Truths and convictions: can the debate on the electric vehicle gain in quality?

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Debates about electrification continue to be extremely passionate and too often focus more on beliefs than facts. Arguments that consist in saying that we know nothing or that the uncertainties are extremely heavy, as well as the more "conspiracy" arguments that claim that everything is being hidden from us or, in a softer version, that "we are being careful not to raise the issue of .... "We are in fact faced with an overabundance of information and studies that should allow us to have a quality debate on this key issue.

We remember that four years ago, when he was still hoping to curb the electrifying ardour of Brussels, Carlos Tavares accused the authorities of a certain lightness and, after concerns were raised in October 2018 about the content of the remarks he had made in Geneva a year earlier, he explained himself to Ouest-France in these terms:
"The warning I wanted to give a few months ago is that there are no [...] impact studies, no 360-degree studies of what 100% electric mobility means. EU governments and politicians are taking scientific responsibility for the choice of technology.

As Florence Lagarde pointed out at the time, when asked by 20 Minutes whether Carlos Tavares was sincere or strategic:
"He is the only car manufacturer executive to hold this anti-electric and anti-regulation discourse, the others are more legalistic and less in the personal opinion. [...] It may be what he really thinks because he is convinced of it, but it may also be an alarmist posture to strike a chord.

Of course, as far as the battery electric vehicle is concerned, all the players, manufacturers or equipment suppliers who were intending to exercise other technological options (hydrogen/fuel cell pairing) and/or who thought that combustion engines (by mobilising different levels of hybridisation, the mobilisation of non-fossil fuels or others) could endure, will be warm supporters of these 360 studies.

They are convinced that, if carried out seriously, these studies can only lead to demonstrating the extent to which the presentation of the electric route as the most reasonable is truncated if we include insufficiently mentioned issues such as
- minerals, their scarcity and their extraction conditions ;
- the production of electricity required to recharge millions of vehicles every day
- infrastructure
- taxation;
- the recycling of vehicles and their batteries
- vehicle manufacturing.

Similarly, radical environmentalists who see industrialists like Volkswagen or Renault embracing the electric option promoted by politicians will not fail to find this suspicious: it keeps the car industry and car manufacturers alive and even gives them an excuse not to make the only defensible choice, that of sobriety and/or degrowth.

Basically, what they refuse is summarised quite well by the criticism they express against what Jean-Louis Bergey, an expert in circular economy at Ademe, told them when he defends the electric choice as a gamble that seems necessary anyway:
"The technology of electric vehicles is not yet complete, but it is only by spreading them in society that they will improve," he explains. Because it is only by massively expanding industrial processes that we can enhance and finance research, which in turn will lead to better vehicles.
On this subject, Reporterre reacts by writing:
"In short, let's mass-produce electric cars on the assumption that they will improve tomorrow. But isn't it this kind of reasoning, based on confidence in technological development, that has led us into the current ecological impasse?"

In short, for radical environmentalists, the electric choice is a choice that is only there to allow us to continue to do whatever we want with our societies and nature while continuing to believe in progress. Tavares proposed 360 studies to moderate the ecological pressures on the car; radical ecologists are convinced that such studies would show that electrification solves almost no ecological issues.

The result is that, since the controversy is extremely important and the associated stakes are colossal, the exact opposite of what Tavares claimed is happening: there is a multiplicity of studies seeking, by various methods and in various fields, to shed light on any remaining grey areas. Obviously, these studies are rarely commissioned for 'scientific' reasons, but it must be recognised that, by cross-referencing the results, without putting an end to a debate that also refers us to philosophical, ethical or political choices, it is possible to document one's analyses and to leave the field of pure belief in order to access, if not objectivity, at least fairly solid arguments on which to base one's opinion. To do this, one simply has to decode, read between the lines and identify what is objective argument and what is hidden agenda.

Among the questions frequently raised for very good reasons is whether the emissions associated with the manufacture of vehicles make conversion bonuses counterproductive: by shortening the life cycle of certain combustion vehicles and increasing the high emission production of EVs and their batteries, we would be adding to the carbon footprint of our car use in the belief that we were lightening it. Obviously, if you are a repairer or a seller of mechanical parts or a dealer in used cars, this point of view will be attractive. If you do not believe in the BEV and would like to see the unanimity of the electric sector broken down to give alternatives a chance, you will find this thesis equally appealing.

In fact, all the literature agrees that the carbon footprint of the manufacture of electric vehicles is rather heavier than that of thermal vehicles and that the greater the delta, the greater the mileage covered by the vehicles to compensate for this imbalance through use. The Ademe's "life cycle analyses" (LCA) almost 10 years ago already showed this. Transport and Environment showed it again this year and the list of studies along the same lines is very long. Simply, beyond this law, it is very clear that depending on whether or not we produce very low-carbon electricity, we have a difference in the carbon footprint during production that is very low or very high and a carbon footprint during use that is very unequal and/or less distant.

Thus, if we are in the Japanese situation where, by abandoning nuclear power, we have "recarbonised" our electricity production, then we will manufacture our BEVs while emitting a lot of carbon and we will have to compensate for this "bad start" in a race against thermal power, which will leave us with a heavy burden. The same will be true for Poland and Germany, but not for France, as long as we do not claim to replace our nuclear power plants with wind turbines.

A study published this autumn claims that "extending the life of existing thermal vehicles is the best strategy for reducing emissions" and that "the conversion premium, when it concerns a relatively recent thermal vehicle, would thus be an aberration". As if by chance, the study was carried out by Japanese researchers from Kyushu Imperial University, and it therefore calls into question public policies to accelerate the conversion of the fleet from internal combustion engines to electric motors for reasons that are quite real in Japan but are much less relevant for us.

This does not mean that Japanese researchers are dishonest while we would be objective. It's just that when you want to include all the elements in a 360° study, you have to weight each one afterwards and, beyond the objective elements, the weightings that you apply, implicitly or explicitly, are a matter of preferences and/or priorities. There is no intrinsic superiority of electricity, whatever the context and/or the criteria of choice. On the other hand, in 2021, there is so much at stake in this question that, if we take the trouble to find out about it, we can access the necessary expertise to have an informed debate and get away from the anathemas and manipulations.

08/11/2021

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

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