Volvo delivers an electric shock to carmakers

6 Jul 2017   Electric Cars

Two events this week signalled a step change in the pace at which electric vehicles are taking to the road. Elon Musk announced that Tesla’s first mass-market Model 3 car will start rolling off production lines tomorrow, ready for launch at July’s end. That was followed by Volvo’s pledge on Tuesday that the Swedish carmaker, owned by China’s Geely, will cease manufacturing combustion engine-only vehicles altogether by 2019. Thenceforth, every Volvo model will be powered solely by batteries or by a battery/petrol hybrid. Less than 1 per cent of cars on the road today are electric powered. What is significant, and the context in which Volvo’s declaration was made, is the rate at which that is changing. Electric car sales were up 42 per cent in 2016, about eight times faster than growth in the overall market. There is a healthy debate within the motor and energy industries as to whether battery-powered vehicles or fuel cell cars, powered by hydrogen, represent the future. The latter are behind in their evolution, held back by (among other things) the energy-inefficient process used to extract hydrogen for fuel. Either way, it is possible to foresee a future where fossil fuels play a limited role in personal transport. We are still far from realising the broader dream of a green, low-carbon economy. Nonetheless, it is becoming ever easier to envisage a world with strong economic growth alongside cleaner air, lower carbon emissions and less dependence on oil. Already, the rate at which green technologies are being adopted has far exceeded the expectations of many of the world’s experts, bringing hope that Donald Trump’s nostalgic affair with fossil fuels will represent an aberration rather than a reversal in global efforts to tackle climate change. There remain, however, significant obstacles to more rapid adoption of electric cars. The first is technological. At present the range of these vehicles, at a maximum of about 300km. remains a disincentive, particularly in countries such as the US where drivers are used to driving long distances on a tank of “gas”. Batteries remain a wild card. They need to become more powerful and cheaper. The amount of investment towards that goal is encouraging. However, even Tesla has suffered hiccups along the way.

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