Climate change, particulate pollution, C02 emissions: If we’re to make a switch from fossil fuels to clean energy, the transport sector needs to find new concepts, alternative energy sources, and innovative solutions. Not just because our stocks of fossil fuels are dwindling, but most importantly because burning them emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Could electric transport be the way forward?
In 2016, the transport sector accounted for 26 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity in the US, and one-fifth of C02 emissions in the EU. Current trends suggest that electric vehicles (also known as EVs) might offer the solution. They don’t rely on burning petrol or diesel, meaning they produce zero direct emissions (no exhaust pipe needed!) and they’re thought to produce fewer other harmful emissions throughout their life cycle too. But this isn’t the first time that electric vehicles have been hailed as the future, and the market has never really taken off. Are things looking different this time around?
Crunching the Numbers
While electricity is used to power a whole range of vehicles, from trains to spacecraft, when it comes to transforming the transport sector, the focus is usually on private transportation, such as electric cars (either full-electric or hybrid vehicles), vans, mopeds and bicycles. Sales of these kinds of vehicles have been increasing rapidly – leaping a whole 42 per cent in 2016. If this growth rate continues, by the end of 2030, 8 out of every 10 cars sold in the world will be plug-ins.
Sure, it sounds crazy now, but maybe it won’t a few years down the line.
China is the market leader when it comes to electric vehicles, both as a market and as a place of manufacture. No country sold more plug-in EVs in 2016 – 45 per cent of all electric vehicles sold worldwide ended up in China. In 2015 it was just 35%. In Europe, Norway is way out in front, with roughly a quarter of all cars running on electricity. In fact, the small Scandinavian country’s fleet is the largest per capita in the world, and because 98% of the electricity generated in the country comes from hydropower, it’s also one of the cleanest.
Many see 2017 as a possible breakthrough year for electric vehicles, and governments around the world are trying to help propel growth with different incentives: grants, tax credits, huge investments in infrastructure and setting themselves huge (and possibly unrealistic?) targets. In Europe, the main driver for EV growth is legislation, with the EU bringing in ambitious mandatory emissions-reduction targets for new passenger cars. By the year 2021, the average emissions of all new cars sold must be 40 per cent less than what the average car on the road produces today. The rapid take-up of electric mobility is probably the only way to reach their goal.
Germany, Europe’s largest car market, is aiming to have a million electric cars on their roads by 2020 (although given current numbers are at just over 65,000 this seems incredibly ambitious), Singapore wants to have 50 per cent electric vehicles on their roads by the same year, and the Chinese government too has introduced generous subsidies and perks to encourage people to buy electric cars, in a bid to help meet the government’s ambitious targets in improving the country’s air pollution. Most impressive of all, however, is Norway (yet again) where they aim to phase out fossil fuel-powered cars completely by 2025.
As predictions and targets go, things are looking rosy, but if we take a closer look at the numbers, things look a little different. While sales have increased, electric cars currently make up only a tiny 0.15 per cent of the cars on our roads. The world’s second biggest car electric car market, the US, set a target of 1 million electric cars on the road by the end of 2015 – and missed it by a mile (the new estimate for 1 million models is the year 2020). And in Denmark for example, the removal of subsidies have seen sales of electric vehicles drop to zero for the first few months of 2017.
So, Don’t Consumers Want Electric Cars?
While government targets and financial incentives have certainly done their bit to increase consumer appetite for EVs, many people still have concerns. Issues include the higher price compared to conventional ICE vehicles, so-called “range anxiety” – the fear of being stranded by a flat battery – and a lack of charging infrastructure.
It’s certainly true that electric vehicles still lag behind conventional petrol-powered cars in terms of price and possible travelling distance – but they’re catching up. According to a study by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), the overall cost of electric cars should stabilise at the same level as petrol models by 2024. One big factor in this is the batteries – now in their second generation they are already significantly cheaper.
A hugely comprehensive MIT study has shown that worries about EV driving range are nowadays largely unfounded. Comparing car usage across incredibly diverse cities of the US showed that 87 per cent of journeys are short enough to be covered by affordable electric vehicles available today – even without recharging them. Any longer journeys could be covered using ICE vehicles and car-sharing schemes.
Here, the problem is ultimately the classic chicken and egg dilemma. People won’t drive electric cars until the price is right and the necessary infrastructure is in place, but there won’t be a drop in prices or enough investment in infrastructure until the demand goes up. The world’s number one electric vehicle market, China, is said to be building nearly a million new charging points in 2017 to cope with the boom in electric vehicles in the country. And in Europe, 2016 saw VW, BMW, Daimler and Ford announce a joint venture starting 2017: a plan to build a network of hundreds of charging stations for electric cars throughout the continent. This network of high speed charging points will spread out along major European highways and be open for public use, with the aim of making charging a plug-in car as convenient as using a traditional filling station.
The Startups Shaking Up the System
While the old dogs of the car business seem to be doing their bit, more than anything, it’s young, pioneering tech companies and social entrepreneurs who are showing there’s definitely a future in the market – developing affordable, sustainable electric vehicles and tackling infrastructure problems.
