A modified Tesla Model X arrives at the unveiling event for Elon Musk’s Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel in California in December 2018
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Why Europe’s roads are not yet swarming with electric cars

Image credit: Getty Images

Electric cars are meant to be the future of road transport, but they are still in a relative minority on our roads. What obstacles still face carmakers and consumers?

In the early hours of 11 April, European leaders helped Britain slam its foot on the brake pedal and delay its exit from the EU until Halloween night in October. But unlike the protracted Brexit wrangling, the switch to electro-mobility is gradually making progress.

Four million electric vehicles (EVs) currently jostle for space on the world’s roads, although compared to the estimated 1.2 billion total vehicles, it is clear that for all the talk of an electro-mobility revolution, much work is still to be done.

That has not prevented energy and transport analysts from making bold predictions about the future prospects of EVs. The International Energy Agency predicts 300 million by 2040, while more ambitious scenarios put the figure nearer 900 million.

The forecast for massive uptake in battery-powered vehicles is based on the fact that the transport sector has a serious emissions problem, and EVs are seen as a silver bullet to the issue.

In Europe, transport accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas output and, unlike other areas of the economy, the numbers are not coming down.

Given that nearly every country has signed up to the Paris Agreement on curbing climate change, and that efforts to get drivers to leave their cars at home are generally not paying off, the potential in EVs is significant.

A number of factors that used to turn consumers away are also slowly disappearing, including cost and battery range. Fresh data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that EV pre-tax prices will break even with petrol cars by 2024 as battery costs decline.

As of 2016, the battery pack was worth about 50 per cent of an EV’s value. By 2030, analysts expect it to fall to just 16 per cent.

In terms of how many miles drivers can cover per charge, the numbers are going up. An analysis of some of the most popular models estimates that EV range has increased by about 15 per cent every year since 2010.

A good illustration of progress made can be seen in the world of motorsport, in the electric equivalent of Formula One, Formula E. When the championship started five years ago, the cars were slower and did not even last the entire race. In its debut seasons, drivers had to actually switch cars mid-event in order to go the distance. Now, although careless pilots still fail to make the chequered flag, only one car is used.

Despite these advances, the EV market share in Europe barely reaches 3 per cent. A notable exception is Norway, which in March announced that its market share had reached 31.2 per cent.

That followed a strong month, in which a sales drive by Tesla resulted in nearly 60 per cent of all new car sales being electric. Estimates say that Norway will close the year with one in two new cars being EVs.

The Scandinavian country is hoping to end all new fossil-fuel-powered car sales by 2025 and is well on the way to achieving it, after a strategy of exempting battery vehicles from tax started paying off in a big way.

China is also a world leader, although its success is more anchored in an all-conquering battery industry and a government policy of trying to clean up its cities’ dirty air.

The Middle Kingdom targeted e-mobility early on and has quickly established itself as the yardstick. Between 2014 and 2017, 99 per cent of electric buses delivered globally were produced in China.

Its car makers also have fewer sunk costs in manufacture of internal combustion engines than their European counterparts and they are less powerful, politically.

China knows that the market will only keep growing, due to a mixture of legislation and changing attitudes, so has aggressively made use of its first-mover advantage. Emissions rules in Europe have been tightened and carbon dioxide levels will have to be reined in significantly by the end of the next decade.

Although Brussels policymaking is ostensibly ‘technologically neutral’, the drawbacks of other fuel sources such as hydrogen and biofuels mean that, as far as the EU is concerned, batteries are the future.

The data alone would suggest that the transport industry has not yet got the message, as in 2017 car emissions actually increased for the first time since 2010. Manufacturers are in a race against time to hit the EU’s 2021 target of 95g of CO2 per kilometre for new cars and reduce the current level of 118.5g/km.

Part of the problem is that the new set of rules that will take the industry up until 2030 will use 2021 figures as the baseline for calculating targets. That means that it is in carmakers’ interests to hit the 2021 target, avoiding hefty fines, but not by too much, so the 2030 benchmark won’t be too ambitious.

Auto engineer Florent Grelier explains that manufacturers are actually using two different emissions tests, the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC)  and the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), to make sure their 2021 readings are both low and inflated to kill two birds with one stone. It is generally accepted that NEDC gives less accurate, lower results, while WLTP is more real-world accurate.

Faced with the news that emissions rose in 2017, the auto industry replied by calling for more investment in charging infrastructure to drive up consumer demand.

The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), which represents the interests of the likes of BMW, Volkswagen and Volvo, also insisted  that consumers’ loss of interest in diesel cars played a role.

“It is no coincidence that 2017 marked the first increase in CO2 from cars since records began in 2010, as it was also the first year that petrol overtook diesel in terms of new car sales,” said ACEA secretary-general Erik Jonnaert.

Petrol engines emit more CO2 than diesels, which was part of the reason why the latter were given a sales push in the late 1990s. However diesel produces more air pollution and is now tainted by the emissions-test cheating scandal known as Dieselgate, in which VW was found to have installed millions of ‘defeat devices’ on its cars to game the system.

Dieselgate has not put carmakers off trying to get the maximum out of emissions rules.

Under the EU’s new law for 2030, sales figures for non-EU member Norway can be included in what manufacturers declare. Given the huge demand in the Nordic state, environmental groups are worried that marques will ignore other areas of Europe and target the Norwegian market almost exclusively.

The 2030 rules have a review clause built in, which will be activated in 2023. Overall CO2 reduction targets might be increased during that stock-take and the Norway loophole could be closed if EU officials deem it problematic.

Italian firm Fiat-Chrysler has already caused a stir by teaming up with Tesla in order to add Elon Musk’s European sales to its books. That deal was brokered because Fiat is very unlikely to hit the EU’s 2021 target, as analysts believe that investments in new electric models have come too late to have enough impact.

It is completely in keeping with European rules and Tesla stands to earn hundreds of millions of euros from the deal, though Fiat has so far kept quiet on the exact financial details of the arrangement.

So the legacy carmakers are making all the right noises about e-mobility, as anyone at this year’s Geneva Motor Show will attest, but, in practice, electric vehicles have not yet got a guaranteed easy ride.

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