Electrification of Vehicles: Carry-on with Habits and Business as Usual

Electric vehicles, battery electric (BEV) or plug-in hybrid (PHEV), are touted by media and industry as a sustainable response to Climate change for personal mobility. All major car manufacturers have started offering electric versions of current models, or additional models based on completely new designs (e.g. based on the skateboard platform). In addition, there are new companies designing and building electric vehicles from scratch such as Tesla. What strikes me most is that the message conveyed is: once all vehicles, old and new, are converted from an internal combustion engine to an electric drive train, all will be fine, provided that renewable energy is used to produce and power those vehicles. Mankind can just continue as before, or even better, there are business opportunities and (material) economic growth.

Volkswagen’s Modular electric drive matrix (MEB) as an example of new electric design.

The electrification of all vehicles as a panacea to the climate change effects of transport sounds just too good to be true. The transport sector constitutes one important contributor to climate change which accounts for about 1/4 of energy demand and contributes a significant amount in carbon emission. This sector includes the transportation of goods and people on various means of transport such as trains, trucks, buses and cars. In theory, if the internal combustion engine (ICE) of most vehicles could be replaced with a battery powered drive train almost instantly, with all resources and renewable energy available, too, then all might be fine. However, I have some concerns.

Unfortunately, the electrification of all current ICE powered vehicles on the road, not even taking to account all future ICE powered vehicles, will take some time; but we have only a limited time window to curb carbon emissions until the carbon budget is depleted to stay under 1.5 deg C warming of the planet by the end of this century with a 68% probability. The transition towards an all-electric transport world might take too long, accumulating too much carbon emission and consuming too many resources along its way, see How to de-carbonise transport? by Edward Leigh. To those knowledgeable in system dynamics, may I point out that the earth surface temperature is the result of the double integration of the carbon emissions. Consequently, the temperature cannot be controlled by simple proportional control such as market forces; additional measures are needed.

The transition of the existing fleet to electric vehicles by replacing the internal combustion engine with an electrical drive can partially help and is very laudable, but it may not be enough to meet the climate targets; I do question that the electrification of transport can be the sole measure to de-carbonise the transport sector. First, energy and lots of natural resources are needed to produce electric vehicles, too; there is not enough of certain metals and ores on the planet to do that. Second, energy is needed to move any vehicle with the power expenditure being a function of the size, weight and shape as well as the velocity. What does not help either is that cars are getting larger, in particular and more in the shape of SUVs which is most unfortunate as their ecological footprint risk obliterating any energy and emissions gains.

To a certain degree, the hype around the electrification appears to be a marketing exercise of the automotive industry to keep selling cars, i.e. to continue on the same path in which personal mobility is based on individually owned cars; it feels like the terminal effort of a declining industry, bent to continue that well known path. Henry Ford allegedly once said: if you ask people what they want they would say: faster and more reliable horses. In the same vain, more cars are seen as the solution to personal mobility. Individual car ownership, however, as proposed in the 1950s as a way to realise freedom of locomotion (which has influenced urban design) is neither scalable nor sustainable. As long as the automotive industry has a vested interest in selling more cars, even as electric versions, they cannot be entrusted to becoming a leading force in the combat of climate change; this would be like setting the fox to keep the geese.

The electrification can only be a small, temporary step towards mobility as a service that makes individual car ownership redundant (at least in urban areas where most people will be living soon). Instead, the need for personal mobility has to be addressed foremost though urban planning (allowing the avoidance of locomotion), and failing that, through multi-modal transport solutions, including walking, cycling and most importantly shared forms of transport (part of which can and will be autonomous); public means of transport such as trains and electric buses should play a greater role (e.g. innovative electric vehicles by Arrival). In short, fewer miles travelled, shared miles travelled is the answer as well as fewer individually owned cars, not more. Car manufacturers can and will be part of that once they start selling mobility-as-a-service with more externalities factored into the equation (and enforced by governments) such that a reduction in mobility yields more profit.

Most scientists agree that the planet is warming up with all its devastating consequences on life on Earth including mankind’s very existence. This fact is acknowledged by the majority of the world population, by politicians and economic leaders. In order to counter this climate change, the impact of our lives on nature in terms of carbon emission, ecological foot print and resource has to be reduced in all aspects of human endeavours such as but not limited to buildings, domestic heating (and cooling), or transport and mobility. The mitigation of climate change would actually require a systemic change, away from an economy geared up for a material growth and its acceleration of the production — consumption cycle which seems to be a response to the post World War II austerity, but more towards Prosperity Without Growth as described by Tim Jackson, and eventually towards Circular Economy, which does not entail an economic contraction but an evolution towards a different but less resource hungry expression of human creativity and productivity.

Works on the technological foundations of autonomous vehicles at Five, UK. Interested in personal mobility, renewable energy and regenerative agriculture.