Sunday, December 14, 2008

inconvenient truth about electric cars

Financial Times | President Nicolas Sarkozy would dearly like to end France’s rotating presidency of the European Union on a high note by brokering this week a deal on a grand European response to global warming and energy efficiency. The ultimate plan is to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent with member states at the same time drawing their future energy needs from clean renewable sources by the same percentage amount. Under the circumstances, it is no surprise that the automobile industry has found itself at the heart of the climate change debate.

Indeed, Mr Sarkozy’s own government commissioned months ago one of France’s leading energy experts – Jean Syrota, the former French energy industry regulator – to draw up a report to analyse all the options for building cleaner and more efficient mass-market cars by 2030. The 129-page report was completed in September to coincide with the Paris motor show. But the government has continued to sit on it and seems reluctant to ever publish it.

Yet all those who have managed to glimpse at the document agree that it makes interesting reading. It concludes that there is not much future in the much vaunted developed of all electric-powered cars. Instead, it suggests that the traditional combustion engine powered by petrol, diesel, ethanol or new biofuels still offers the most realistic prospect of developing cleaner vehicles. Carbon emissions and fuel consumption could be cut by 30-40 per cent simply by improving the performance and efficiency of traditional engines and limiting the top speed to about 170km/hr. Even that is well above the average top speed restriction in Europe, with the notable exception of Germany. New so-called “stop and start” mechanisms can produce further 10 per cent reductions that can rise to 25-30 per cent in cities. Enhancements in car electronics as well as the development of more energy efficient tyres, such as Michelin’s new “energy saver” technology, are also expected to help reduce consumption and pollution.

Overall, the Syrota report says that adapting and improving conventional engines could enhance their efficiency by an average of 50 per cent. It also argues that new-generation hybrid cars combining conventional engines with electric propulsion could provide an interesting future alternative.