The social construction of the electrical car, the role of innovation networks in Brazilian experiences

Type de publication:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2017)


Brazil, Eletrical cars, Sociology of innovation


 According to recently released data by the database the annual sale of electric vehicle (plug-in) in the world has grown exponentially, reaching 0.86% of the market share in 2016. Although not very expressive, this figure represents an important growth when compared to the market share of 5 years ago (0.07%). Part of this growth can be seen in the investment of several automakers, new and traditional, in the development of hybrid and electric car models, and in the emergence of various electric car-sharing systems around the world. Still, according to IEA report, this expansion of the electric vehicle market is more relevant in some specific contexts: China, the United States, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and France accounted for 90% of electric car sales in 2015.

However, each of these countries has different sets of policies and incentives regarding electric cars, and different technological paths. So it becomes possible to think of the implementation of this technological innovation from these different contexts, that is, considering not only technical and economic factors within a causal and unidirectional logic, but the set of public policies, cultural aspects and social mobilizations in which these innovations are inserted. This implies to conceive innovations as complex, relational and multidimensional processes, subject to contingencies and contradictions. That is, as a process permeated by interests, values, bonds of trust and institutional arrangements, contingent and changeable over time. This becomes especially relevant in institutional contexts that have a high level of technological dependence and little functional cohesion, where it is difficult to conceive a National Innovation System.

In the case of the Brazilian context - historically promoter and precursor of ethanol as an alternative fuel to gasoline, which tended to strengthen the paradigm of the internal combustion engine instead of electric forms of propulsion and supply - if we consider only the current moment of technological learning and economic viability conditions, it becomes virtually impossible the task to escape the technological lock-in of the combustion engine. However, it is possible to observe some relevant initiatives aimed at an implementation of the electric car in Brazil, such as:

Ecolétrico, a public project to install new modes of public transportation with low environmental impact in the city of Curitiba, which provides the use of electric vehicles in the municipal administration fleet and the development of technology in partnership with the Itaipu hydroelectric power plant; The Light Car (Carro Leve), a system of shared electric vehicles in operation in the Porto Digital in the city of Recife, system that aims the reduction of the individual use of vehicles through optimization of the use; and the Nissan Electric Taxi Program, a program that operated in the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in a partnership between Nissan, Petrobras Distribuidora and prefectures in the use of Nissan Leaf vehicles in the fleet of licensed taxis.

Despite their weaknesses, these experiences reflect the diverse tensions (environmental, urban mobility, public health) about the automotive market and its modus operandi and point to initiatives not only of the automakers, but also of the public managers and users in promoting more collaborative and efficient application for the vehicles. In addition, these experiences create pressures on the individual vehicle's internal combustion logic and open up important spaces for the introduction and diffusion of the electric vehicle in the national context.

Therefore, in order to better understand the development of technological innovations such as the electric car and its applications in different contexts, it becomes relevant to conceive them as processes that articulate broad interpretative frameworks (laws, fields of contention, institutions) with particular motivations and interests. In other words, it is convenient to analyze not only the contexts, or the identity of the actors that compose them, but the set of social relations established within these contexts in order to identify how these interactions conform the establishment, the failure, or unpremeditated results of these economic innovations.

With this in view, the present work seeks to explore the role of complex networks of interaction in the process of social production of economic innovations, based on the three experiences mentioned before. More precisely, it seeks to investigate how the network link structures and the identities of the actors involved are related to the process of establishing the electric car. To set, in this way, the relationship between the configuration of interaction networks (structure and nature of nodes) and the different experiences of introduction, commercialization, diffusion and use of electric vehicles in the Brazilian market.

For this, the research seeks to identify and map the main actors (their relevance, role and connections in the network) through network analysis and to create a codified database, with the support of computational tools of qualitative data analysis, in order to analyze interaction networks and their roles in the different levels and moments of the innovative process.

The three experiments investigated are organized in the form of complex networks, but are based on different strategies with different protagonists and are focused on specific moments of the innovative process. However there are some important points in common between initiatives. One that can be highlighted is the justification of the use of the electric car by environmental factors and the publication of indicators regarding its use in terms of the amount of CO2 emissions avoided. Which points to a large common interpretive framework, driven by the strong environmental appeal of the initiatives and to the process of negotiation of interests at stake in the course of implementing innovation.

Thus, organized through heterogeneous sets of nodes, related in a web of reciprocal and coordinated actions, the initiatives prove themselves important for the consolidation of this technology and for the forms it may take place. Since they are promoters of cultural, technological and institutional learning in these different moments of the innovative process.

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