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OEMs look beyond EVs in the fight against CO2

When Toyota recently announced massive cutbacks in its electric vehicle (EV) programme, it raised barely a ripple of comment. Yet it was nothing less than a vote of no confidence in the battery-electric vehicle – from the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer.

Toyota is planning to cap production of the eQ city car – based on the diminutive iQ – at a mere 100 rather than the thousands originally planned, and they will be solely for demonstration purposes in the US and Japan.

Adding fuel to the fire, Vice-chairman Takeshi Uchiyemada commented: “The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs”. Range, cost and recharging times are hurdles over which consumers are not prepared to leap.

Sales of EVs, even in those countries with ambitions to lead in zero-emissions mobility, seem to support his argument. In China, EVs claimed only 0.3% of the market last year. In France, where cash-strapped Renault has invested – although some might say gambled – a fortune on its EV programme, they accounted for just 0.4% of sales. And in the UK, where government grants of up to £5,000 (US$7,600) are available towards the cost of a zero-emissions vehicle, the take-up has been just over 2,000 units.

True, the choice of EVs is still limited and will improve over the next two years with the arrival of big-name players like Audi, BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen in the sector, but if the cost of buying one cannot be controlled, and customer anxieties about range and recharging times cannot be soothed, EVs will remain fringe offerings.

Even battery companies admit that while they can achieve the power targets of EV manufacturers with current technology, the energy density that would give the cars a longer range is not possible. They are now attempting to fast-track new chemistries – zinc-air, lithium-sulphur and lithium-air – and believe that next-generation batteries could be available by the end of the decade.

OEMs are less convinced, however. According to Peter Richings, Jaguar Land Rover’s hybrids director, “Electric cars are too expensive and not compelling enough. We have got to push for a technology breakthrough. The single biggest issue that bothers me is battery technology. Billions are being poured into chemistry development, but when that is applied to the battery pack you end up with half the energy density you started with. We need the investment to go into the battery packs.”

Yet the electrification of cars will have to become increasingly widespread if governments are to hit their climate change promises and car manufacturers are to meet the fuel economy or CO2 emissions targets being set all around the world. The EU, to give just one example, requires the volume OEMs’ average fleet CO2 emissions to fall to 130g/km by 2015 and is proposing a 95g/km CO2 average by 2020.

“First 130g/km, then 95 – this is more than a challenge,” says Professor Dr Herbert Köhler, vice president for group research and development at Mercedes-Benz. “It is going to be an interesting time for the next eight years.

“In our first analysis five or six years ago, we thought that even to reach 130g/km it would be necessary to have a lot of zero-emissions cars on the market, but that was not the case because we managed to make a lot of improvement on the internal combustion engine side.

“In the next two or three years we will introduce more hybrids, small EVs and a fuel-cell car. Our perspective on 2020 is that we will need additional zero-emissions vehicles. The right way is to start now, with all the pros and cons and experiences of customers.”

His counterpart at Volkswagen, Dr Ulrich Hackenberg, broadly agrees. “On the way to 95g/km we will have to improve conventional engines and improve the car, but we will still need some electrification.”
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