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Electric Mobility

With France and Germany taking the initial lead roles, in parallel with the electrification of public transport, electric cars take off and form over 10% of the world’s vehicle fleet by 2020

It is has been a long time coming, but 13 years after the global launch of the Toyota Prius hybrid, a host of companies have all electric vehicles slated for launch over the next few years. The alignment of technology development, targeted incentives and economies of scale together with a fundamental change in consumer sentiment has started the ball rolling towards a future where electric mobility has a significant role in global transportation. By 2020, experts predict that nearly a third of all cars being sold will be electric and that electric cars will form over 10% of the world’s vehicle fleet.

However electric mobility is not new: In the late 19th century, many of the first cars to be produced were electric. Before the internal combustion engine took over, electric cars were making a mark, breaking the 100kph in 1899. A fleet of electric taxis first appeared in New York in 1897 and, despite their relatively slow speed, electric vehicles had a number of advantages over their early-1900s competitors: Less vibration, less noise and less pollution. However, with increasing competition from the internal combustion engine and sizeable support of the oil industry, gasoline and diesel vehicles became more popular and sales of the first batch of electric cars peaked in 1912. [The first gasoline-electric hybrid car was introduced in 1917 by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago.]

100 years later a second wave of electric mobility is taking off driven by a number of leading manufacturers and a massive swing of support behind more sustainable transport solutions than those which were predominant for the majority of the last century. In 1990, GM announced an intention to market electric cars and introduced the GM Impact but over the couple of decades little traction was achieved with most concept cars never making it into the showroom. However over the past couple of years there have been some notable catalysts for change: Although in many eyes, electric cars are personified by the small, Indian made, G-Wizz and similar vehicles, high speed electric sports cars have come on to the radar, most notably those being produced by California based Tesla. The notion of 125mph electrically powered cars that go for 240 plus miles between recharge has captured the imagination of many and seen a surge of investment. In comparison to traditional competitors, electric vehicles offer a number of advantages: They are quieter, accelerate quicker, require less maintenance, cost less on a per mile basis and in many ways are more sustainable as, in certain locations they can run on clean energy. At the same time they have the potential to be lighter. Research by Lotus suggests that coupled with more component integration and better material selection, the average weight of cars could stop rising and fall by up to a third over the next decade.

However, while electrically powered personal transport dropped off the agenda for around 100 years, in the arena of public transport, electric mobility has never disappeared and has recently been steadily gaining ground. While electrically powered trams, trains and metros have been part of many cities’ transport infrastructure for over a century, these all have the advantage of fixed power supplies from either tracks or overhead cables. In terms of independent road based mobility, electric buses have been steadily introduced into many cities over the past twenty years or so and are now part of many a mayor’s zero emission plans. Add in taxis and delivery trucks and the impetus for much technology development in electric mobility has come from public transport. Coupled with the success of early hybrids a significant shift is taking place. Especially in the arenas of drive trains and battery technology, major advances have been made in efficiency, cost and weight in public transport that is now being applied to personal transport.

And so, over the past year or so we have seen more announcements: BMW did field tests of the electric version of its Mini, the Mini E, in 2009 in Germany, the UK and the US and these were followed by China and France in 2010. While GM has just launched the 2011 Chevolet Volt / Opel Ampera electric hybrid, Nissan has gone a step further with the introduction of the Nissan Leaf all electric vehicle with full global roll-out planned for 2012. In addition companies like Better Place are getting attention for alternative solutions such as its battery swap system which allows batteries to be quickly automatically exchanged for fully charged ones in less time than a traditional refill at a gas station.

While much of the debate on the future of electric mobility in the media has been focused on the US and China, some question whether these will be the locations for the early breakthroughs or if other regions may well have a higher chance of delivering the vision. In August 2009, an article in the McKinsey Quarterly argued that “a global electric-car sector must start in China and the United States, and it must begin with the two countries creating an environment for automotive investors to scale their bets across both nations.” It suggested that although private companies will compete to provide the technologies, charging stations and the vehicles, “the two governments can no doubt create the conditions for them to succeed – for example, by setting standards, funding the rollout of infrastructure and sponsoring joint R&D initiatives.” This was supported by a host of numbers that show that if penetration of electric vehicles rises above 45% by 2030, oil imports and CO2 emissions would fall dramatically. To achieve this China needs to spend $28bn and build 700,000 charging stations while the figures for the US are $50bn and 1.2m respectively. While this all sounds very good, some workshop participants highlighted two issues which may mean that this US / China leadership should be questioned.

The first one concerns the fact that other countries have already made the decisions and are acting on them. Electric car recharging networks are already being built in Denmark, Israel and, most significantly, France. We note “most significantly” for France because it is here that government, the car industry and the energy sector appear to be most aligned. Renault is launching (not just talking about) electric vehicles; The Renault Fluence ZE, the world’s first switchable battery electric car, is available in early 2011.Renault and EDF are building a nationwide electric car recharging network in France in 2011; and €400m of initial state backing was personally guaranteed by President Sarkozy in October 2008. So, the alignment of significant market potential, technology, regulation and finance required to establish the environment for a breakthrough change seems to be coming together pretty well in France with its EU neighbours as candidates for roll-out. Indeed, as many other manufacturers focus more on hybrids and hydrogen options, Renault and Nissan are taking ambitious steps forward into full electric mobility. Carlos Ghosn, boss of both Renault and Nissan, sees that “by 2020 purely electric, zero emission vehicles will take 10% of the global car market. What is more, he wants such vehicles to account for 20% of Renault-Nissan’s sales by then.”

The second issue concerns the CO2 impacts being claimed vs. those being delivered. In many countries the switch from hydrocarbons to electrons for transport is a bit of a red herring as they will be largely relying on oil, gas and coal to generate the electricity in the first place. While the point of CO2 production shifts from the vehicle to the power station, but significant breakthroughs are still required before effective and economic carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are retro-fitted to the existing energy base. If electric mobility is going to have significant impact within the next decade, some see that it needs to be aligned to major sources of renewable, clean energy. So looking at the current leaders in this field, it is no surprise that Denmark (wind), Israel (solar) and France (nuclear) are seen as front-runners: These locations have high renewable supplies of electricity already installed or being installed. As such, they will gain most from the associated carbon credits from the introduction of electric mobility.

Also of great potential significance is Germany, the global centre of automotive development in many peoples’ eyes: The German car industry has signed up to a German Government push to get a million electric cars onto the roads by 2020. Industry commentators see that “if they manage it, we’re talking about one in four new cars sold in that year being electric which is a staggering change in just the next 10 years.” In cooperation with E-ON and other energy firms, who are building the charging infrastructure, the likes of VW, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are all planning a host of new electric car launches over the next couple of years. German government support and commitment to electric mobility is strong and growing. So, it is clear that the participation of China and the US in electric mobility will definitely have a major impact – not just because of the size of the domestic markets, but also because of the catalytic effect they have on the rest of the world. But many see other countries leading the way, proving the technologies, establishing leadership positions and gaining the most in terms of both economic impact and carbon reduction.

Of the 50m cars sold in 2009, around 1% were hybrids, with the rest having petrol and diesel engines. By 2020, current predictions indicate that around 20% of the world’s car fleet will be hybrids but 10% will be electric powered. 100 years after the electric car gave way to the internal combustion engine, the combined actions of many governments, companies, NGOs, investors and entrepreneurs is bringing about a renaissance that is on course to produce a major global shift in mobile energy.

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