Zero emission-branded electric cars ‘misleading’: Consumers

Electric car Reuters final.JPG

This article is part of our special report Electric Vehicles.

More transparency for consumers on the benefits of electric vehicles is urgently required, said Europe's biggest motoring consumer group yesterday (19 May).

EU policymakers are pushing to boost the take-up of electric vehicles across the European Union as a crucial means of reducing the bloc's CO2 emissions,

Indeed, back in 2008, the EU earmarked €5 billion in its economic recovery plan for the Green Car Initiative as part of a wider package of public support for the industry.

EU policymakers are pushing to boost the take-up of electric vehicles across the European Union as a crucial means of reducing the bloc's CO2 emissions,

Indeed, back in 2008, the EU earmarked €5 billion in its economic recovery plan for the Green Car Initiative as part of a wider package of public support for the industry.

But consumer groups yesterday warned that current commercial and political pressures to present battery electric vehicles as 'zero emission' vehicles "are misleading for consumers".

"While supporting the push towards electric vehicles, our clubs are calling for greater transparency and consistency in the carbon rating of plug-in vehicles," said Werner Kraus, a president of the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile), which represents 35 million consumers and counts 71 European motoring and touring clubs among its members.

Despite recognising that the electrification of transport has a key role to play in the future of the transport industry, primarily by decreasing oil dependence, the FIA warned that the purchase price of electric vehicles is still too high to favour their rapid market uptake.

Total running costs also have to be investigated and clearly presented to consumers, the organisation added, warning starkly that "consumers will not automatically make the switch to electric vehicles as long as they see a financial disadvantage".

Car manufacturers themselves seem to agree. "The key is to do this without frightening customers away. Customers must be tempted, and not rushed too fast," said Christian Steyer, in charge of developing small cars at Renault.

"Maybe there is room for something very radical to rewrite the design rules that can be found from electric. So far we can't find it, though. But it is certainly possible in the future thanks to the changes and possibilities of battery technology," he told a conference in Brussels recently. 

Reaching out to consumers 

Consumers, meanwhile, remain uncertain about electric cars, and even public authorities are unsure about which new technologies they should be backing.

"Raising awareness is the key. More has to be done to explain to consumers the benefits of new low-carbon technologies," Kraus told this week's annual FIA International Club Conference in Estoril, Portugal (18 May).

Others, meanwhile, warn that electric vehicles may not be as green as they seem.

Dudley Curtis, communications manager at Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment, told EURACTIV recently that many apparently green technologies might not be environmentally sound, especially biofuels and electric cars if their power is generated by coal.

Ingolf Schädler, deputy director-general for innovation at Austria's federal ministry for transport, innovation and technology, called at a Brussels conference for greater clarification from industry on how to get value for public investments. 

"There is uncertainty among public authorities as to which technology to invest in. There are so many solutions now that we need the industry to give a clear signal as to what the right solution is for each problem," he said.

The FIA, meanwhile, called on institutions at EU, national and local level to do much more to create "a clear vision and a more integrated framework for electric vehicles," citing the introduction of green procurement procedures and labelling schemes, incentive packages to stimulate specific uses of vehicles and better integrating transport policy with urban planning and energy supply policies among ways to achieve this.

In the meantime, other means of reducing transport emissions like promoting and fostering eco-driving skills can play a key role in improving energy efficiency in the sector, the organisation said in a declaration released after the meeting.

Indeed, the global transport sector is 96% dependent on oil and is one of the largest emitters of CO2, putting carmakers under tremendous pressure to reduce the negative impact that their vehicles have on the environment.

However, the lack of a harmonised EU-wide recharging structure and payment system for electric vehicles is currently holding back its development.

"Standardisation bodies and industries need to agree on common standards and protocols for battery charging systems and arrangements," and the energy market must provide for competition between different service providers, the FIA said in its declaration.

More importantly still, consumers must be made aware of the existence of electric cars.

"The role of the user is central already for market entry: they have to be fully informed on the different technologies available," stressed the FIA, identifying communication, education and raising awareness as the biggest challenge facing manufacturers, distributors and policymakers alike.

Andrew Williams

Significant progress has been made in developing electric cars, but critics complain that the distance these vehicles can cover is still too short and much work is needed to prepare electricity infrastructure for radical change.

Electric and clean cars are still a niche in the EU market. But a study by forecasting company IHS predicts that the global market share of electric vehicles in new car sales could hit 20% by 2030.

A combination of energy issues and the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to curb climate change and air pollution means policymakers are keener than ever to encourage industry to look at environmentally-friendly transport options. 

Added to this, Europe's auto sector – like that of the United States – is undergoing restructuring which many see as an opportunity for a major shift towards cleaner, greener cars. As a result, standardisation of electric vehicles is becoming an important issue. 

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