The future of low carbon vehicles beyond 2020


The focus of the 2011 Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) Conference was “Where are we now?”, and “What will low carbon vehicles look like beyond 2020”; here’s a summary of the event – there was some good news, and some bad news…

The UK government’s commitment to reducing transport emissions

Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, delivered the keynote speech, entitled ‘The road to decarbonisation’.

Norman Baker began by making the point that this government has some of the longest-serving transport ministers, as none have yet been reshuffled – although making this into a joke, the consistency is actually good (and unusual) for making progress in government.

He stressed that the government is committed to achieving its ambitious carbon reduction targets – but at the same time as creating wealth. To do this, a joined-up view is needed across government. This has been said before under previous governments, but all the signs are that this time the government is serious about making it happen. With regard to transport emissions, a strategic approach is required to do things in the right order.

The government has a substantial fund for the Plugged-in Places scheme, to expand the electric charging posts network, and for green buses. The £5000 electric car subsidy has been introduced, and 465 cars were delivered under the scheme by the end of the last financial year.

Perhaps most encouragingly, Norman Baker said that the government wants to make sure that UK companies make the most of the business opportunities arising from the move to a low carbon economy.

We’re on course for a doubling of global emissions by 2050

Shifting attitudes to low carbon transport – Jack Short, Secretary General, International Transport Forum

Jack Short reminded us that, despite a slowing during the recession, emissions and in particular transport emissions are still growing; and road transport emissions account for around three-quarters of this total figure. And we still haven’t reached ‘peak miles travelled’.

The average person in the United States emits 6 tonnes of CO2 per person, whereas in India this figure is currently less than one-tenth of a tonne per person. This means that the average person in the US emits 60 times that of the average person in India – but growth is yet to come in India.

Improvements are being made in terms of transport emissions but world population is on course to increase from 6 to 9 billion people – along with a big growth in car ownership.

Increased urbanisation is happening, but the big issue is suburbanisation – there is less public transport in the suburbs and therefore more dependence on the car.

Because of these issues, Jack claimed that we’re on course for a doubling of global emissions by 2050; big efficiency improvements are happening, but they’re being swamped by the relentless growth in the number of vehicles.

Jack suggested that the political system for reducing emissions is dysfunctional, as was shown in Copenhagen. Whilst there is political understanding of the need to reduce emissions, there is no political will to reduce people’s mobility.

In terms of the future, there is no single magic solution. Biofuels will play a part, but they won’t solve the transport fuel problem. Fuel cells will be more relevant when hydrogen is produced from renewable sources. A realistic prediction may see electric vehicles representing 10% of the fleet at the most by 2020. Existing internal combustion engines still have a long way to go – a 50% improvement is expected by 2050.

Insecurity of oil supplies might be the way to stop the doubling of emissions from cars

Towards ’50 by 50’; the implications for the coming decades – David Ward, Director General, FIA Foundation.

There will be a huge growth in the global car fleet, which will result in an unsustainable demand for fossil fuels. This will also have implications in terms of air quality issues and climate change. We could see a doubling of CO2 emissions from cars and vans due to increased numbers of vehicles, especially from emerging economies – particularly China. It’s unlikely that alternative fuel sources will replace internal combustion engines by 2050.

However energy security and fuel price issues could have a dramatic impact; David said that in the light of what has been happening in the Middle East over the last few months, we could be “one regime change away from significant changes to global fossil fuel supplies”. This is more likely to be a trigger for government action to be more energy-efficient than concerns over climate change.

Currently, we are not improving fuel economy at the rate needed, and the global fleet is growing. Therefore a policy framework for improved fuel economy is needed around the world. Hence the global fuel economy initiative, encouraging countries to develop effective fuel economy policies.

There are big challenges, but also huge opportunities for the UK to be a leader in new low carbon technologies. Although smaller cars are an important part of the answer, we need to remember that people buy cars for prestige and status – therefore we need to make all cars attractive – including small ones.

