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News analysis

Still a long journey towards Volvo's zero-emission target

Electric cars in their current form are not that clean or efficient

Volvo Cars is no stranger to grand ambitions. Nine years ago, it declared that no one would be killed in a new Volvo by 2020.

Today, many Volvo models are equipped with autonomous emergency braking, a lane-keeping system, steering assistance, and bells and whistles which will warn the driver of impending doom. In time, there will be more.

From zero death, the Chinese-owned Swedish manufacturer is now aiming for zero emissions. Well, near zero, to be precise.

On Wednesday, Volvo Cars chief executive officer Hakan Samuelsson declared that all Volvo models launched after 2019 will be either battery-powered or petrol-electric hybrids.

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The bold statement, of course, got the whole world into a tizzy (as planned). But what does it really mean? Does it mean that there will be no more combustion-engine Volvos in three years' time? Not quite.

Mr Samuelsson said existing cars with such engines will continue to be produced. He merely said Volvo will not invest in any new combustion-engine models after 2019. Even then, such engines will still exist in hybrid Volvos. So, the headline-grabbing news is a bit misleading if you do not read the fine print.

With the public getting all electrified over battery-powered cars in the wake of glamorous Tesla and its media-savvy CEO Elon Musk, such a pronouncement by Volvo - or for that matter, any company - is bound to make you sit up and take notice.

But are electric cars the holy grail the world is making them out to be? Yes and no.

Volvo Cars announced on Wednesday that all models launched after 2019 will be either battery- powered or petrol-electric hybrids.
Volvo Cars announced on Wednesday that all models launched after 2019 will be either battery-powered or petrol-electric hybrids. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Electric cars have the potential to reduce mega-tonnes of carbon dioxide that are melting the polar ice caps. They also have the potential to remove a vast amount of pollutants that are choking many cities.

In their current form, however, electric cars are not as clean or as efficient as propaganda makes them out to be.

First, the process of manufacturing the massive lithium battery bank that goes into each electric car involves mining rare minerals in places where environmentally sustainable practices are not necessarily part of the vocabulary.

The 1602 E, BMW's first electric car, was developed in 1972.
The 1602 E, BMW’s first electric car, was developed in 1972. PHOTO: BMW YOUTUBE

Second, if charging up these cars is from non-renewable power sources, their "zero emission" label is blackened. Quantitative studies point to an electric car producing more than 300g of CO2/km in coal-reliant countries such as India and South Africa. That is equivalent to the biggest and baddest combustion-engine cars in town.

  • HISTORY OF THE ELECTRIC CAR

    1832-1839: British inventor Robert Anderson developed the first crude electric carriage, but it was not until the second half of the 19th century that the first practical electric cars emerged, and by the turn of the century they had become popular as more people gained access to electricity.

    1908: Henry Ford's mass-produced Model T dealt a blow to the electric car by making the petrol-powered versions widely available and affordable.

    1972: BMW developed and showcased an electric vehicle at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In 1973, many more automakers began to take a closer look at alternative fuel vehicles after an oil embargo by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries led to skyrocketing oil prices and petrol shortages.

    1990: Environmental concerns led to the passage of more stringent emissions standards in the United States, encouraging automakers to begin modifying some of their popular models into electric vehicles.

    1997: Toyota's Prius became the world's first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle, after its release in Japan. Some 50,000 Prius cars were sold in the first year of its global launch three years later.

    By January this year, Toyota had sold more than 10 million hybrid vehicles.

    2003: Tesla was founded, becoming the first automaker to specialise in electric cars. It launched its first luxury model in 2008 that could go more than 320km on a single charge.

    By 2012, it started deliveries of a long-range Model S.

    2017: Volvo announces plans to phase out production of conventional petrol-only cars from 2019, with all new models to be either electric or hybrid.

    SOURCES: US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY, NYTIMES

Even in Germany, which uses a mix of fossil and renewable fuel sources, the tally is a shade below 180g/km, which would earn it a neutral band in Singapore's current emission tax scheme.

It is only in places such as Iceland, Sweden and France - which use a lot of nuclear and renewable sources of energy - that electric cars reap their full benefits.

In Singapore, which does not use any renewables in our national power grid, electric cars will not be carbon-light. They will, however, transfer pollution from population centres to far-flung industrial areas - which is not entirely a bad thing.

Third, how green electric cars are also depends largely on how we dispose of their spent batteries. Tesla claims it can recycle up to 70 per cent of its batteries. Even if we believe that to be true, there is still the remaining 30 per cent, which translates to trillions of tonnes of toxic material that cannot be disposed of easily.

Lastly, battery technology as it is today is still not convincingly robust. Degradation is still obvious and, in some cases, unacceptable. We all see this in our mobile phones, tablets, laptops and other battery-powered devices.

Perhaps that is why Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda seem to be shifting their focus to hydrogen fuel cells. A fuel cell is also a battery, but it uses a fuel like hydrogen to mix with oxygen in the air to chemically produce electricity on board the vehicle.

There are studies that say fuel cells are superior to lithium batteries. There are also studies that say the opposite. This is a positive thing because we need rigorous scrutiny and debate to improve. Hopefully, both options will be available and the market will decide which one it likes better.

Meanwhile, the world will hold Volvo Cars - and its owner Geely - to its promises.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2017, with the headline 'Still a long journey towards Volvo's zero-emission target'. Print Edition | Subscribe