 50% market share)? That would take a lot of convincing, but possibly the smartest move to quickly deploy electromobility in markets opening up to this landslide change in road mobility.

Which begets another, more fundamental, question. Taking stock of the fact that materials are a scarce resource, and add GHG emissions during their transformation into car parts, do we really need to replace the whole global car inventory, from 2035 or 2040 and before 2050, with EVs and their problematic batteries and recharge infrastructures, if ever we can get access to enough low-carbon electricity? Whereas we could, first and foremost, work on the carbon footprint of liquid fuels, used in internal combustion engines, by using biofuels? And also reduce car usage, when and where it is possible?

Or is it just another immense and future source of profits for transnational companies, the car manufacturers, either on the rise to swamp the world with EVs, like China and its technological lead in electromobility, or on the backfoot, like the Germans, having lost 25% production since 2017? This large industry does not seem to accept the glaring reality: Growth cannot be infinite in a material world of a single planet, confronted to climate change.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and  Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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