WHY THE CAR MAKERS WON'T – OR CAN'T – BE THE ANSWER TO THE ELECTRIC REVOLUTION
ELECTROHEADS CO-FOUNDER MATTHEW FRANEY ON WHY THE SPEED OF CHANGE IN THE MOVE TOWARDS EVs MAY BE HAPPENING FASTER THAN EVEN THE AUTOMOTIVE GIANTS CAN KEEP UP WITH...
THE CAR WORLD returned to some semblance of normality in September when the first big motor show since the pandemic took place in Germany.
It’s been nearly two years since lockdown put a stop to showing off new metal, so the Munich-based IAA Mobility show was the first chance for car makers to reveal to the world their latest answers to the electrification revolution.
It came as no surprise, then, to see bold new electric car concepts unveiled by the biggest names in automotive – Merc, BMW, Renault et al. All are interesting, some are spectacularly, er, conceptual.
What did come as a surprise was to hear that one of those grand dames of the car world, Renault, is simultaneously lobbying the French government and the European Union to push back the ban on internal combustion-engined car sales to 2040 (rather than the currently slated 2035).
Excusez-moi? What’s the rationale? Well, Renault’s R&D boss Gilles Le Borgne told Autocar that they have three reasons to slow the charge to all-electric:
Electric car charging infrastructure may not be ready by 2035.
The affordability of battery electric cars for all customers at all entry points can’t be guaranteed.
The car makers may well struggle to adapt their own factories to full EV production in the next 14 years.
On paper, they all seem like legitimate issues for the boss of a big car company to raise. Immense change can only come with huge investment from the makers themselves – and the scale of that investment will in turn make it harder to sell highly complex cars at a price that makes them both affordable and profitable. It’s quite a challenge. As Renault is clearly admitting.
But something just doesn’t stack up to me. Arguing for a 2040 extension to the EU’s ‘ICE’ cut-off means we’re talking about another 20-year timespan for the car industry to get its act together. Are they seriously arguing that it will take two decades from here to fulfil their promise and deliver homegrown solutions to the environmental crisis?
Sitting here, typing away on my MacBook Pro in 2021, it’s quite instructive to wind the clock back to see what really can be achieved in way less than 20 years when consumers are offered new tech that they really, really want.
Well, for one thing, my MacBook Pro didn’t actually exist in 2001... I would have been typing this on a very ‘solid’ 1st Gen Powerbook G4. And while it was shiny and cool for its time, it was very poorly equipped to hook up to new-fangled things like, say, ‘WiFi’ (which, by the way, had been invented just four years earlier and was only just becoming commonplace in the homes of the very earliest adopters…).
Twenty years ago things were just very different to how they are now. It reminds me of a scene in a 2004 episode of The West Wing. When a politician’s sex scandal breaks on the internet, the White House comms team explains that they’ve still got 24 hours to get on top of the story before it gets into the ‘real’ news. Different times, folks…
What else didn’t exist 20 years ago? Well, iPhones (all smartphones really) would not turn up until 2007, iPads didn’t land until 2010 and even Tesla, the biggest name in EVs, didn’t deliver its first car until 2008.
The Roadster, as it was called, was basically a re-skinned Lotus Elise chassis with as many batteries as possible crammed into its belly. It was decently quick and showed the massive potential of the EV – but anyone sitting in a 2021 Tesla Model S would find the Roadster to be as retro as an old Nokia Mars Bar phone sat alongside a new iPhone 13.
The truth is, you just couldn’t buy a sensible electric car 20 years ago. Most people would agree that you couldn’t actually buy a decent electric car until less than 10 years ago. One of the very first ‘affordable’ machines, Renault’s own little electric Zoe, only came on sale in 2014.
Shown against that timeframe, every advance in the world of EVs that we’re experiencing today has taken place in less than a decade. In years that you could count on your fingers, Elon Musk – wittingly or unwittingly – forced the entire car industry to play catch-up.
And here’s the thing. They already pretty much have. The difference between 2012 and now, in terms of EV choice, is mind-blowing. Tesla has gone from having zero competition to facing a host of legitimate challengers in not much more than the last five years. Are the bosses at Renault really arguing that it will take another 20 years to finish the job? As I said, it just doesn’t add up.
And here’s the rub: even if the car lobby and legislators do decide together to slow the pace of change – and still, I’d be surprised if they did – then they might find that consumer demand and technological disruption does their job for them regardless.
How so? Well, take a look again at Renault’s three ‘challenges’: infrastructure, affordability and manufacturing.
They’re certainly big problems for a car maker – but they are, in reality, almost exclusively problems for a car maker. A new breed of inventors are bringing new and disruptive e-mobility solutions to the world and, by scale and design, they will be able to avoid Renault’s big three hurdles. And they certainly won’t expect to be given a 20-year runway to deliver either.
Charging infrastructure? Well, that’s only a problem if you’re trying to put 30, 40, 50 or more kiloWatts of electricity into a massive car battery. Next-gen mobility solutions won’t rely on continent-wide charging networks. They will be easily charged from home or the office in less time, and for much less cost.
Affordability? Again, as more people discover that e-mobility solutions come in all guises and at all prices, then the huge cost of big EV cars will surely become less and less palatable. Car journeys will inexorably be replaced by e-bikes, e-scooters, and even autonomous pods at a price entry point (or rental cost) that legacy car makers won’t be able to match by selling the traditional way.
And manufacturing? Well, it’s true: cars are really, really complicated things to build. Big chassis. Lots of moving parts. Stereos in every door panel. Interiors that need to cosset like a living room but not fall apart when they move. And on and on it goes…
But advances in engineering, automation and manufacturing have already allowed the next generation of disruptive e-mobility firms to create battery-powered scooters, bikes, one-wheels and more that were unimaginable 20 years ago.
That pace of manufacturing agility will increase rather than diminish – and with it will come opportunities for new forms of transportation that can be built at a fraction of the cost and complexity of a car.
The reality is that it is up to the legacy car makers to find those same levels of agility and ingenuity – and fast. Or, come 2035, they might just find that the world left them behind.