• Recharging fuel efficiency standards

    Jos Dings writes in today's European Voice: Visitors to the Brussels motor show last month could have been left with only one impression: the future is electric. As your special report on the future of cars noted (14-20 January), virtually every manufacturer exhibited a car powered by batteries.

    It is just as clear that electric cars are the talk of the town in Brussels’s political quarter. In September, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso declared that “the development of clean and electric cars” would a key priority in the next five years. On 20 January, Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero echoed that vision in a presentation of his country’s EU presidency plans (“Zapatero sets out economic vision”, EuropeanVoice.com, 20 January). And electric cars will be a central point of discussion at the informal Competitiveness Council in San Sebastián on 9 February.

    The interest in electric cars is readily understandable. A truly sustainable transport system is difficult to imagine without a shift away from oil towards more sustainable sources of energy. Since current biofuels policies are creating more problems than they solve, the electrification of transport does currently seem to be the technological pathway most likely to deliver the deepest carbon cuts.

    But EU policymakers should avoid a strategy that focuses exclusively on promoting and/or subsidising electric cars.

    It is all very well having a vision, but, as the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt said, “people who have a vision should go see a doctor”. A vision for electric cars has failed before, in California in the late 1990s. The popular 2006 film, “Who killed the electric car?” identified the villains as oil companies, poor-quality batteries, car manufacturers and customers. But the film-maker let the real murderer get away undetected: California’s failure was to let conventional cars stand still while trying to force the market to adopt a single, expensive new technology.

    Although a number of the world’s biggest companies (including Toyota, GM and Ford) launched decent products, they simply could not compete on price with petrol equivalents. If petrol cars had been forced to offer fuel efficiency equivalent to that of electric cars, they would have been left for dust.

    The EU will be able to level the playing-field for electric cars – and move the entire market towards low-carbon technology – only if all producers are forced to make all new cars more fuel-efficient.

    The EU should start by revising the current law on emissions by new cars. This enables carmakers to sell three gas-guzzlers for every electric vehicle they sell; in other words, the more electric cars they sell, the less carmakers have to do to improve the rest of the fleet. Overall emissions will go up. Super-credits should be scrapped – and certainly not extended to vans, as the Commission has proposed.

    The EU should also introduce a consistent, long-term series of evolving targets for fuel efficiency: 80g/km CO2 for 2020 and 65g/km CO2 for 2025 would be a great start.

    Carmakers would no doubt cry foul; they always do. But despite their repeated claims that the EU has been far too tough by imposing a target to improve efficiency by 17% over seven years, carmakers have already shown that they can do much more than that. The 2009 Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion is 27% more efficient than its 2007 predecessor.

    Carmakers always prefer carrots over sticks. And governments, despite being desperately short of cash, seem to be willing to open their cheque books for electric cars (the Boston Consulting Group calculates that governments worldwide are offering up to €10 billion in the next five years in tax incentives, levies, subsidies and consumer bonuses to encourage the development of electric cars).

    But they should remember that it was the EU stick of CO2 standards that forced carmakers to start using fuel-saving technologies such as those found on the new 99g/km CO2 Golf.

    That same stick started all the buzz about electric cars, and will be the key to ensuring their success. If policymakers really want electric cars to power ahead, they should start by recharging fuel-efficiency standards for the whole fleet.