All change in America

Perspective from the United States – Roland Hwang, Transportation Program Director, Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

The United States is perceived as having no interest in making cars more fuel-efficient, but the issue of CO2 and fuel economy has been dramatically changing since the advent of $4 per gallon gasoline. Roland said that there’s been a huge difference in attitude compared to three or four years ago, and especially since the bankruptcy of the two main US auto makers – due to over-dependence on “gas guzzling cars and trucks”.

The US is definitely moving to stronger fuel economy standards and it believes it is poised to be a leader in the area of fuel economy improvement – ahead of Europe. The US is aiming to set long-term goals to allow manufacturers to invest in new technology – although it also believes that all targets can be met through existing technologies of internal combustion engines, hybrids and plug-in electric.

Ford has shown what can be done – the company’s strategy has changed from being based around SUVs to a focus on efficiency. The company introduced the Focus and Fiesta which has been extremely successful as the public in the US are now buying small cars.

Hybrid sales have trebled, there’s been a 43% growth in clean diesels, and a 40% growth in the small crossover market. It all shows that car companies can respond when motivated. There was initially much opposition to producing fuel-efficient vehicles, as Americans believed that this would damage their car industry, but the opposite has been true – profits and job creation has been the outcome for companies making economical cars. Now American voters want action in the area of improved fuel economy, and the plan is to double the fuel economy standards for cars in America.

China – huge car growth, but also progress with reducing emissions

China’s strategy for decarbonisation in the road transport sector – Hui He, Policy Analyst, International Council on Clean Transportation, ICCT.

In 2009 China became the world’s largest car maker – and car market. The perception in the media is that China is not doing anything to make cars more efficient or reduce the carbon from road transport, but actually many initiatives are in place. However China’s national energy generation is largely coal-based, and upstream emissions from transport are not accounted for. The overall conclusion was that China is now a significant player in the global automotive industry, it does have strategies in place to reduce transport emissions, and it should not be ignored.

Will vehicles deliver 80% carbon reductions by 2050?

Can road transport help deliver the targets? What policy and other drivers are needed? – Dr David Kennedy, Chief Executive, Climate Change Committee

The UK target is to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Because cars have a 10-15 year life once produced, that means that this target should be reached by cars on sale in 2030/2035. If electric cars are to provide part of the solution, then we need the power generation for the UK grid to move to almost zero – and plans for this are being developed.

Electric vehicles are one of the most promising options to help with carbon reduction; they could represent 20% of new cars sales by 2030, and theoretically they could emit 0 g/km CO2. By comparison, plug-in hybrids could produce 50 g/km, and conventional cars could emit between 80-125 g/km. So there is potential for vehicles to help us get towards our CO2 targets.

The cost of ownership of petrol v electric cars over the next 20 years

Drivers and influencers of the market for cars 2020-30 – Alex Stewart, Element Energy.

The capital cost of low carbon vehicles is high therefore they should be marketed based on the total cost of ownership. Battery costs are expected to reduce significantly – from $1000 per kw today to $300 per kw by 2030. The target should be $100 per kw. There should be a similar story with fuel cell systems, which cost over $1000 now, but which may reduce to $75 per kw by 2030.

In 2030 internal combustion engines will still be the cheapest technology; hydrogen will still be the most expensive technology, while plug-in hybrid vehicles may just have a £300 price premium. EVs should have a 240 km range by 2030. Ranges could be more, but the battery costs would be prohibitive.

Some good news is that we should see a 20% reduction in vehicle mass by 2020.

Insurance is another impact on the cost of ownership – levels are initially relatively high for new technologies, but should come down, which will help with lower cost of ownership.

In 2020 internal combustion engines will still be the cheapest technology in terms of total cost of ownership. Electric will be more expensive, with a £5000 premium, and hydrogen will be the most expensive.

