After the vote in the European Parliament, it is time to ask the real questions

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As the past week has shown, the debate on the electric vehicle is more a religious war than a real political battle over the automotive industry and services we want to develop and the vehicles we want consumers to use. Since the strategy pursued by the politicians and the Commission is to put the industry against the wall and force it to keep a bet they have made for it, the time has come to ask the operational questions, which are no less political: how do we want to fulfil these specifications and/or how can we keep this bet in our best interests?

Last week, the European Parliament voted to ban the registration of combustion, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles from 2035.
Even if the supporters of the measure were playing scare tactics and keeping up the pressure, while the opponents were trying to extract some concessions by tabling amendments such as the 90% amendment, nobody really doubted the outcome of this battle.  
In France, even within the presidential majority, supporters like Pascal Canfin got the better of the opponents, including the President himself. Even among manufacturers - and even within the car groups - the front is hardly united and the ban, when it is definitively adopted (i.e. when the Council has also validated the Commission's proposal of last July), will have, for many, the merit of clarity and will make it possible to order the strategic priorities for the next 10 years.

The reactions that have been recorded in the automotive world and far beyond have been surprisingly violent against a European Union and its democratically elected parliament, which are seen as living in a world outside the ground, detached from the daily realities of citizens and consumers and from the economic, technological, industrial and social constraints associated with the sectors whose roadmap they claim to set.

It is true that this vote corresponds, despite everything, to a form of political voluntarism to which the EU had not accustomed us: often criticized for its fussy character or for setting rules that are not very applicable and whose usefulness is problematic, the EU does not usually appear to be overly dirigiste or voluntarist in industrial matters, on the contrary. On the contrary. Thus, while it is usually stressed that China, Japan, Korea or the United States are more coordinated and ambitious, this time it can be pointed out that no other major automotive region has set its industrialists such a demanding roadmap. Business-friendly Europe thus seems to have been abandoned and replaced by a climate-friendly Europe managed by a community of technocrats and environmental activists who have in common their fundamental ignorance of realities.

On the other hand, for a long time now, and especially since the Volkswagen affair, environmental NGOs, politicians and administrations have been objecting that, during all the years when, sensitive to the accusation of incompetence, they have allowed industrialists to describe the realities and constraints that weigh on them, they have systematically indicated that very little could be changed without risking harming the industry, its international competitiveness and the hundreds of thousands of related jobs. They extolled the virtues of diesel in terms of CO2 and swore to them that its air quality disadvantage was being overcome. Not without reason, they felt they were being taken for a ride, and politicians and government departments began to listen more attentively to the arguments of the NGOs, whose work they began to finance and whose expertise they began to strengthen. The result was the change in "philosophy" that is undoubtedly the crux of the debate in recent months.

When we examine the arguments of the various parties, we can see two ways of reasoning emerging. 

The first is to criticize the objectives assigned to the industrialists by indicating that, as things stand at present, they cannot be achieved. The measure then suffers from a lack of realism or from imprudence: we know what we will inevitably destroy; we do not know, on the other hand, whether we will be able to create the targeted alternative or what the industrial, technological, social or competitive landscape will be. In this line of argument, we can readily add - as Carlos Tavares has repeated over and over again, and as the anti-electrics who are very active on all the social networks and forums systematically say - that the 360° studies have not been carried out and/or that the very long series of questions raised by this change has not been examined. This last argument is perfectly inadmissible because it refers to the laziness of those who make it rather than to reality: whether it is the question of raw materials or those of technological dependence, terminals, electricity production, recycling, employment, etc., they are all the subject of thousands of pages of scientific or "grey" literature. While it is true that, most of the time, the works in question cannot make a definitive decision since, by definition, they deal with a history that is still being written, they do allow us to gauge whether or not the bet taken collectively is tenable and what conditions we must try to bring together so that it is.

