As the motor industry presses towards widespread adaptation of electric vehicles, a notable voice sounds a cautious note.
As a rule, the motor industry prefers to speak with a unified voice on the wider issues which affect its interests. Certainly, when it comes to the subject of electric vehicles, the direction of current can probably be best described as direct. Or to put it another way, on this subject at least, most automotive CEOs are broadly speaking, on board.
Ideally of course, having invested billions, they would much prefer to continue with the vehicles they are currently making, but now that they’ve elected to board the EV train, awkward questions as to why they’ve boarded it, or indeed where it’s headed are increasingly being batted into the sidings.
However not everyone, is content with the direction of travel. At last weekend’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, Lexus’ Yoshihiro Sawa sounded a timely yet surprisingly cautious note. Speaking to journalists at the motor event, Sawa expressed concerns over the immediate wholesale adoption of electric cars, stating that Lexus was not intending to blindly follow.
Suggesting that the case for EVs was as yet not fully proven, either from a demand or environmental perspective, Sawa argued for a more flexible approach, telling Autocar, “Pure EVs currently require a long charging time and batteries that have an environmental impact at manufacture and which degrade as they get older. And then, when cells need replacing, we have to consider plans for future use and recycling. It is a complex issue – much more complex than the current rhetoric perhaps suggests. I prefer to approach the future in a more honest way.”
It is of course tempting to dismiss these comments on the basis that Lexus is a relatively minor player in global terms and that they have their own technological drum to beat, but when Toyota speaks, (and let’s not be under any illusions who’s actually talking here) we’d really do well to listen.
Toyota has invested heavily in petrol-hybrid technology, and have taken something of a hit in their forays into mainstream diesel powertrains. Furthermore, as a pioneer of hydrogen fuel cell technology, one could argue they have an agenda to push. So one can perhaps understand their reluctance to fully commit to a hugely expensive diversion into another wholly different propulsion system, especially when it remains far from clear just how quickly or wholeheartedly it is likely to be adopted.
It also crystallises matters regarding the manner in which upcoming emission regulations are met. In a Driven to Write piece last year, we argued against the rigidity of thought that seemed to be creating a one-size-fits-all approach to the zero emissions question, one in which legislators appear to think only battery-electric technology could solve.
It ought to be obvious that there is more than one way to achieve any goal and to deny auto-businesses the opportunity to innovate smacks of the sort of foolishness that got us into this sorry mess in the first place.
While the UK government (such as it is currently constituted) appears to have belatedly realised that their roadmap to zero emissions needs to be technology-neutral, questions remain as to whether other legislatures will arrive at similar conclusions.
One suspects this goes to the nub of what Sawa and ergo, Toyota are arguing for. “If we are looking for the best solution it is my opinion that the best solution is not only EV; we must consider petrol, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell. If we focus on EV only we will not provide the answers people need.”
It’s tempting to compare the whole situation to the UK’s current approach to leaving the EU. Like Brexit, Electric vehicles are appealing in theory, but the realities involved in a wholesale shift away from combustion power units carries far-reaching and fundamental issues which risk being sidelined in a heedless rush to the desired conclusion.
“We understand that electric is very necessary – more than some, perhaps, with our early move to hybrid, Sawa told Autocar, but we can also see that full EV will not suit everyone. You can’t make an electric Land Cruiser work, for instance – and there are people in remote parts of the world whose lives depend on that car.”
While the UK government remains locked into its omnishambolic Brexit position (such as it is currently constituted), a modicum of common sense appears to be dawning in regard to its approach to the zero-emissions conundrum. And despite some manufacturers having alluded to the ambiguities they face, it’s both refreshing and somewhat courageous of Toyota, nee-Lexus to articulate its ambivalence so openly.
Clearly, for some motorists, EVs are a workable solution and for them represent a viable choice. What is becoming increasingly obvious however is that for a significant number of motorists they are anything but and are unlikely to be for some time yet. But while governments and carmakers refuse to blink on who commits to the enormous investments required to create the infrastructure to support it, it’s difficult to see how such a fundamental change can be enacted.
At a recent conference organised by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, a semi-state body helping facilitate the UK government’s ‘Road to Zero’ policy, professor of transport and energy at the University of Leeds, Jillian Anable argued that strict legislation will be required to push motorists into low-emission vehicles.
Seemingly in direct contravention of the government’s assertion that there will be ‘no bans’, this appears to suggest that for the transition to be successful, it will need to be coercive, and for less affluent motorists (at least until such time as costs are brought down), expensive. Perhaps prohibitively so.
Metaphorically speaking then, the zero-emissions argument currently seems rooted in DC. But for any meaningful progress to be made, surely it needs to be converted to AC. Or to put it another way, let’s by all means move towards zero emissions, but can we not try and manage the transition sensibly and not be so rigid about how we go about it?