Electric cars: On the road to greener transport?


This article is part of our special report Electric Vehicles.

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.

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. 

The risk is that the economic crisis will force automakers to cut investment in R&D which would set back the development of electric vehicles by several years. 

As part of a package of support for the industry, the European Union earmarked €5 billion in its economic recovery plan for the Green Car Initiative (EURACTIV 27/11/08). 

The plan includes support for developing clean transport technologies and is not solely dedicated to electric cars. Indeed, not all in the auto and environment sectors are agreed that fully electric plug-in cars are the way forward. Hydrogen and fuel cells also have the backing of an EU public-private Joint Technology Initiative (JTI). 

However, the Green Car Initiative is explicit in its call for research on electric and hybrid vehicles, with a focus on the following areas: 

  • High-density batteries; 
  • electric engines, and; 
  • smart electricity grids and their interfaces with vehicles. 

The Green Car Initiative draws on €4 billion in loans from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and a further €1 billion in research funding coming from the Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7) and the private sector. EU member states are also encouraged to cut taxes on low-emission vehicles in order to incentivise customers to buy electric, hybrid or other green cars. 

At the political level, Brussels and EU member states – including local governments – have jumped aboard the movement for greener cars. 

At a meeting in Brussels in January 2009, Janez Poto?nik, the EU's science and research commissioner, challenged Europe's auto industry to come up with practical solutions for the electrification of European transport by next year (EURACTIV 27/01/09). 

Transport accounts for 25% of CO2 emissions and 73% of all oil consumed in Europe, and the commissioner is urging industry to fast-track work on electric cars ahead of the next Transport Research Arena in Brussels in 2010. 

At a conference on Public Private Partnerships in June, he called for "greener cars and a smarter transport system," including electrification of road and urban transport and research into hybrid technologies, and announced further details of the Green Car Initiative. 

Government support, national and local

There is a growing appreciation of the impact that city and regional authorities can have in making practical preparations for an electrified road transport system. 

The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has introduced thousands of electric cars under his Blue Car scheme. The car-sharing initiative allows Parisians to pick up a car from one of 200 locations across the capital and leave them at another of the city's car parks. London Mayor Boris Johnson announced the roll-out of a similar system and said he wants half of his city's 8,000-strong vehicle fleet replaced by electric cars and buses. 

At national level, Spain has pledged to put one million electric cars on the road by 2014 and Portugal is to install 1,300 sockets for electric cars in its largest towns and cities over the next two years. The Portuguese plan will mean it can boast of having Europe's first national recharging network for electric vehicles. 

The UK plans to offer subsidies of up to £5,000 to encourage motorists to buy electric or plug-in hybrid cars, and, demonstrating the global shift away from fossil fuels, US President Barack Obama has said one million electric cars will be on American roads by 2015 – a target viewed by environmentalists as lacking in ambition when compared with Spain and others.

Technology choices still unclear 

While there has been broad agreement that low-carbon transport is essential, not all are agreed on which technology will dominate European roads in twenty years' time. There has been some debate as to whether plug-in hybrids, fully electric cars or hydrogen-powered vehicles deserve most investment. 

A €140 million Joint Technology Initiative (JTI) pushing for rapid commercialisation of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies features projects in 29 research areas. This is significantly less than the envelope available under the Green Car Initiative, but still signals that EU leaders are not yet ready to back electric cars exclusively.

The JTI calls for the development of hydrogen-fuelled buses at a time when others are pushing for the electrification of the public transport network. 

Local authorities, which would be responsible for installing the practical infrastructure associated with electric cars – such as charging stations – have called for clearer signals as to which technology is likely to emerge as a viable mainstream option. 

Adapting power sources

Power grids in several European countries are ageing and in need of an overhaul. It is estimated that the existing system is capable of slowly recharging cars over a period of several hours, making them suitable for urban commuters but less attractive to long-distance drivers. 

Preparing the electric grid to cope with an upsurge in the number of electric cars is central to the public acceptance and viability of electrification. 

