The future of transport - digital, shared, electric heaven, or diesel hell?

Whilst the rest of the economy has leapt forward to embrace digitalisation, transport has remained largely analogue. The internal combustion engine, a workhorse from the 19th century, stills powers virtually all vehicles using oil that chokes our cities and heats the planet.

But whilst transport has been slow to embrace new technologies the opportunities before us are immense. Through a combination of electrification, connectivity, sharing and automation we must transform mobility. But it will be the manner in which we introduce these technologies not IF we do that we will ultimately determine if we can travel in a convenient, shared pollution-free way, or sit in silent, static electric cars.

For example automation could double or half the energy intensity from trips depending on how it is introduced. Will technology enable freer flowing traffic, or tempts more traffic onto the road? This is why road pricing is so important to manage demand for zero emission, shared and high occupancy vehicles.

As a first step we must abandon the engine and shift to electromobility. The price and performance of batteries will improve by one-hundred times between 2010 and the early 2020’s. Our cars will travel 500km or more, be recharged (when needed) in minutes; or become a source of flexible supply and demand for smart, renewable grids. So cars and vans will be electric. Trucks will be electrified to different degrees depending on their use. Trains are already largely electrified and could be fully –maybe using hydrogen to replace diesel.

It is a smokescreen to claim e-fuels (power to liquids/gas), advanced biofuels, or biomethane can be produced in the volumes needed to power all transport. We need renewable energy one and a half times the current size of the EU grid to power all vehicles using e-fuels. Advanced, sustainable biofuels will contribute around 3% of transport fuels by 2030 with no prospect of expanding capacity to power all vehicles. So these fuels will be niche and largely used in ships and planes.

The Commission knows electromobility is the future, but President Juncker weakened the 2nd Mobility Package after the powerful VDA called. The result was that the proposal failed in 3 areas:

1. The level of ambition is inadequate. The proposed 30% cut in emissions from new cars will be offset by growing numbers of cars and kilometres. Less than a third of the required reduction in transport emissions will be delivered through the regulation (including the forthcoming truck standard). As a result governments will either miss their Effort Sharing goals, or need to impose unpopular policies.

2. The absence of a ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) mandate, or debit for failing to meet a ZEV target, eliminated the necessity for carmakers to accelerate the pace of change to ZEVs.

Just 20 battery vehicles are available to buy in Europe, in China, 140!

Only 1–2% of the marketing spend of carmakers is on ZEVs. These are not the actions of an industry determined to shift to electromobility — but one preoccupied with resulting the reputation and sales of diesel. A European car industry caught in the headlights of the Chinese EV market.

Transport & Environment would propose a different set of targets. Firstly a 25% cut in emissions by 2025 is essential to continue progress; avoid the 95g/km still applying in 2029; and bring to an end in 2024 the clumsy transitional arrangements needed to switch to the new WLTP test.

Secondly, we would not propose a firm 2030 target but instead propose a range of 40–60% reduction in emissions to be confirmed in 2022. It is impossible to forecast if EV uptake in 2030 will be 30–50–70 or 90%.

Thirdly, we would set a firm target of 0g/km by 2035.

By 2050 transport must be decarbonised by 94%. To achieve this, 15 years before (2035) the last new car or van with an internal combustion engine must be sold.

The industry demands long term targets and certainty — this provides both.

By including a 20% ZEV target with a crediting and debiting system carmakers would be required to achieve a reduction of 15–25% depending on the share of ZEVs sold. This is equivalent to 70–80g/km (on an NEDC equivalent basis) similar to the level proposed by the European Parliament. Carmakers selling no ZEVs would need to achieve around 70g/km whilst those selling 20% would not need to reduce the emissions from conventional vehicles at all. This is an achievable and fair system.

Europe faces a stark choice. Does it embrace electrification and digitisation to reap the rewards for the environment and economy; or do we perpetuate our twentieth century transport system? Do we actively promote multimodality and sharing or put barriers in the way of ride-sharing? Do we force companies to share data for the benefits of their customers or continue to constrain data-flows? Our global competitors are moving fast. Will Europe join them or remain in the slow lane?

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About the author

Greg Archer's picture

Director, Clean Vehicles