Transition to zero-emission mobility requires the full range of powertrain options

Last week, the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Package was presented by the European Commission, in which the executive arm of the EU sets out its bold ambition to have at least 30 million zero-emission cars, as well as 80,000 zero-emission trucks, on the road across the European Union by 2030.

Message from ACEA's Director General – December 2020

It is important to stress here that the Commission’s targets are not referring to sales of new vehicles, but the entire European fleet. I asked our experts to look into this, and the latest numbers show that of the 243 million passenger cars on EU roads last year, less than 615,000 were zero-emission vehicles. In other words, roughly 0.25% of the whole car fleet consists of battery electric vehicles and fuel-cell cars today.

I am afraid this means that the Commission’s 2030 objective of 30 million zero-emission cars is far removed from today’s reality. Indeed, if Europe wants to meet this target we would need to see an almost 50-fold increase in zero-emission cars in circulation on our roads in just 10 years.

At the same time, the average European car is almost 11 years old, while the average age of trucks is 12 years now. As a result of decarbonisation, new vehicles risk becoming more expensive for many citizens and companies at a time when they have less money to spend in the aftermath of COVID-19. This risks not only affecting the affordability of mobility, but also rapidly driving up the average age of vehicles in the near future, and thus further slowing down the renewal of the fleet.

Let me stress that Europe’s automobile manufacturers fully endorse the overall ambition to boost the uptake of zero-emission cars, trucks, vans and buses. After all, the auto industry dedicates much of its yearly €60.9 billion R&D budget to decarbonisation. However, despite our members’ major investments in zero-emission vehicles and their growing market share, not all the right conditions are in place yet to make the massive leap the Commission has in mind – on the contrary.

Frankly speaking, the main problem here is that the Commission still has to realise that it cannot separate its ambitions for reducing vehicle CO2 emissions from the need to increase infrastructure availability – for all vehicle categories – with the same level of commitment.

It is quite simple really: the higher the climate targets become, the more ambitious the Commission’s deployment plans for charging points and refuelling stations should be. But this is exactly where we still see a big disconnect at EU level. In many countries the necessary infrastructure is simply lacking, while in other EU member states investment in infrastructure is not keeping pace with increased sales of alternatively-powered vehicles.

As Adina Vălean, the European Commissioner for Transport, told the Financial Times recently, plug-in hybrid vehicles are “a very good solution for the moment, because we don’t have enough infrastructure [in Europe], and we do not have enough clean electricity for zero-emission vehicles, and we need to decarbonise fast”.

The Commissioner is absolutely right in my view. As ACEA we believe that, under the right conditions, plug-in hybrids – which combine an internal combustion engine with a battery-powered electric motor – offer an excellent transition on the road to carbon-neutral mobility by 2050.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are intended to be driven in full electric mode over several short daily trips (typically in urban environments), only switching to the internal combustion engine for longer trips to avoid having to spend hours charging on motorways (where infrastructure is still lacking). With that in mind, they are indeed a great mass-market alternative – especially PHEVs with larger batteries capable of driving 60 kilometres or more – until all member states have deployed enough public charging points.

Plug-in hybrids are very popular at the moment, with both Germany and France seeing an increase in PHEV sales of over 400% in the third quarter of 2020. This means that they make a strong case for more investment in infrastructure throughout the EU. And this, in turn, will be a trigger for a greater market share of fully-electric vehicles in the future.

As Oliver Zipse, CEO of BMW Group, stressed after he was appointed ACEA President for 2021 during a meeting of our Board of Directors earlier this month: “We need to utilise the latest innovations across the full range of drivetrain technologies to meet all customers’ demands”.  

Indeed, we should not forget that the EU-wide rollout of infrastructure, besides charging points for electric cars and hydrogen stations for fuel-cell models, also has to include dedicated infrastructure that can cater for the specific needs of zero-emission trucks and buses, which have much higher power and energy demands.

If the European Commission is really serious about getting 30 million zero-emission cars and 80,000 zero-emission trucks on the road by 2030, EU legislators also have to walk the talk and push national governments to invest in the massive roll out of charging points and refuelling stations.

Based on our experience in recent years, however, we can only conclude that a voluntary approach to these infrastructure targets simply does not work. While some EU countries have been very active, others have done little or nothing at all.

That is why the European Commission urgently needs to fast-track the critical review of the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive (AFID), with a view to setting clear and binding infrastructure deployment targets for every single EU member state.

Eric-Mark Huitema
Director General of ACEA

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