Volvo's electric car dreams: Are such vehicles as green as touted?

SINGAPORE - Volvo Cars is no stranger to grand ambitions. Nine years ago, it declared that no one will 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 emission. Well, near zero, to be precise.

On Wednesday (July 5), Volvo Cars chief executive officer Hakan Samuelsson declared that all Volvo models launched after 2019 will be either battery-powered or petrol-electric hybrids.

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 engined-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 finer print.

With the public getting all electrified about 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.

Electric cars have the potential to reduce mega-tonnes of carbon dioxide that is melting the polar icecaps. 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 nor efficient as propaganda makes them out to be.

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

Secondly, 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 engined cars in town.

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 benefit.

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.

Thirdly, 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 onboard the vehicle.

There are studies which say fuel cells are superior to lithium batteries. There are also studies which say the opposite. This is a positive thing, because we need vigorous 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.