We are then in the second philosophy which consists precisely in admitting that, at the moment when the decision must be taken, a certain number of questions such as those mentioned above remain to be resolved. The problem is then to know whether we should continue to try to solve the climate issue as it arises for the automobile by preserving the thermal engine and continuing to devote a major part of the R&D budgets to it, even though we know, having followed this path for decades, that the paradigm has its limits and that it has clearly entered its phase of diminishing returns, or whether we should force the advent of a new one. The proponents of this philosophy must admit that they have no certainties other than that carbon neutrality will not be achieved in 2050 by preserving thermal. They are proposing a collective gamble and - against the supporters of technological neutrality - consider that the success of the said gamble of the alternative to thermal energy is more likely if we agree on a standard that will attract all the investments in all the industrial or service activities that will form the ecosystems to be structured around it.

For Pascal, we cannot be certain that God exists but, by acting as if He did, we cannot lose and we can only win because, if He does exist, we will win Heaven. In technological matters, the configuration is somewhat similar, except that the logical equivalent of the existence of God depends in part on our collective adherence to the gamble we are being proposed: if we collectively convince ourselves that the electric vehicle can become a solution, there is every chance that it will become one, because the powerful objections that still exist in 2022 will be progressively removed. The same thing was true a little over 100 years ago for the internal combustion engine: at that time there was no standardisation of fuel octane ratings, there were no petrol pumps and you had to go and get cans... When the number of vehicles grew, the business to be developed became substantial, and the public authorities got involved..., the ecosystem became structured, adjusted and diversified.

Today, for the battery electric vehicle (BEV), the European Parliament's vote encourages us to enter this phase head-on: faced with the many well-founded objections to the development of the BEV, we are going to have to situate our debates downstream of the decision and no longer seek to prevent the advent or imposition of this choice but to ensure that the said objections are lifted by following the paths that are most in line with our desiderata and interests. 

The questions then become:
- Which battery technologies should be developed to limit our dependence on imported strategic materials and Asian players?
- What vehicles should be produced to ensure that demand is solvent?
- How can we ensure that relocations compensate for the job losses that the reduction in working hours for electric vehicles will entail?
- How can we enrich the portfolio of activities of the "garages" so that the overcapacity that the drop in maintenance-repair activities will generate can be redeployed?
- How can we prevent electrification from perpetuating the premium advantage that has been structured to the benefit of the Germans for the past 20 years in Europe's automobile industry?
- How can we produce the decarbonised electricity required by this gradual electrification of the fleet, which will take place in a context where the decarbonisation of all activities (industry, home heating, etc.) will also require more electricity?
- How to structure the organisation of battery recycling?
- And so on.

Politicians are putting all the players in the sector against the wall, considering that listening too much to their grievances will only lead to immobility. The industry has no choice but to try to meet this challenge with the community. The trial of politicians or Brussels for irresponsibility and/or inconsistency and the catastrophism that accompanied the announcement of this very predictable victory of the prohibitionist option still bore the stigma of the hope of a form of preservation of the gains made. They were probably just as much a way of opening up the debate on the future. The latter is far more important.

From the French point of view and from the point of view of the objective of carbon neutrality in general, the most important question is likely to be that of knowing which electric vehicles to promote. In this respect, the fact that the Germans managed to have the amendment proposing the deletion of the famous mass parameter rejected is a very bad indication: as Yann Vincent, the head of ACC - the joint subsidiary of Stellantis and Saft - said at a conference in the autumn, the question of 100% will cease to be one and it will now be necessary to determine 100% of how many vehicles will be produced and registered per year in Europe. This will obviously depend on the collective capacity of Europe and its manufacturers to develop its BEV offer towards vehicles that a larger proportion of households will be able to buy than at present.

Indeed, if we continue to tolerate or even encourage in Europe the idea that vehicles resembling Teslas or ID.5s could be the electric ideal for our continent to the detriment of Fiat 500s, Zoes, AMIs or even European Kei-cars yet to be invented, the gamble will be much less tenable than if we combat this idea. Now that the decision has been taken, it is time to abandon the religious war and move on to the political and diplomatic battles that remain to be fought to ensure that the gamble is kept in our best interests.

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

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