Beginning of the end for the infernal combustion engine?

This blog post was originally published as an opinion article by Politico

After many false dawns the electric car is finally on a trajectory to replace the internal combustion engine.

A recent report by Transport & Environment shows that by the end of the year there will be more than half a million battery, electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on Europe’s roads; and sales this year should account for 1.5 percent of the market. On the surface, the figures are modest but dig deeper and the electric vehicle (EV) earthquake is finally shaking carmakers from their complacency.

The Paris Motor Show in October may well be remembered as a seminal moment.

Volkswagen launched its I.D. concept car, which is set for production in 2020 and will have an electric range of at least 400 kilometers. Herbert Diess, head of the VW brand, described the car as “revolutionary,” comparing its impact on the brand’s history to the Beetle or the Golf. This followed an earlier announcement that the VW Group aspires to get a quarter of its sales from electric by 2025 and is planning 20 models.

Mercedes launched an equivalent Generation EQ concept car that will become a new sub-brand with at least 10 plug-in models. Dieter Zetsche, its CEO, announced: “We’re now flipping the switch … ready for the launch of an electric product offensive that will cover all vehicle segments, from the compact to the luxury class.”

In other announcements, Opel unveiled the Ampera-e (a European clone of the Chevrolet Bolt); and Renault and BMW detailed upgrades of the Zoe and i3 respectively, with Renault commenting: “Our vision of the electric market is that it is not a niche market.”

So why are carmakers finally changing their attitude? Four recent developments have been particularly important in triggering action:

  • The rapid growth in EV sales in China, which is now the world’s biggest market and dominated by national manufacturers. Non-Chinese carmakers are desperate to succeed in this expanding market and terrified their Chinese competitors, like BYD, will soon be successfully exporting to Europe;
  • The astonishing fall in the price of battery packs to around $150 per kilowatt hour, a level which makes EVs competitive with conventional vehicles. Also, it is possible to produce affordable EVs with ranges of over the psychologically important 300 kilometer range;
  • The success of the Paris climate talks is driving a progressive tightening of car CO2 emissions limits around the world, inevitably leading to a gradual phase out of fossil fuels. This has been hastened by the dieselgate scandal and the realization that the rest of the world will not be tricked into using diesel as a way to artificially reduce CO2 emissions as Europe did;
  • The remarkable pre-sales of the new Tesla Model 3 — a car for which 400,000 drivers put down $1,000 each without even sitting in it. Suddenly even German premium carmakers recognized that a true market exists that they needed to supply it.

Fears that electric cars will decimate the value of the important European automotive sector also appear to be unfounded. VW has outlined plans for a €10 billion battery factory; Samsung SDI is to invest €320 million to build an electric-vehicle battery plant in Hungary; meanwhile LG Chem is reported to be planning a factory in Wrocław, Poland. Independent studies estimate that the shift will create between 500,000 and 1 million jobs by 2030.

Electric cars are not a panacea but together with e-bikes, electric scooters, trains and trams, they will provide the opportunity for a cleaner, greener mobility future that assigns dirty diesel cars and trains, which choke cities and commuters, to the scrapyard of obsolescence. It is no longer a question of whether this happens — but how quickly.

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About the author

Greg Archer's picture

Director, Clean Vehicles

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