The electric car revolution in Europe requires a swift change of gear if it is to move from a well-heeled, early-adopters’ niche to the mass market. European manufacturers still haven’t got the memo; small is beautiful. If this fails, the ramifications will be political as well as economic.
Consumers will have to accept that electric cars, even expensive ones, have serious range limitations. Long trips with the family to southern Spain or Italy for the summer holidays using fast motorways are no problems for an internal combustion engine (ICE). But range anxiety from fast-but-legal motorway driving and poor charging facilities present big hurdles for electric vehicles. Given that 90% of motoring is never much more than 30 miles a day anyway, everyday use won’t be much of a problem. You can always hire a diesel for those annual trips to the sun or weekend jaunts. Or take the train.
Current electric technology produces, often at huge expense, cars and SUVs with great short-range capability for everyday tasks like the school run, shopping and commuting. But despite a fusillade of false claims to the contrary, once you get an electric car in long-range cruising mode on the highway, the technology quickly runs out of puff. Your $90,000 Audi E-trons, Mercedes or BMWs turn out to be expensive town cars.
Professor Peter Wells, Professor of Business and Sustainability at Cardiff Business School put it this way.
“Range falls off a cliff at high speed. For an electric car, the extra energy required getting from 60 mph to 75 mph is astonishing and virtually doubles energy consumption to move all that air out of the way,” Wells said in an interview.
CEO Elon Musk once told me that all Tesla’s figures for range are all based on an average of 55 mph. I don’t think that has changed.
Yet mass-car makers like Volkswagen, Stellantis, and Renault are wasting billions of euros trying to make an electric car as strong an allrounder as an ICE-powered one. This is futile if the aim is to produce climate-friendly cars average earners can afford. The more carmakers try and improve range, the bigger the batteries become, the more grotesque the weight and size, the more carbon dioxide (CO2) is consumed in the process, and the higher the price and the less affordable (and climate-pointless) is the product.
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Europe needs electric cars with limited but effective capabilities, with say 100 miles of range, 65 mph maximum speed, and 2+2 children on board, priced at around $10,000. These cars wouldn’t need subsidies because buyers would be beating down dealerships’ doors. There would be no range anxiety because without long-distance pretensions, nobody would attempt to go too far, and no one would be stranded. All charging would be done at home or locally, so there would be no need for massive investments in charging networks. Next-generation solid-state batteries might change this.
Even though the market is crying out for affordable electric cars, no European manufacturer seems willing to fill the gap. The minimum price in Europe is close to $37,000 after tax. So-called “affordable” electric vehicles on the horizon like the mooted VW.ID2 might cut the price to $25,000. But that’s still about two times too much for the mass market.
There are vehicles in China and Japan that have the right qualities. There’s the HongGuang MINI, already a market leader in China, the Nissan Sakura, an electric Kei car from Japan. Another Chinese contender, the BYD Seagull, might fit the bill. Nissan declined to comment on the suggestion the Sakura might be destined for Europe.
Professor Wells said if European carmakers don’t fill this market, there could be trouble.
“There is an emergent market gap in the small car segment, think Ford Ka and Ford Fiesta, (Citroen C1, Peugeot 108, SEAT Mii, Renault Twingo, ICE cars now or soon to be abandoned, priced out of the market by EU regulations). We are creating a vacuum in the market in terms of small cars that no manufacturer (in Europe) seems to want or be able to fill. The European industry will be in trouble if they can’t build into that, even though the opportunity is big. Maybe Chinese etc will be able to engineer their vehicles to meet European requirements, or maybe start building them here,” Wells said.
Shazan Siddiqi, Technology Analyst at consultancy IDTechEX, said so-called microcars might seek to fill this gap in the market. These little vehicles, including the Citroen Ami, Renault Mobilize Duo and Microlino, look attractive, but don’t have to conform to EU safety standards that regular cars have to meet, so many potential buyers will balk at the prospect.
“Common concerns about microcars include safety, vehicle design, and regulations. Since microcars are driven on the road alongside standard cars, safety is a top concern to protect the drivers. There are areas for improvement, including stronger vehicle frames and adding airbags, or better suspension to keep the driver in control when going over potholes. More regulation is required to make safety requirements mandatory,” Siddiqi said.
Professor David Greenwood of Britain’s Warwick University, expects mass-market electric vehicles (EVs) will have smaller, cheaper batteries capable of about 150 miles of range and a 15-minute recharge. There will still be room for new thinking.
“I believe micromobility will play a bigger part in the urban/suburban mix. Scooters, lightweight electric goods vehicles and innovative concepts we can’t even see yet will take their place on local roads and segregated cycle-ways. Larger electric quadricycles (otherwise known as microcars) will need to have some form of crash approval, and top speeds more like 40+mph to safely keep up with suburban traffic,” Greenwood said.
If European average wage earners find they have to get to work on an electric scooter, electric bike, Microlino, or the bus, there will be much discontent politically. Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares has already pointed this out in forceful terms. If the electric car revolution, following orders from European Union politicians, means that only the rich can afford cars, he has said there will be much payback at elections.
Professor Wells agrees.
“Politicians are taking the industry into risky territory by stoking up the EV market. What about those that can’t afford them. Will they buy used ones? That’s not much of an answer. As Tavares says, removing the democratization of mobility will generate all sorts of unrest. Whole communities will be cut off by this. It’s a huge concern that this will become a big social issue in Europe, not as much though in the U.S.,” Wells said.