How Dieselgate must encourage us to leapfrog right into the electric era

By Kathleen Van Brempt (pictured), MEP, Former chair of EMIS ("Dieselgate" inquiry committee)
Autumn 2017

Never waste a good crisis!

Kathleen Van Brempt, MEP, Former chair of EMISWe are at the dawn of a new era of electrified, autonomous and shared mobility. The advantages of electric driving are overwhelming. Electric vehicles are super convenient, chargeable at home or at work, quiet and clean and don’t fund oil dictatorships. In combination with renewable energy, they will contribute to the decarbonisation of transport, helping us to meet our climate targets.

The question is not whether this revolution will take place, but when, at what speed and whether the European industry will play a role in the value chains that will underpin it. Speeding up the electrification of transport will enable Member States and cities to reduce air pollution in order to meet the European air quality standards. It will help the EU to deliver on its promises made at the COP21 Paris Climate agreement. Imagining them as “computers on wheels”, electric vehicles are well suited for car sharing services.

Speeding up the electrification is of the utmost importance for European industries. If they lag behind in this revolution, they will soon loose market shares once electric cars or mobility services become cheaper than combustion-engines. If we are not able to bring European industries at the forefront of the new powertrains and batteries, future markets will be flooded with imported cars and business models. EU manufacturers will end up in a sunset industry.

To foster the electrification of transport, we need to cross the “valley of death” between laboratory and market. This needs both a technology push and a market pull. We need more targeted strategic investments in research and development of battery technologies, battery recycling, 3-D printed parts and logistics, electric power trains, interconnected mobility services... to move forward. On the other hand, demand must be ramped up via green public procurement – purchasing of electric vehicles by public authorities for own use or for public car sharing programs – and via Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) quotas for car manufacturers. These measures must create the needed scale to decrease the costs, rendering electric cars affordable for consumers. An increasing share of e-cars (imposed via ZEV quotas) obliges car manufactures to develop them for lower income groups and not only for the premium segment.

Politics is catching up. More and more countries are announcing measures to phase out the internal combustion engine. Next to Norway, also France and the UK wants to get rid of the dirty tailpipes. The European Parliament voted with an overwhelming majority the recommendations on clean cars policies made by the EMIS inquiry committee that I was privileged tochair. These voted recommendations>sup>1 call for the introduction of Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandates in the upcoming proposal on CO2 standards for cars and vans “with the aim of phasing out new CO2-emitting cars by 2035”. The Commission is following cautiously. In its Communication on the Mobility Package – “Europe on the Move” – it expresses its intention to consider the inclusion of specific targets for low and/or zero-emission vehicles in its upcoming proposal on the post 2020 CO2 standards. CO2-standards for heavy duty vehicles such as lorries, buses and coaches are also “under consideration”. Also here, the EU risks lagging behind since fuel economy standards for heavy duty vehicles were already introduced in other parts of the world, such as in the US, Japan and China. In the decarbonisation of the heavy duty transport, electrification will only be part of the solution. For long distance transport, other technologies such as fuel cells and alternative fuels will have to play a role.

The EU must learn to see legislation as the standard bearer of new technology. ZEV mandates were first introduced in the Clean Air Act in California, before ZEV technologies even existed. European manufactures must learn to bring their technology in line with the legislation we want instead of trying to get our legislation in line with the technology they want.

Without EU policies that force the European car industry to move ahead, our industry will face a “clean-tech leakage”. This might even be the case for these manufacturers that keep on swearing by the diesel technologies. The emission limit standards for NOx in the US are already more stringent than the Euro 6 standards applicable in the EU. And a new policy briefing of the ICCT2 shows that from July 2023 onwards, the Chinese emission standard for NOx will lay significantly below the Euro 6 level. From that date on Chinese cars will be saleable in the EU, but European cars could not be sold in China.

A progressive legislative approach tackling both CO2 emissions and the emissions of air pollutants in our car fleet is imperative to preserve the competitiveness of our industry and to protect the environment and public health. As former Commissioner Potocznik said in an EMIS hearing: “We end up killing industry with kindness by giving in to the calls for less ambition, longer time to achieve it, and allowing loopholes.” Let’s hope this lesson from Dieselgate is learned.

1) Inquiry into emission measurements in the automotive sector
2) China LDV Stage 6 Policy Update