In addition, if electric vehicles are to live up to their green credentials, a significant chunk of their power will have to be generated from renewables or low-carbon sources. 

One of the major challenges to the grid posed by electric cars is that energy production from renewable sources tends to fluctuate more than traditional fossil fuel power generation. 

There are concerns that current power grids will be unable to cope with the surge in demand which would arise from millions of electric car users plugging in after rush hour. 

So-called 'smart grids' have been proposed as a way to manage recharging Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). This would mean recharging cars during off-peak periods when power is cheaper, such as during the night when demand for electricity is typically low. 

BEVs can also supply power back to the grid. This would help provide energy during peak periods, and could even act as an emergency backup supply during blackouts. 

Consumer acceptance

From a consumer point of view, acceptance of electric vehicles as the new norm in private transport will require a refuelling system which is as convenient as the current practice of making a short stop at petrol stations. Charging stations in homes and in public places are envisaged by some, with others proposing battery exchange sites where drivers could trade-in their empty batteries for new ones. 

Other practical concerns include the need for uniform electric vehicle chargers and sockets. An initiative is now underway in Europe to standardise electric plug-in connections and to ensure that cars can handle the different voltages found across European countries. 

Denmark is seen as a leader in the area of preparing its power generation infrastructure and has teamed up with industry and acedemia for the EDISON project. The plan is to develop the smart infrastructure required for the large-scale roll-out of electric cars. After a period of R&D, a demonstration phase is foreseen on the Danish island of Bornholm, which has a population of 40,000. The island produces much of its energy from wind. 

Battery range: A major obstacle

One major technical obstacle to developing a viable electric vehicle for the mass market is the distance such vehicles can travel without needing to refuel or recharge. The fully electric cars produced to date have tended to be suited to short-distance driving in an urban setting, but are unattractive to customers who expect to be able to drive cross-country. 

This is the primary reason that early electric models did not achieve mass-market penetration in the early 20th century, particularly compared to petrol engines. The EV1 electric vehicle produced by General Motors had a range of 240km with nickel metal hydride batteries in 1999. Hybrid engines, energy storage technology and hydrogen-based fuel cells have been touted as potential solutions. 

More recently, innovative developers have been working on using micro-jet turbine engines and supercapacity batteries to help energy-conscious consumers to drive further. On-board chargers and high-density batteries can power a vehicle for about 60 to 80km on one charge. The new generation of nickel-compound batteries will have 4.7 volt cells, compared to the 3.2 volts offered by existing lithium-ion batteries. 

A report by the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council has said strengthening R&D on batteries and components will be a prerequisite for the establishment and long retention of mass electric car production in Europe. 

In July 2009, Japanese carmaker Nissan revealed plans to build an electric car battery plant in Sunderland, north-east England. The new facility will produce around 60,000 batteries per year and create 350 jobs. 

Energy and raw materials issues

Although electric cars do not produce emissions directly, their increased demand for electricity generation has clear implications for carbon dioxide emissions, the chief global warming gas. 

The so-called 'well-to-wheel' (WTW) carbon production of electric cars is lower than conventional vehicles, but it could be improved where electricity production does not rely on fossil fuels. WTW emissions for electric cars are lower in countries where hydro and nuclear power are more common than coal power plants. Producing energy from renewable sources would further reduce the carbon footprint of electrically-powered cars. 

The debate continues as to whether nickel or lithium batteries are likely to prove most attractive. In any case, both are likely to be in demand if Europe successfully electrifies its transport network. 

Although both are finite, there are believed to be considerable reserves of lithium in Bolivia, Chile, the US, Russia and China. Russia and Canada are believed to be the main source of nickel, but France, Australia and others also have some of the mineral. Nickel prices have fluctuated in recent years, rising in 2006 and 2007 but then falling off significantly. 

Safety issues

Many of the safety issues arising from motorised transport also apply to electric vehicles. Moreover, some electric cars are so quiet that they are considered a greater danger to pedestrians and the visually impaired than conventional cars, which have combustion engines. 

