OPP Blog: Emission Free cars and VCRs – The EU’s struggles with new clean transport technology

In 1975 Japan’s government backed a new home video system which it felt would help the countries industry compete in a new and potential huge market, this technology was Betamax. Within just a few years it had lost the video format wars to its rival VHS and those who had bought into the Betamax revolution were left scrabbling to justify their investments. For EU mobility policy makers, this exemplifies the problem when trying to plan for a new carbon neutral future, it is exceptionally difficult to plan a cost effective and coherent policy when so many fledgling technologies are trying to capture market share and when each option could be the transport of the future.

However in order to achieve its Paris commitments, the EU has no realistic choice but to act now, road emission will need to drop considerably in the next few years and this forces the Union’s hand. When trying to solve this conundrum, MEPs are fond of saying that they are coping with a ‘chicken and egg’ problem. The lack of refuelling or charging stations prevents consumers buying carbon neutral cars and companies are deterred from infrastructure investment due to a lack of vehicles being sold and operated. There is undoubtedly a certain level of truth in this, but the issue for the European Union is that nobody knows what either the chicken or the egg are supposed to look like.

In terms of infrastructure issues, charging points for electric cars get the most press, but Europe is also lacking in other low emissions fuel sources such as refuelling stations for hydrogen powered vehicles. In an attempt to be “technology neutral” MEPs want to see these non electric systems supported as well. When discussing immature technologies, this may be a sensible attempt to spread risk and allows consumer preference to define which technology becomes the new standard, but it also risks wasting considerable public resources in building capacity which will ultimately be unloved and unused.

Even when the EU does commit to a particular technology and takes the opportunity to standardise, such as in the case of the directive on Energy performance of buildings which looks set to mandate the installation of charging stations in new and renovated buildings, the Union may still be backing the wrong horse. Recent trials in Sweden have been looking at electric cars charged by the road itself, with charging accomplished through a mobile arm which drops down and engages a metal track not unlike a tram way. According to its developer this has a number of advantages, not least the massively reduced battery sizes required and the instant charge times for drivers. Large expensive batteries are a significant cost barriers for the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, can reduce vehicle performance and their production is environmentally costly. Currently the manufacturers of electrified road technology only envisage its installation on key routes, but should the technology develop further then it is possible that the EU may be mandating a partially obsolescent solution to be applied to all new homes and large businesses. 

The EU is therefore caught in a bind, move too slowly and it will never fulfil its international commitments, move too fast and it may end up backing the new Betamax.


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