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Electric cars - lights and shadows in the industry of the future

If 4 years ago we had asked Daimler’s CEO (i.e. the CEO of Mercedes-Benz and Smart), Dieter Zetsche, to analyse the electric cars market, his answer, quite representative, would have been as follows:

It can reasonably be said that no one is selling an economically viable electric vehicle today. Manufacturers will not have an economic return of the billions they are investing in a reasonable time.

These words, however, dates back to 2014. Although the prices of electric cars have not dropped at all in the meantime, something has begun to change. Smart, for example, decided to abandon thermal engines for good and to produce only zero-emission models as early as the beginning of 2020. Smart represents the choice of a small car manufacturer, which can reasonably afford to risk on limited numbers, but it is not alone in this choice.

If Tesla represents a case on its own - because it is not a traditional manufacturer, it is completely out of the ordinary and does not follow the rules of other car manufacturers – many car manufacturers are now ready to take to the field with 100% electric vehicles.

Jaguar, Hyundai, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen, not to mention Nissan and Renault. All these automotive companies have taken to the field offering models for every price range, although you have to think that generally they all have a price of at least 10,000 euros, mainly due to the high costs of lithium batteries.

Not everything lithium glitters

Yet, despite something that has definitely moved, in recent years the numbers of zero-emission cars in Europe has kept being decidedly marginal. In 2017, 149,086 new electric cars were registered in the old continent, with an increase of 43.9% compared to 2016, but with a share that represents only 0.9% of a market that has totalled over 15 million new cars. Moreover, there are only 501,798 electric cars currently in circulation in Europe, compared to over 200 million petrol and diesel ones. Practically a drop in the ocean.
In short, there is still a long way to go. Nonetheless, there have been some initiatives over the last two years, both public and private, as well as the development of numerous infrastructures to accommodate for future growth. Illustrious and influential political figures have favoured sales stimuli favoured in the past. For example Angela Merkel, who claimed: "Without forms of state incentive it will be impossible to achieve our objective". That was a year ago, as she referred to the objective of having one million electric cars on the road (in Germany) by 2020.

As for private initiatives, they are simply indispensable. Not everyone, in fact, can afford to reload the car in their garage and almost no one can afford the luxury of putting in his garage a car potentially "lame" and unable to cope with a journey of more than 150-200 km - what, to date, stands as the maximum real autonomy of most models on the market.

Incentives and public stations are therefore the way to the electric car, as we wait for the cars on the market to become more affordable. In short, although more than twenty years have passed, the themes are practically the same as those of the mythological General Motors EV1, shown in the documentary Who killed the electric car?

In practice, buying an electric car does not bring any economic benefit even today. This is what has emerged from a study by the German Automobile Club (ADAC), after conducting a thorough study comparing electrical and thermal models. The basic problem is that the low cost of energy is not enough to amortise the higher initial expenditure, mainly due to the cost of lithium batteries. Probably, therefore, we will have to wait for a technological revolution that has a lot to do with chemistry.

A vehicle with hidden emissions

In the meantime, you can spend your time wondering about the traditionally more publicised aspect of electric cars: zero emissions. This concept refers to what (does not) come out of the exhaust pipe, but does not take into account the entire life cycle of an electric car, from production to recycling and disposal.
How many emissions, on average, can be traced back to the entire life of an electric car? Once again, ADAC asked this question, taking into account CO2 emissions, while excluding other harmful emissions of particles, typical of combustion engines and absent in electric ones, such as particulate and NOx. A partial, though still indicative, analysis, takes as an example a medium-sized car with different types of power supply, during a life of 150,000 km. Carbon dioxide emissions, therefore, are those linked to the production (including recycling) of cars, those derived from the manufacture of fuels or energy and those directly linked to road use.
The results are closely related to the car's distance during its life cycle. A large electric vehicle powered by energy produced from renewable sources must travel at least 70,000 kilometres to be more "ecological" than a similar diesel model, and 50,000 compared to a petrol one. If, on the other hand, energy is of hybrid origin, as in Italy, where renewables weigh about a quarter, it takes as much as 580,000 kilometres. If the electric car is compact, however, just 21,000 kilometres per year to be greener than a gasoline and 23,000 for a diesel. This is provided that it is powered by electricity from renewable sources, otherwise the kilometres rise respectively to 57,000 and 45,000.

Having only taken into account CO2 emissions, the conclusion is that in order to make sense of the electric car, it is strictly necessary to supply it with clean energy produced from renewable sources. Otherwise, the benefits of having no local emissions will inexorably diminish, shifting the issue to the relocation of emissions from urban centres to more remote areas. Moreover, urban centres have already begun to declare war on diesel, not to mention the fact that the Dieselgate scandal has definitively sunk diesel from the mainstream market. Whether the future is electric or not, in short, is still very much unclear.

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