Here’s just a few for starters:
- Sion is the first affordable electric car that has in-built solar cells, meaning the batteries can be charged by light of the sun.
- PlugSurfing wants to make it easier for anyone in Europe to find an available charging station, and also to pay for it using their online platform.
- Elbnb are a Swedish startup who want you to be able to charge your car at someone else’s house,
- The German team at Blue Inductive are working to develop rapid wireless charging for your electric vehicle.
- The UK’s Plugless Power also have a wireless charging system, while innovative inductive charging systems (that charge cars and buses while they’re on the road) are already in place in some cities around the world, and could be rolled out on a bigger scale any day soon.
How Green Are Electric Vehicles Anyway?
When it comes to the actual measurable “green-ness” of electric vehicles, there are two main sticking points. Firstly, the manufacturing process of the car – particularly the battery – and secondly, the electricity used to “fuel” it. Both processes use energy, and until our electricity grids are running on 100 per cent renewables, calling electric vehicles “zero-emissions” clearly just isn’t true.
Manufacturing an electric vehicle is an energy-intensive process. Some cars – according to a recent study – have almost double the impact on global warming as the production of conventional cars. This is mostly because of the materials and energy needed to produce the lithium-ion batteries. The extraction of lithium is environmentally damaging, and other metals within the batteries, such as cobalt, are known conflict minerals; this raises ethical issues, alongside environmental ones.
It’s when EVs get on the road that they start looking greener – thanks to regenerative braking and no battery use when idle, they have a higher tank-to-wheel efficiency than conventional vehicles, there’s no sound pollution and no fumes released either. But even here, there’s controversy around the actual extent of their positive impact. The vehicles need to be charged regularly, each time drawing power from the local energy grid, meaning they’re only really ever as green as the local power supply.
While some claim a switchover to EVs will have a substantial benefit to the environment in countries that don’t rely heavily on fossil fuels, others disagree, saying that even in countries where the grid draws from renewables, the greenest power isn’t necessarily being generated at the same time that people are charging their cars – often at night. While in Europe, for example, driving an electric car already has a positive environmental impact over traditional cars, thanks to the current energy mix, in areas that rely on coal, EVs could even generate more emissions than an average petrol burning car.
So, summing up: while more electric vehicles could lead to reduced CO2 emissions, real progress will only be seen when we clean up our energy supply and emissions caused by EVs (both during manufacture and during charging) will get cleaner as countries move towards more renewable energies. But one thing is for sure – EVs lack of an exhaust pipe helps to reduce transport-related air pollution levels. In cities, there’s another way to do that – and minimise traffic jams at the same time – ridesharing.
Could E-Sharing Make Car Ownership Obsolete?
The gradual switch to electromobility seems to be going hand in hand with a much more fundamental transformation in our attitudes to travel and car ownership. The future of transport is thought to be based not on individually owned vehicles but instead the idea of “mobility as a service” – public transport combined with car and bike sharing programmes, controlled exactly and efficiently by our trusty smartphones.
With cities clogged by extreme traffic jams, the average car allegedly still parked 95 per cent of the time, generation Y seeming to favour open access and sharing schemes rather than ownership, and ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft booming, it looks like we really might have reached “peak car”.
How are the conventional car manufacturers – whose previous modus operandi was to encourage people to buy cars, and lots of them, as often as possible – reacting to this new trend? Well, it looks like they’re joining in: VW last year launched a whole new mobility company that goes beyond individual ownership – set up to redefine mobility for people in urban areas, focusing on “on-demand offerings such as ride-hailing and pooling services”. Honda revealed a similar community car project around the same time, and while BMW has backed DriveNow, a flexible drive and drop car-sharing service, Ford launched their new pilot Smart Mobility Plan, that actually allows car owners to rent out their vehicles to other drivers.
And there are the newer companies too: like Spiri, an innovative transport service that also aims to make “car ownership redundant” in 2017 with its fleet of low-consumption, shared, on-demand electric cars. And two young-but-already-giants Lyft and Uber are also moving forward with electric: Lyft announced a new collaboration with GM in 2016 to rent electric cars to drivers and Uber launched a fleet of electric cars in London in 2016.
It goes without saying, of course, that electromobility encompasses much more than just electric cars, buses or lorries. In fact, electric bikes are currently the top-selling electric vehicle worldwide, their cargo bike versions have the genuine potential to remove the need for a car, and cities around the world are welcoming scooter sharing companies that are powered by electricity.
Was Tesla’s Elon Musk right when he said that the 2016 VW emissions scandal showed that we have “reached the limits of what is possible with gasoline”? While the numbers of electric vehicles on our roads is still unimpressive, sales of EVs are currently on the rise, with technological developments addressing concerns about battery life and charging infrastructure. Governments around the world are also pushing for an increase, in an attempt to reach ambitious climate targets, and encouraging car companies to come up with low-emission alternatives.
It’s clear that the concept of electric vehicles is currently receiving a lot of backing from companies and institutions – it remains to be seen whether consumers are ready to get on board and do their bit by actively joining the electric revolution. The industry seems to have finally found its feet too, and while there is room for improvement – which depends most of all on a definitive switch to renewable energies and the development of new types of batteries – more than anything, there’s great potential too.