The Future for Low-Emissions Vehicles is Not Electric — It’s Smaller Cars

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An article in the Financial Times this week reporting on recent research done by the Trancik Lab at MIT and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology last year suggests that the future for low-emissions vehicles might simply be smaller vehicles.

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Both pieces of solid research support the fact that larger, electric-powered vehicles have a higher life cycle carbon footprint than smaller combustion engine autos.

Let us first define what the research is saying about life cycle emissions. To capture an electric car’s full environmental impact, the research says regulators need to embrace life cycle analysis that considers car production, including the sourcing of rare earth metals that are part of the battery, plus the electricity that powers it and the recycling of its components. The most crucial elements appear to be the source of the electricity used to charge the batteries and the size (and therefore quantity of lithium and cobalt) of the batteries.

Early early vehicles (EVs) were small vehicles with limited batteries and limited ranges, but Tesla changed all that with the model S. With the marker they laid down to the market, vehicle sizes and the range they can offer on a single charge have risen. As a result, so has the size of the batteries, to the point where a model S can weigh up to 2,250 kilograms, but a significant part of that is the massive battery that powers its impressive range.

Source: Financial Times

According to data from the Trancik Lab quoted by the Financial Times, a Tesla Model S P100D saloon driven in the U.S. Midwest produces 226 grams of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) per kilometer over its life cycle. That numbers comes in less than an equivalent large luxury internal combustion engine (ICE) saloon, but much more than a smaller ICE vehicle that may produce less than 200g/km over its life cycle.

Note the reference to the location, as part of the calculation takes account of the electricity-generating capacity — in a solar- or wind-rich environment like Spain or Nevada, it will have a lower carbon footprint than in a coal-rich area, like Poland.

And therein lies part of the problem for legislators, keen to drive our migration to a “zero emission” transport future.

Of course, that is a fiction — all power, even renewables, has a carbon footprint. Power sources, however, vary considerably. To guide both automotive policy and power generation, legislators need to start looking at this more holistically than simply just, in the case of cars, what comes out the tailpipe.

Source: Financial Times

Size for size, EV has some 50% lower life cycle emission signature than an equivalent size ICE. The MIT research acknowledges that fact, but the drive for ever longer ranges (required in only a tiny fraction of real life journeys) will reduce the benefit a switch to EV could deliver. The irony is that by the time legislators get around to working out how to incentivize and/or penalize better car choices, the market will be evolving to negate the benefits. The rise of sharing services will mean journeys will be completed less in our own vehicles and more in hired services, so that we do not make purchase choices based on range and where transport providers could coordinate vehicles for longer distances. Battery technology will also improve in the next decade, increasing power density per kilogram of lithium and potentially reducing, or even removing, the need to cobalt altogether.

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While legislators fumble forward trying to accommodate the fact they are encouraging poor buying choices and the development of technologies in the wrong direction, be prepared for the fact that we see about turns in EV incentives from the current “all EVs are good” to “some EVs are good —  but some are going to be taxed.”

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Much like governments encouraged millions to switch to diesels, only for them to heavily penalize diesel cars less than 10 years later, we could see an equally ham-fisted about change on EV tax legislation down the road.

Comment (1)

  1. Just_Chris says:

    The data in this article is fine but the conclusion in the title, in my opinion, is way, way off the mark. What the first figure shows is that the usage emissions are a very large part of the total car emissions. There is a clear and obvious path for the reduction of those emissions in the case of an electric vehicle – reduced emissions from power generation. There is no equivalent alternative for petrol or diesel. Yes there are emissions from renewable energy sources created during the construction and maintenance of these power sources but these are a factor of 10 less than the mid-Wests current energy mix. If you consider a factor of 5 to 10 reduction in usage emissions you end up with a full sized $100,000+ sports car emitting significantly less CO2 than a micro-car over it’s life. This is a pretty compelling argument in favor of electrification of transport fleets. The other thing, that is seldom mentioned, is that CO2 emissions from petrol and diesel are not fixed, as we switch from light sweat crude to tar sands the long tail pipe argument falls flat on its face. Similarly the emissions during construction of any vehicle can be significantly reduced. More embodied energy does not always mean more emissions both BMW, with the i3, and Toyota, with the Prius hybrid, have worked very hard to get the emissions intensity of production for these vehicles to equivalent or lower than for other models of vehicle that they make.

    I completely agree with the authors sentiment on taking into account the full impact of any technology and also acknowledge that the most effective option is to reduce vehicle miles driven but I disagree with the idea that electrification of vehicle fleets will have similar down sides and out comes to the policies around increased use of Diesel or even bio-fuels.

    My personal opinion is that we need to encourage, legislate and get on with electrifying as much of our transport fleet as we economically can. There will need to be solutions found to the hole this will leave in tax revenue. We will also have to carefully manage the transition away from oil in terms of social impacts. These are large and very real challenges but keeping an industry alive that uses 5 times as much energy per km driven so that we have something to tax whilst keeping auto mechanics and oil well technicians in a job is not the solution.

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