Can the electric vehicle and the debate about it finally mature?

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For the past ten years, the professions concerned have had the same debates and the same demands concerning the electric vehicle (BEV): those who call for respect for the laws of the market and technological neutrality repeatedly ask that the public authorities assume the bulk of the burden of adjustment, on the pretext that they have imposed the choice of decarbonisation. The "whatever it takes" of the last two years has reinforced this tendency and the grand coalition formed around ACEA on this issue is calling for even greater and more costly support measures. Perhaps it is time to be a little more careful with money.

To put pressure on the public authorities, ACEA has sought out not only the upstream automotive sector with Clepa but also the electrical industry (Eurelectric), energy producers (Wind Europe) and charging infrastructure producers (ChargeUp Europe).
By presenting itself as the coordinator of a vast coalition, ACEA hopes to reinforce its message: the spread of the electric vehicle and/or, more broadly, the desire expressed in 2020 to decarbonise transport by 2050 calls for very large-scale public investment. These investments concern hydrogen recharging and refuelling stations, which they consider that, for a period of time that they refuse to evaluate, "during the ramp-up phase", they cannot be covered by the market alone. They also concern the production of electrical energy, hydrogen or green fuels, which must also be provided without emissions if what is done for vehicles is to make sense.

Thus, it reads:
- "Member States should stimulate and support investment in recharging and powering infrastructure for cars, vans and trucks in areas where the market fails to provide the necessary investment to build a sufficiently dense infrastructure network."
- "Moving towards carbon-neutral transport and mobility only makes sense if in parallel the transition to zero-emission energy production is secured."

The message is clear: the private operators have understood the demands made on them but consider that the bulk of the investment is not their responsibility any more than it can be borne by consumers; it is therefore the taxpayer who must pay, and this for an indefinite period.

In the field of electric vehicles, the debate has been going on for a good ten years now and has had a few notable episodes with the end of Autolib and/or the upward revision of the motorway recharging tariffs of the operator Ionity in the summer of 2020: manufacturers and consumers have become accustomed to considering that electric recharging should be very cheap so that the disadvantages of electric cars are offset by a significant reduction in the costs of use. In this context, the desire of the public authorities to see the number of electric vehicles registered increase has the counterpart that electric mobility is largely subsidised: the additional cost of the vehicles is partially compensated for by heavy subsidies and local authorities are strongly encouraged to offer recharging (slow or fast) on the public highway to supplement recharging at home and/or at work.

Since the number of electric vehicles on the road is still very limited and users largely prefer to recharge at home, the private operators partnering with local authorities are unable to make the operation profitable, given that maintenance costs are high and consumer demands for the reliability of these infrastructures are strong.

Since, like all purchasers of new or recent vehicles, EV purchasers are recruited from the upper classes and in the major urban areas, which are generally richer, the "distributive" dimension is quite problematic: in order for modest households to be able to drive these EVs one day, which they will buy second-hand, manufacturers and their favoured customers are asking them to subsidise the owners of these EVs which, even with subsidies, they will not be able to afford for several years.

They are thus watching parking spaces become scarcer and scarcer in favour of those spaces for electric vehicles or rechargeable hybrids that their taxes already pay for but which they will not use until tomorrow or the day after. Manufacturers complain that there are not enough of them, but local authorities and citizens alike have all noted that many of these charging points are under-used: they have a reassuring role to play for electric vehicle novices, who learn quite quickly to avoid using them as soon as the charge rate increases. The argument that, in view of the number of vehicles, this infrastructure must initially be oversized and subsidised in order to achieve more reasonable usage in the future and to enable the structuring of sustainable business models seems very fragile: it is not impossible that the use of these charging points on the public highway will remain marginal forever.

It even seems desirable that it should, since RTE studies, for example, show that the home/work charging combination is much more convincing in all respects: good charging from the point of view of electricity production and distribution is that which is "controllable", i.e. triggered when demand is low and/or supply is high, and not as soon as you connect. It turns out that this control is not possible on these "public" slow or fast terminals, which are also the most expensive to install, whereas it is possible on private terminals or those used (still insufficiently, but more and more frequently all the same) in company car parks.

As the debate matures and we move away from the infancy of the electric vehicle, where the benevolent public authorities made it a rich and royal child, we will no longer be able to pass on everything to it and demand that we spend an incredible amount of money on it at all levels. If this is the case, then it will probably be necessary to accept that we should ease up on the charging points on the public highway to encourage the purchase of electric cars in the sparsely populated world where people drive for miles and where individual housing dominates and/or to equip all company car parks with charging points.

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

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