One factor that will change these predictions is if fossil fuel prices escalate out of control, such as to £3 per litre, when the shift to EVs will start to look much more attractive from a total cost of ownership point of view. There will be less impact on EVs if electricity costs rise.

The capital cost and cost of ownership for ultra-low carbon vehicles – especially pure EVs – will be challenging to 2030. However the total cost of ownership between internal combustion engines and plug-in hybrids is forecast to fall substantially between 2011 and 2020; a plug-in hybrid is the most cost-effective way to reduce CO2.

Develop zero emission cars now in time for the low carbon electricity grid

The business case for vehicle electrification in the UK – John Batterbee, Light Duty Vehicle Transport Programme Manager, Energy Technologies Institute

Ultra-low carbon vehicles cost more – and there is a limited willingness to pay for them – so the price of road transport will have to increase. Another option is to switch to rental models or make utilisation of cars better.

Consumers may be worried about range and battery life, although Nissan offers an 8-year warranty on the battery in the LEAF.

In America Obama wants 4-5% of all new cars sales to be EVs by 2015. In the UK the main driver is EU emissions targets – manufacturers have the option to pay the penalty, which they won’t want to do; or improve conventional engines, which will soon reach a limit; or develop new technology, which will be the preferred route.

To achieve the UK’s CO2 targets, action needs to be taken now, as vehicles take around five years to get to market, then have a life of up to 15 years. And if plug-in technology is used, we must ensure that the emissions from the car aren’t just moved somewhere else – ie. the power station; we need to achieve zero emissions with our electricity system. If manufacturers start producing zero emission cars now, the grid will catch up with low carbon electricity in due course. It’s likely that emissions from the grid will reduce by 80% by 2020 or 2030.

Did you know that tyres are responsible for 20%-30% of the fuel used by a car?

Reinventing the wheel? – Pascal Couasnon, Vice President of Technical and Scientific Communication, Michelin

When it comes to tyres, consumers want safety, longevity and fuel economy – they want it all, and they don’t want compromise. However the more a tyre warms up, the more it adheres – but the more fuel it consumes. For a tyre to have good grip it needs to be soft, which means it will wear out more quickly. To achieve longevity, a tyre needs to be heavy, which results in poor fuel economy. So it sounds impossible to give a consumer al the things that they want from a tyre. However that is a challenge that Michelin is trying to find a solution to.

Tyre labeling is being introduced by end of 2012 and it will convey information to consumers about the areas above. The label will grade the performance of the tyre in three areas: fuel economy (by rolling resistance); wet braking; and noise emissions. Longevity may be added at a later date. If tyres don’t meet the minimum threshold they can’t be sold. Michelin estimates that in 2012, 30% of tyres won’t be able to be sold – and the regulations will become stricter. This label has already been implemented in Japan, in 2010, and it’s being looked at in America.

However the big growth in vehicle and therefore tyre numbers will come from the developing countries, and it is here that there is a lack of regulation about safety.

A tyre represents 20% of the fuel used by a car, and this can be 30% for an urban electric vehicle, as the more efficient a vehicle is, the more important a tyre becomes. Michelin has been working on this – 40% rolling resistance has been reduced by 40% since 1992 thanks to the introduction of eco tyres. If everyone switched to eco tyres, 8 million tonnes of CO2 would be saved – this is equivalent to that saved by the introduction of 2.5 – 3 million zero emission electric vehicles.

Michelin believes we need smaller vehicles, smaller wheels and tyres, and taller and narrower tyres that improve aerodynamics. If cars used 10-inch tyres they would save weigh and space – but the fashion is for larger wheels and tyres. We’ll let Michelin fight that one out with the car manufacturers’ marketing departments

Michelin’s presentation can be seen to summarise the entire event. Tyres are just one element of a car, but as can be seen, they are an element that can have a huge impact on fuel economy. To achieve the carbon emission reductions that we need, all elements of a vehicle, including tyres, need to be optimised, and new ways of thinking will be required to achieve a step-change in the way things are done.

Paul Clarke