The introduction of a minimum noise level has been proposed, which would require automakers to find a way to generate audible noise. 

Hype and controversy

Electric vehicles have had several false starts. On multiple occasions over the past century, electric cars were declared to be the future. This includes a period after the early 1970s oil crisis when politicians urged industry to make transport independent of foreign energy. 

As recently as the late 1990s, it appeared that General Motors was set to crack the market when it launched the first mass-produced electric car, the EV1. The car was available only in a limited number of US states and it could not be purchased outright. The cars were leased to hundreds of drivers and became a common sight, particularly on the roads of California.

However, all the EV1 cars were repossessed in 1999 after the California Air Resources Board was forced to revoke its earlier decision, which effectively required American carmakers to produce and sell zero-emission vehicles. 

Despite the apparent willingness of some drivers to purchase their EV1s from the company, this option was not offered to consumers who had leased the cars. The majority of the EV1s were crushed, with the exception of a handful of cars which are still held in museums and engineering schools. 

The episode proved so controversial that a number of disgruntled EV1 drivers were arrested for protesting about GM's decision to recall and destroy the cars, and a documentary film entitled  Who Killed the Electric Car? was released which examines the story behind the rise and fall of the first mass-produced electric vehicle. 

However, the current concerted push by politicians, industry and environmental lobbies appears to have sufficient momentum to bring viable electric cars to the mass market. Unlike previous occasions, this time consumer demand for an environmentally-friendly car appears to be strong, but sceptics continue to raise questions about whether drivers will readily switch to the new technology if it is perceived as inferior to petrol engine vehicles. 

Janez Poto?nik, the EU's science and research commissioner, has said the deteriorating economic outlook, instability in global energy markets and the urgent need to address greenhouse gas emissions mean work on electric cars must be fast-tracked. 

"The initiatives we have been working on have to be sped up. We don't have time for new long-winded visions and strategies," he said. 

The commissioner has called on the industry to present "greener, smarter and safer" cars at the next Transport Research Arena, scheduled for June 2010 in Brussels, and noted that transport accounts for 25% of CO2 emissions and 73% of all oil consumed in Europe. 

"Let me respond to these challenges by setting you a challenge of my own. Can you, within the next year, provide workable solutions to the electrification of transport in Europe's cities?"

He said the automotive industry would be central to innovations in European transport and that progress in this area would depend on cooperation between the public and private sectors. 

Helmut List, vice-chairman of the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council (ERTRAC), said he is fully convinced by the necessity of investing in the electrification of Europe's transport system. He said the current crisis cannot be solved without cooperation between the automotive industry and governments. 

"We are very committed to the green car initiative. The public and private sectors must share the risk for such a major long-term investment. We have to jump at the same time," he said. 

Ingolf Schädler, deputy director-general for innovation at Austria's federal ministry for transport, innovation and technology, said it is important to include all stakeholders in finding green transport solutions, particularly cities and regional authorities. He called 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.

Nevio Di Giusto, president and CEO of Centro Ricerche FIAT, said it remains unclear whether electric cars would provide the long-term solution to Europe's transport needs. 

"Although it is still unclear whether the simple concept of the plug-in car will prove to be the optimal solution given all the different requirements, it does correspond to a feasible, transitory solution which can be exploited in the medium term." 

Nissan's Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga said his company would cut emissions by 90% by 2050 and pledged to be a pioneer in the rapidly advancing field of low-carbon cars. 

"Nissan will be a leader in zero-emission vehicles. EV is the answer." 

Renault, which is sharing technology with Nissan, has said its electric cars will have a unique style which consumers will recognise on European roads within a couple of years. 

"We want a real signature for our electric range, so when people see one in the street they will know it is a Renault electric car," said Christian Steyer, Renault's development chief for small cars. He said consumer acceptance is essential for the long-term success of electric vehicles. 

"The key is to do this without frightening customers away. Customers must be tempted, and not rushed too fast. 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." 

Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, an independent Palo Alto-based non-profit startup promoting plug-in hybrids, said the company had two very promising solutions but that they were far from commercialisation. 

"Today, every major automaker is now hard at work developing its first production plug-in vehicles in the next four years using existing technology," Kramer said. "Once ETV Motors has fully developed prototypes, potential customers will be able to analyse both the performance and cost benefits of the new systems compared to other contending advanced technologies," he said. 

Arnold RothETV Motors' chief operating officer, said the company was discussing options to either manufacture parts of the system itself or license it out to a larger company. 

"We have been approached by Tier 1 manufacturers, who are interested in our technology," Roth said. The CEO said their hybrid system would be cheaper than other hybrids on the market today. 

ACEA, the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, says both electric battery power and hydrogen have the potential to be the long-term solution for mobility. 

"Significant progress has been made over the last few years, however more breakthrough development is needed to bring the cost of technologies further down. While electric and hydrogen vehicles do not emit tailpipe emissions, it is important to also consider the Well-to-Wheel impact, i.e. including the production of electricity and hydrogen." 

The automakers' group says new technologies usually begin production in low volume and at a "significant cost premium" which needs to be offset by policy which ensures that vehicles are affordable. 

"A supportive policy framework is needed for companies to innovate and successfully launch the new technologies Industry and consumers need EU-wide harmonised incentives and standardisation of regulation. In order to safeguard industry's global competitiveness, public authorities need to enable the EU automotive industry to reach policy objectives more cost-effectively," ACEA said in a policy commentary released in June 2009. 

Orgalime, the European Engineering Industries Association, has expressed concerns about safety issues that may arise in recharging electric vehicles. In position paper published in February 2010, the organisation says user inexperience could heighten the risk. It also voiced concern that the level of safety of installations in buildings risks being undermind.

"We believe that standardisation and the EU Commission will have an important role to play to ensure security and equipment safety which could otherwise hamper the introduction of e-vehicles. It will be essential to ensure that the proposed equipment solutions comply with all essential requirements and that moreover compliance of products to safety standards is strictly enforced through proper market surveillance authorities in Europe," Orgalime said in its position paper.

The engineering group sets out some of the specific options available for addressing these challenges and suggests that a new "special plug" for charging electric vehicles needs to be designed and standardised.

"Furthermore energy and power management are key functionalities to consider when developing both regulation and standards in the area of charging infrastructure. It is important that charging infrastructures designed today already take into account future developments in the area of e-mobility. Beyond the necessary control and regulation functions for charging, the communication capabilities of the equipment to the vehicle or to the grids should include some other functions that will be required by the user and the grid in the future," it says.

  • 1884: English inventor Thomas Parker claims to perfected a working electric car. 
  • 1897: First commercial application of electric vehicles as fleet of taxis hits the streets of New York. 
  • 1899: Belgian race-car driver Camille Jenatzy breaks the 100km/h speed barrier in an electric vehicle. 
  • 1917: First gasoline-hybrid car released by Woods Motor Vehicle Company in Chicago. 
  • 1970s & 1980s: Energy crises prompt renewed investment in electric cars. 
  • 1990: GM showcase its 'Impact Concept' electric car at the Los Angeles Auto Show. 
  • 1996: A fleet of GM's EV1 is leased to customers in selected cities. 
  • 1999: GM recalls the EV1. 
  • 1999: Toyota Prius goes on sale. 
  • 2007 & 2008: Fuel prices surge as volatile oil prices grab the headlines. 
  • November 2008: EU launches €5 billion Green Car Initiative as part of economic recovery plan. 
  • March 2009: EU member states agree to reduce energy consumption in transport and increase production of electric cars. 
  • June 2010: Transport Research Arena conference in Brussels. 
  • Late 2010: GM aims to introduce Volt, its jet turbine-powered electric car. 
  • Late 2010: Renault plans to begin sales of its new electric cars. 
  • 2012: Renault-Nissan plan mass production of electric vehicles. 

Subscribe to our newsletters