The Road to Zero

…is paved with good intentions. But where is it leading us?

(c) The Independent

Recently, Driven to Write held a metaphorical Bunsen burner to the feet of BMW development supremo, Klaus Fröhlich in the wake of some rather petulant comments he made. On this basis, you might be minded to ask why the Vierzylinder engineer is again the subject of our attentions. Has he been firing further expletives at the press?

Thankfully, no – but he has instead been making some telling observations regarding the mainstream industry’s sluggish push towards electric, which goes to the nub of its relative silence upon the subject – at least until now.

Speaking with Australian outlet, The New Daily at the Paris motor show, Fröhlich alluded to the current conversation around EVs as being “a bit irrational”. Despite BMW readying a number of battery-electric models and committing to introducing twelve such model lines before 2025, he predicted that 85% of BMW’s production output will remain combustion-engined in some shape or form, even by 2030.

Fröhlich points out that despite efforts to shift the buying public towards ‘zero-emissions’ vehicles such as EVs, BMW is struggling to find sufficient customers prepared to accept the up-front cost and the limitations that come with them. The major issue, he asserts, is the high cost of lithium-ion batteries, against those of conventional powertrains, with a 100 kw/hr battery pack allegedly costing more than an entire ICE car to manufacture.

Economies of scale do not appear to be the answer either, he believes, largely because it would simply push up the price of the rare-earth metals like lithium and cobalt which are essential to battery manufacture. “Perhaps in the eastern region of China; Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong … they might be 100 per cent electric. But the world – Russia, Australia, USA, big portions of Europe – they will have combustion engines for a very long time,” he told the journal. Furthermore, asked if EV’s could ever be as affordable as combustion vehicles, the BMW development engineer’s reply was stark – “No, never, never.

Of course, Mr. Fröhlich has an agenda to push and as we know, the established industry has a vested interest in maintaining as much of the status quo as they reasonably can. But it is quite clear that while EVs provide a solution for a subset of the market, they are some way short of being the answer proponents and many legislators appear to believe.

This week, a group of MPs urged the UK government to push forward their targets for a wholesale combustion engine ban as part of the DfT’s Road to Zero plan. The current target is for this to take place by 2040, but pressure is now being applied for it to be brought forward to 2032. The group’s spokesperson, Rachel Reeves MP told the Guardian newspaper that in terms of vehicle emissions, “zero should mean zero.

On one hand, this is a neat soundbite, but on the other, it does sound rather similar to another meaningless political slogan we’ve been hearing rather too much of lately. But like most politicians, Ms. Reeve sees matters in purely binary terms: Nasty evil combustion engines, lovely clean electric vehicles. If only it was that simple. Without affordability, without a reliable, easy to access and plentiful charging infrastructure and without the wider public abandoning their attachment to polluting combustion vehicles, a voluntary switch is unlikely to happen.

Yet last week the UK government cut grants towards the purchase of hybrid and electric vehicles, removing at a stroke, a strong incentive towards purchase. Meanwhile, the UK’s largest charging infrastructure provider told the Guardian, the barrier to wider adoption was less the dearth of accessible charge-points but a lack of available vehicles for customers to purchase. Some egg with your chicken madam?

Obviously, matters cannot remain as they are. We somehow have to find a means of removing or at least limiting vehicles from our cities and towns. Beyond that is the necessity to fundamentally alter the accepted first-world model of motor vehicle usage. But finding a means of effecting this shift without removing hard-won freedoms and endangering the hundreds of thousands of jobs the motor industry supports is a problem which may well prove an intractable one. It’s also a shift the industry clearly doesn’t want and will not embark upon voluntarily.

This is of course where government comes in. However, legislators have a notoriously poor track record in this area. In September, the EU parliament’s environment committee, in defiance of determined motor industry lobbying, endorsed new tougher emissions rules which will, in the view of carmakers, force them to shift development entirely towards electric vehicles, shifting the emissions and environmental risks to geographically-remote power stations and cobalt mines. This bears all the hallmarks of yet another cobbled-together one size-fits-all solution to what is clearly a multi-faceted problem.

Electric vehicles offer a compelling choice for those whose usage, lifestyle and location favour their use. But while lithium ion battery technology relies upon the mining of toxic elements and are almost wholly dependant upon an electricity grid which isn’t in every case particularly efficient or clean, they can only provide a partial solution. Furthermore, they simply don’t suit all applications.

It’s long been suspected that the motor industry has been at best ambivalent about a wholesale shift to battery electric vehicles. It’s now becoming evident that there may be some compelling rationales that sit behind their lukewarm response. We have arrived at a crucial crossroads towards a low-emission future. Up to now, options remained on the table. Removing them ties the hands of carmakers, stifles creative solutions and increases the likelihood of another environmental crisis further down the line.

However, faced with two competing rationales, neither of which present a particularly convincing argument, what is the hapless motorist to do? What else? We’ll do as we’re told.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

3 thoughts on “The Road to Zero”

  1. “shifting the emissions and environmental risks to geographically-remote power stations and cobalt mines”? Are you sure? Are you familiar with the rapid growth and declining costs of zero pollution/ renewable sources of energy? Re. cobalt mines, indeed a problem, but also one that could be tackled by the international community. It is a much easier problem to resolve than global warming. We don’t have a choice but to go electric. BMW may think differently, but we, who seek to live on this planet, should make it clear to car manufacturers that this is not a choice. Pollution kills thousands each year in Europe and global warming is much worse.

  2. We can consider us lucky that our technology driver for electro mobility is the electric power assisted bicycle. Their small battery sizes and short product cycles make experiments possible because a recall/replacement action for their cheap batteries wouldn’t ruin the manufacturer.
    Therefore Bosch (undispiteed technology leader in electro bike equipment) is testing their future products in the bicycle market. They’re heading for batteries at double the capacity per volume/weight at a fraction of the cost of current product and their R&D is talking about ten times the current capacity per weight at a tenth of current costs.This would make it possible to store the energy for an acceptable range in about double the volume of an equivalent fuel tank, which makes packaging very much easier.
    What no amount of technology can make go away are limitations by physics like the currents and voltages needed to recharge these large batteries within an acceptable time.

    If we want to live a life without consequences on global warming we would have to go back to around AD 1050 when it comes to energy consumption. And we’d have to control and reduce our population dramatically…

    1. @Dave…. One might just extend your analogy to battery electric lawn mowers since some ten years ago I purchased a Bosch cordless mower powered by a palm sized 36v lithium battery that still performs as the day it was purchased. Meanwhile virtually every make and model of tool from all manufacturers are available as cordless so bikes are somewhat late arrivals.
      I recall a year into ownership sending Dyson a letter questioning why his large vacuum still used a cord when I could mow and entire lawn without one……seven years later his line is cordless and he is working on an EV!

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