EU auto industry forms unlikely alliance with NGO on electric cars

An electric car charging on the street. [Simon Clancy/Flickr]

Long-time adversaries Transport & Environment and ACEA have signed a partnership to accelerate the roll-out of electric vehicle charging points, as the auto industry seeks to rebrand with a focus on digital and electric.

“For many years, on various files, we haven’t always agreed,” Transport & Environment’s Julia Poliscanova acknowledged as she signed a new partnership with ACEA, the association of European car manufacturers.

“We will not always agree in the future. But it’s important to have something we can work together on,” Poliscanova said.

“It’s important we help you guys sell the cars”.

The partnership, unveiled at an ACEA summit in Brussels on Wednesday (4 September), will push the EU to facilitate a rapid roll-out of smart charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Eurelectric, the association representing Europe’s electricity sector, is the third partner in the venture.

It is the first such partnership between environmental NGO T&E and the auto manufacturers. The two are usually battling it out in the halls of the EU institutions, lobbying on issues like car CO2 targets, vehicle type approval and business strategies.

Tensions have been particularly high since the 2014 Dieselgate scandal, in which automakers were found to be cheating on emissions tests to make their cars seem cleaner than they were, in order to pass EU air pollution limits.

In the past they have also been at odds on the issue of electric cars, with the NGO accusing ACEA’s members of dragging their feat on producing and promoting them. Eurelectic has also accused the automakers of not prioritising electric vehicles.

“It’s a historical moment, because frankly three years ago nobody here in Brussels would have thought that these three organisations would sign something together,” said ACEA secretary-general Erik Jonnaert.

“It’s probably an indication of the direction we’re taking as an automotive industry, the direction we all need to take if we are serious about decarbonisation. It’s a changed mindset. It’s focusing on the commonalities, even if we of course have different points of view.”

Range anxiety

The roll-out of electric cars has been hampered by the lack of infrastructure to charge them. In 2013 the European Commission adopted a strategy to push EU countries to deploy electric charging infrastructure, but little progress has been made since then.

European automakers have said that consumers don’t yet want to buy electric cars because current battery technology makes them too expensive, and they are worried of running out of power because there are so few charging stations – a term called “range anxiety”.

Max Warburton, an automotive specialist with the firm Sanford C Bernstein, said at the summit that this worry isn’t entirely misplaced.

“When I talk to market players, there just isn’t market research suggesting we’re going to be able to sell these electric vehicles. The only company that has been enthusiastic about electric is Volkswagen. They’re following the Steve Jobs approach that says market research is pointless, consumers don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Poliscanova agreed. T&E has long complained that European carmakers are making no effort to sell these vehicles to the public – even if they have been increasingly forced to produce them in order to meet EU fleet average emissions requirements.

“The car industry has an incredible power to make people buy what they want them to. I don’t believe anyone is born wanting an SUV, but look how many SUVs have been sold.”

But both she and Warburton agreed that recently there has been a change in thinking among automakers. “It’s going in the right direction, we are at the tipping point,” she added. “Hundreds of new vehicles are coming online. Millions of electric vehicles produced in Europe are replacing conventional cars. The industry in Europe has invested €150 billion into e-mobility to date.”

Lack of models, not charging points, 'holding back electric car market'

The rise of electric cars in Europe is being hampered by a lack of models for consumers to choose from rather than a lack of public recharging points, according to energy companies and carmakers. EURACTIV’s media partner, The Guardian, reports.

A new ACEA

The main theme at the ACEA summit was that of an industry that wants to turn the page from the Dieselgate scandal and embrace electrictrification and digital as the two main themes going forward.

This is reflected in the choice for new secretary-general for the association, as ACEA has for the first time chosen a leader with a technology background. Jonnaert announced at the summit that he will step down in one month, to be replaced by Erik-Mark Huitema from IBM.

The organisation also adopted a new manifesto for the years 2019-24, identifying four main pillars: clean and safe mobility, smart (digital) road transport, affordability, and global competition.

Jonnaert insisted that the electric partnership and the new focus does not mean the association is turning away from fossil fuels. “We don’t want to drop the association with Fuels Europe” he noted, in reference to the industry association representing traditional transport fuels.

However at the summit there was palpable hesitation on both sides, from both the ACEA and T&E worlds. Several e-mobility activists grumbled about T&E partnering with an association they view as being an obstacle to the clean mobility project.

And some on the ACEA side appeared to have not gotten the memo. Carlos Tavares, ACEA President and CEO of PSA, delivered a speech during the closing reception that was largely focused on Dieselgate, in which he complained that the auto industry was being treated unfairly as a scapegoat in the EU.

Several in attendance observed that the speech did not seem to match the tone of ACEA’s new mantra.

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