Road to Zero Emissions Now Clear for Road Traffic

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The road to zero emissions from road traffic is becoming very clear now. That the solution is battery electric vehicles (BEV) is now accepted even at most legacy carmakers. Only Toyota and friends still believe in a main role for hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) technology. A few others, like Renault, are looking for corner cases and niches where it can be used. They probably have golfing buddies in the oil & gas industry.

The timeline of the transition is another matter. It does still escape many people. Asking the public at large is not really helpful. They can not answer questions about a new technology they know little about. But that car journalists, policymakers, and even the top management of the legacy OEMs are confused is a big problem.

There are two timelines important in the transition. The first is the best known. It is the exponential timeline of the transition of the new car market, also known as “the S-curve.” The second is the often overlooked, far less sexy, linear transition of the fleet of cars on the street.

The legacy OEMs must start making BEVs in time to survive, before the steep part of the S-curve makes them obsolete. Some big brands will be reduced to only a valuable name, like Bugatti or Hispano-Suiza. Others will struggle for years to either regain some of their former luster or to perish. Only those that are putting everything they have in building BEV production capacity have a chance to survive and prosper.

Graph of BEV sales replacing FFV sales
This is starting to happen now.

The policymakers are responsible for managing the upheaval of the industry and facilitating the building of the new infrastructure. The growing BEV fleet needs 10 million to 20 million new chargers per year for the next 30 years worldwide. Factories will close; about a third to half of the workers in the industry will be looking for another job. That is not just the workers at the OEMs, the workers in the supply chain are also affected.

While millions of workers will loose their jobs, even millions more are needed to build the new renewable energy infrastructure that is needed. Programs for retraining and replacing, combined by stimulating local production, is the task of policymakers.

The journalist’s task is explaining what is happening and why it is unavoidable — not the kind of retired writer who is producing this piece for a few thousand readers, but mainstream anchors that reach millions. “Climate change is real.” “We are in a race against the clock.” “It improves the world we live in.” “It increases the living standards of billions.” That is the message they must bring and repeat again and again and again.

The exponential S-curve is happening now. Even in a market disrupted by covid-19 lockdowns, parts shortages, the Ukraine war, and constantly changing incentives, it is recognizable. China and Northwestern Europe are reaching around 20% BEV sales now. That level is impossible without word of mouth (aka the Invisible Hand) being a main driver. It is supported with a steady stream of better and more affordable fully electric models reaching the market.

In China, the success of the Wuling Hongguang mini EV for below $5,000 is the envy of the rest of the world. In Europe, the Dacia Spring is a $16,000 (estimated USA MSRP) fully electric, highway-capable small car. There are also about 20 other models below $30,000 that are bigger and better. Next year, there will be even more attractive offerings on the dealer’s showroom floors.

Reaching the top of the S-curve 3 to 4 years after passing 20% market share is a reasonable postulate. In Norway, it did take about twice as long, but they were the first without enough BEV models on the market. For the countries that are now around 20% — Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Iceland, and China — the implosion of the legacy fossil fuel vehicle (FFV) market is around 2025. Because the top of the S-curve will not be reached by replacing fossil fuel models 1 on 1 with fully electric models. That production capacity is nowhere in sight. A market share of over 90% will be reached by the disappearance of the fossil fuel market.

The rest of Europe is now 1 to 3 years behind this leading group. The implosion of demand for FFVs in these countries can be expected in the middle of the second half of this decade, around 2027.

With over half of the world market gone, North America and the rest of the world will likely follow at the end of the decade.

This is not because of any policies or decisions by carmakers to do the right thing and produce only BEVs. This is the invisible hand of the market taking over. Policies and supply do not matter without demand. After the implosion of demand in China and Northwest Europe, it is the speed with which other countries realize what is happening. With modern communication through internet, it will be fast.

Countries that like to follow the example of the most developed nations will experience a stronger push towards electrification than countries that are less inclined to follow other people’s lead. (USA, for example?)

What follows is the linear transformation of the fleet on the roads. Depending on the age of the fleet, and the normal speed of replacement (and of course the volume of BEV production), every year there will be 3% to 5% of the fleet removed by export or a one-way journey to the scrapyard, and be replaced by BEVs.

An accelerated replacement can be expected with a production output of BEVs higher than the previous production of FFVs in the last decade.

Older vehicles are used less than newer vehicles. They are second or third vehicles and are used by people who can not really afford to drive a lot. They are just not as dependable and comfortable as new models. During the transition of the fleet this difference will be even bigger. I leave it to the imagination of the reader what the many reasons for this will be.

Around 2040, the share of miles driven by BEV could be 80%, and in 2050 the world can be at zero emissions from road transport.

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Trucking is 10 years behind light vehicles at the moment. The technology for trucking is being developed. The biggest obstacle is lack of batteries. Trucking is also a very cost sensitive business. Electric trucking will become a lot cheaper than fossil fuel trucking. Around 2050, nobody can afford to use a fossil fuel truck commercially, even if the truck is donated free of charge.

The responsibility of policymakers for the infrastructure was mentioned above. During the transition of the fleet, from 2025 until 2050, but mostly between 2030 and 2040, the charging infrastructure for 100 million new BEVs on the road a year must be build. That requires not only 10 million to 20 million public chargers per year; it also requires a grid to connect those chargers and enough renewable energy to charge those cars.

A bit of back-of-the-envelope calculations (and including all the other energy usage that is going to need renewable electricity) show a fourfold increase in grid capacity is likely. In developing countries, that comes at the same time as raising their standards of living to Western European or Eastern Asia standards — more is needed.

The complete transition to renewable energy and zero emissions is an Herculean task, but the transition of road transport is easy-peasy compared to that and mostly in the pocket by the end of this decade.


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Maarten Vinkhuyzen

Grumpy old man. The best thing I did with my life was raising two kids. Only finished primary education, but when you don’t go to school, you have lots of time to read. I switched from accounting to software development and ended my career as system integrator and architect. My 2007 boss got two electric Lotus Elise cars to show policymakers the future direction of energy and transportation. And I have been looking to replace my diesel cars with electric vehicles ever since. At the end of 2019 I succeeded, I replaced my Twingo diesel for a Zoe fully electric.

Maarten Vinkhuyzen has 280 posts and counting. See all posts by Maarten Vinkhuyzen