Published on May 27th, 2013 | by Anneli Hidalgo0
All hail the hybrid?
Instead of seeing e-cars as the ‘silver bullet,’ the Nordic nations may want to interconnect their mobility systems and provide a lot of different ways to go green while driving.
Sweden is tightening the rules for what constitutes a ‘green’ car. That’s good, says one of the most successful lobbyists in the country. Meanwhile, the greenest car, an all-electric vehicle, has had great success in Norway but faltered elsewhere in Scandinavia. Instead of seeing e-cars as the ‘silver bullet,’ the Nordic nations may want to interconnect their mobility systems and provide a lot of different ways to go green while driving.
International accounting firm KPMG did a report in early 2013 to record automakers’ future priorities, and found that enchantment with the electric car has faded substantially compared to just one year ago. The KPMG report of 500 executives in the auto industry found that only eight percent of those surveyed considered advancement of batteries – a key electric car technology – as their biggest investment focus. Instead, improving the internal combustion engine and betting bigger on hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars were seen as the winning strategies, while e-cars seem to be the loser.
Choked with unsold EVs
Matthias Goldmann, a project leaderat the Swedish Gröna Bilister (Association of Green Motorists) is unconcerned with electric cars’ falling fortunes because, he says, it is the expected outcome of insufficient incentives. “For Swedish consumers comparing on price, you can get a green car, with 80% less CO2 emissions than a regular car, for about 3 000 Euros more,” Goldmann said. “You pay 15 000 Euros more for a zero-emissions electric car. That’s really not much more bang for the buck.” Goldmann, who was recently rated one of Sweden’s most powerful lobbyists, described the port city of Södertälje, one of the main ports for car imports in Sweden, as “definitely choked” with unsold EVs. And what is nearly as important as that high price tag for a new EV, he added, is the falling re-sale price in Sweden for a used electric car. Swedes, he said, closely follow the re-sale values of cars, and don’t like to buy makes or models that do poorly on the second-hand market.
Chicken and egg problem
Norway is the brightest spot in the electric car universe, with over 10 000 EVs on the road (as reported in NCR issue NO 03). Denmark initially also bet largely on e-cars by being a test site for the Better Place e-car technology. But now DONG has pulled investment from Better Place, and sales are a bit sluggish. In fact, the European Union is alarmed as the 2020 goals for electrification of transportationare loomingthough few interim milestones in numbers of cars purchased have been met. While some observers, such as EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard, blame simple lack of charging station infrastructure for that ‘chicken and egg’ problem EVs continueto experience, there is also a lack of common standards for charging points, and no easy ways to make payment for charging up. Add to that range anxiety, aforementioned high prices, and continued lack of a full array of EV choices for consumers, and you get an idea of why electric cars aren’t selling so well. One bright spot in all this bad news is that innovation is occurring in the area of mobile metering, with German ubitricity, Sweden’s mobile metering project at Gothenburg University and Ericsson’s Elviis three examples worth watching.
The best of both worlds
The electric car took a further beating in the press in the last few months, when Volkswagen (which is betting a bit more heavily on alternative-fueled cars than EVs) came out with a lifecycle analysis shows a diesel car can be less CO2-intensive than an electric car, when driven on the typical European electricity mix. And in yet more bad tidings for electric car sales, the U.S. backed off its commitment to have a million EVs on the road by 2015, though simultaneouslythe government there urged manufacturersto press down costs for lithium-ion batteries by half or more to makeEVs more affordable and competitive with petrol-driven cars.
What makes Goldmann relatively unconcerned with the future of electric cars is a sense of pragmatism. “If electric cars can’t compete on their own merits, it doesn’t mean we won’t get to the goal,” he said. The goal Goldmann is referring to is Sweden’s pledge to have a carbon-neutral transport system by 2030.
That optimism on Goldmann’s part is due to the fact that whilepure electric cars are losing a bit of their ‘silver bullet’ status, hybrids and plug-in hybrids – part electric, part fuel-powered engine – are gaining luster. In the U.S. hybrid sales rose 61% in 2012. Sales of all-electric vehicles rose just 40% in that same time frame. Hybrids give consumers the best of both worlds, though Goldman says in a hybrid with superior gas mileage like the plug-in hybrid Prius, some people might rarely bother to plug in. Yet hybrids are the ‘best’ green car of the present, because they offer some of the advantages – lower carbon emissions and reduced air pollution – without the significantly higher price tag and infrastructure requirements of all-electric cars. They move societies toward lower-carbon transportation in a less stressful way, and still prompt innovation in battery and other technologies, though probably on a longer timetable.
It’s time to go Scandinavia-wide
This year (for the first time) Gröna Bilister divided its “Best Green Car of the Year” award between two very different cars – the Volvo V60 plug-in hybrid, and the Volkswagen Passat Ecofuel. Out of the 42 possible ‘green’ cars that could be nominated, the Passat Ecofuel and the Volvo V60 plug-in topped the list in safety, family-friendliness, and environmental criteria.
Gröna Bilister used Sweden’s tougher criteria for defining a green car, which were valid from the beginning of 2013 (they basically lower acceptable CO2 emissions rates). The two winning cars also represent what Gröna Bilister and others see as the new diversity that may dominate the green transport sector, rather than a ‘silver bullet’ solution.
The next step is to find the right incentives to make the best hybrid and plug-in and alternative fueled cars (like the Passat Ecofuel) widely sold. For that, better tax breaks are one requirement – something like France’s “bonus malus” Goldmann says, which penalizes petrol-driving consumers with a tax and gives the proceeds to greener buyers. In addition, it’s time for both incentives and innovations to go Scandinavia-wide, he said. Gröna Bilister’s next big research paper is a study of how Norway, Sweden, and Denmark can pull together to form an interconnected green mobility system, Scandinavia wide.
What happened to hydrogen?
Both Norway and Denmark are not only leaders in electric car uptake – they also took seriously the promise of hydrogen-fueled fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen cars – Hyundai introduced its first to Scandinavia this year – may suffer from the same high prices and lack of compelling incentives that pure electric cars do. For the long term, the Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway Partnership (www.scandinavianhydrogen.org) still has lofty goals for 15 stations and 30 ‘satellite’ stations plus at least 500 cars on the road by 2015. Currently, Sweden has a single refueling station for hydrogen in Malmö; Denmark has three stations, and Norway five.