Technology neutrality and decarbonisation: the end of illusions

 

Technological neutrality, which has been the watchword in debates on the decarbonisation of the automobile and land transport, is now only formally invoked, since it is clear that the EU has clearly chosen the battery electric vehicle (BEV). This de facto renunciation of the principle of technological neutrality, which is perceptible in the sequence that began in 2015, is anything but fortuitous: it was probably necessary for decarbonisation to take place, for the standard that had hitherto been the standard of the automobile industry to be scrapped and for the BEV to be imposed as the new universal standard.

 

In 2015, the global and European automotive industry began a major shift, the first effects of which we are now experiencing. Indeed, 2015 was, let us remember, the year of the Paris agreements, the year of the VW scandal and the year when China adopted the famous "MIC 2025" (for "Made In China" 2025) as its roadmap. Since then, manufacturers, equipment suppliers, professional organisations, trade unions and politicians have repeatedly reaffirmed the need to maintain the famous technological neutrality and/or regretted that this is not the case. This continues to be a kind of obligatory rhetorical figure of speech in order not to despair of industrialists or employees who would not be able to integrate into the BEV sector, but its invocation rings increasingly hollow because this principle is no longer - and can no longer be - respected in Europe.

The long-awaited proposal made in Brussels on 14 July to extend the commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 by banning the registration of combustion engine vehicles from 2035 sounds the death knell for this much-maligned principle of public policy on technology. Indeed, as V. Gautrais writes, there are new laws voluntarily associated with a technology: they are passed in the belief that they can be complied with thanks to the use of this technology, and the freedom theoretically left to comply with the same requirements with another technology within the time allowed is largely artificial.

In the automotive sector, in fact, requiring 95g of CO2 to be met in the NEDC by 2021, a 37.5% reduction in emissions in the WLTP between 2021 and 2030 and then a 55% reduction in emissions, and finally zero carbon emissions from vehicles put on the road in 2035, is clearly not technologically neutral: with increasing clarity, this condemns combustion and hybrids and, within these timeframes, the capacity of the hydrogen-PAC couple to be structured as an alternative to BEVs seems very slim even for heavy vehicles (except probably in the bus sector). Consequently, everything that has been done since 2015 by Brussels and by most national authorities consists more and more explicitly of imposing a single standard on the global automobile industry, which, as no one doubts any more, will be the BEV.

As we pointed out two years ago, the automotive industry player that is most explicitly opposed to this principle of technological neutrality is the Volkswagen group and its managers.
This is understandable because Volkswagen sells as many vehicles in China as in Europe (4 million) and its strategy could not be more global: the vehicles sold here and there, as well as the technologies and platforms on which they are based, are the same and must remain the same; if China imposes BEV and insisting on the idea of "clean diesel" in the United States and even in Europe no longer seems very feasible, then you have to be proactive and pretend to honestly wish for what will be imposed on you in any case.

Once this strategy had been clarified, including within the company itself, VW's managers led a political offensive in Berlin and Brussels and, by not hesitating to dissociate themselves from the other two Germans (on issues such as hydrogen, which VW no longer wants to hear about) and from the ACEA, worked against technological neutrality. They have developed the conviction that this principle is no longer adapted to the situation, that there is no longer time to play both sides of the fence, that it is no longer possible to have several hares at once...

In 2021, Volkswagen is no longer isolated. Whatever their initial convictions about the need to preserve technological neutrality and/or the relevance of the BEV solution in general and for Europe in particular, all the manufacturers, one after the other, noting the laws that will apply to them and/or constrain their motoring customers, are aligning themselves with the German group. They are abandoning research on the combustion engine, removing diesel from their ranges, and presenting hybrid or rechargeable hybrid solutions as transitory. They swap their sceptical views on the ability of BEVs to attract customers and/or to be truly clean or accessible for much more 'pro-electric' statements: since this is going to be the standard anyway, they might as well appear to be in the camp of those who will have contributed to shaping this new world rather than those who have done everything to prevent it from happening. Everyone is now on the side of victory and no longer demands technological neutrality, but policies that promote the success of the solution that is being imposed on them.

In fact, such a transition is systemic and requires the advent of a whole ecosystem of electric mobility that manufacturers cannot structure alone. Charging stations in houses or buildings, in shopping centres, in workplaces, on motorway rest areas, on public roads: these are logical requests, but they cannot be addressed to the public authorities simultaneously for several technologies; therefore, they are asked to renounce neutrality and/or they are pushed to do so by accepting that they will do what is necessary for BEV and refrain from doing so for hydrogen. From far and wide, as China has done very explicitly by going beyond an obligation of results to draw up clear technological performance requirements that can be likened to obligations of means, the EU is imposing BEV as the universal standard. It is this technology that everyone will adopt and that will benefit from the famous increasing returns on adoption: all the other areas of technology will flow to its service and not to that of the alternatives because for the suppliers of the said technologies it is the electric one that will ensure the largest volumes of business. For these reasons, everything in the history of technology suggests that the handicap of the CAP in 2020 will not be overcome in the years to come, but will deepen, because the few players who will work to ensure that this is the case will be a very small minority compared to the big battalions.

In these cases, the issue is less about the intrinsic characteristics of the technologies than about which one the majority and/or the most powerful will bet on. For these reasons, the risk identified by liberals that a 'bad option' will be promoted by the public authorities refusing to let the beneficial laws of the market and private initiative play out is counterbalanced by the fact that, left to their own devices, industrial players can remain for a long time in overly cautious attitudes, in a kind of wait-and-see attitude where, by dint of not wanting to close any door, none is really opened.

If this is not the case, if everyone wants to keep a 'liquid' technological portfolio, then the technologies remain in the state of potentials whose revelation is constantly postponed until later. This is basically the position that both the BEV and the CAP were in before 2015. Less than the 'climate emergency' that had already been identified for many years, it was the strategic emergency that MIC 2025 created that triggered the 'second automotive revolution' that Michel Freyssenet spoke of in 2008-2009.
A new standard has emerged. For this to happen, technological neutrality had to be abandoned. Volkswagen wanted it. The EU did it. Everyone is happy with it in 2021.

06/09/2021

 

 

 

 

The weekly column by Bernard Jullien is also on www.autoactu.com.

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