Is a carmaker about to save the planet?

Is a carmaker about to save the planet?
The Guardian, by Zoe Williams 


“I think a lot about electric cars,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk famously said at a party at the very end of the 80s. “Do you think a lot about electric cars?” The problem with thinking a lot about electric cars is that certain things become impossible to unthink: powering a car with fossil fuels, meeting 21st-century challenges with 19th-century answers, become more than irresponsible. It becomes ridiculous.


You’ll never know when the tipping point is – it’s possibly as little as five minutes – but think enough about electric cars, especially if you’re a car manufacturer, and wham … you’re Volvo. They were rolling along perfectly happily until they thought too hard: about their business model and benefit to society; about climate change and their future customers; and so they made the decision that all their cars would be fully electric, or at least hybrid, by 2019. Not one car solely powered by internal combustion engine will come off a Volvo production line by 2020.


It is impossible to overstate the significance of this, and not because you are ever likely to buy a brand-new Volvo. If every branded car is a Veblen good – that is, something you want precisely because it is expensive, to flag to the world your ability to own it – then the Volvo is a peculiar inversion, the car you buy that looks less flash than it is, to show the world that you’re not the kind of person who shows off what they’ve bought. Nope, nobody here is buying a brand-new Volvo in 2019.


Yet this will instantly change the charging infrastructure for electric cars: there have already been pretty extraordinary advances in charge speed. You can fully charge an electric vehicle – one with a range of about 105 miles – in half an hour from a supercharger in a garage, which is the difference between being able to use an electric car in a normal way, and having to rebuild your life around it. However, there aren’t enough superchargers, in Europe or the US, and, maddeningly, a lot of the slower chargers – which take four to six hours – still call themselves “high speed” because that’s what they were when they were installed. Volvo will shunt progress forward worldwide on genuinely high-speed charging points, as well as battery production and research and development into battery storage.


Perhaps the greater impact still will be on other car manufacturers: those which have an electric vehicle (EV) model – such as Nissan with its Leaf, BMW with the quirky i3, Hyundai and the delightful Ioniq – will look altogether less weird. For a car manufacturer to reject the technology altogether will start to look luddite to the point that it will probably become untenable. Hybrid cars, meanwhile – which ultimately still rely on petrol, however good their regenerative braking is – have overnight become a kicking-off point in climate-conscious development, rather than the compromise solution. This will be annoying for Toyota, but the Prius has had a good run.


The car industry is always taught as a classic in the MBA model of business behaviour: it seeks to make a profit, and does so. Its product has massive, devastating consequences for the world, but nobody can see them. The necessity for improvement would therefore come from one of two places – consumers demanding less polluting vehicles, which would damage profit; or innovators from outside, producing something cleaner, which can’t happen with cars because of the high barrier to entry.


And so, the argument goes, the car industry, perceiving electric cars to be a threat to the profitable petrol model, and facing no challenge from modernisers, has simply done what a business does – put shareholder value maximisation first and ignored the negative externalities.


This reading is blind to an emotional dimension that’s far more important than profit: petrol versus electricity is a culture war, a battle between the petrol head and the hippy, the self-sufficient Randian hero and the bleating environmentalist.


Who Killed the Electric Car?, a 2006 documentary, tells the story of General Motors and their EV1, an electric car it made in the 90s. The car failed not because nobody wanted one, but because too many did: GM became anxious that it would look as though California legislators – who had launched a zero-emissions target – had won. Other states might have followed, and the mighty car giant would become the bitch of some democratically elected representatives, the prospect of which was so appalling, they recalled all the cars and crushed them.


This story is not about money: it is about raw human emotion, played out at an institutional level. A comparison often made is to the tobacco industry, which kept itself going by indignantly denying claims that its products caused death. But if a cigarette had come along that did the same job and didn’t cause cancer, would it have seriously quashed it simply to protect its existing manufacturing model? And if it had, would that have been business or pleasure?


There is another, related precept, relevant to climate change: the classic understanding of the relationship between government and industry. The state is meant to enforce social good through regulation, tax, and funding, while industry is supposed to respond by innovating to meet those challenges and restrictions.


This overestimates the smooth pursuit of social benefit by government (well, maybe except for Sweden) but, more critically, underestimates the human beings who run the companies. The profit-model effectively removes moral agency from commerce, turning its CEOs into donkeys, to be directed only by carrots and sticks. We then bemoan their mulishness and sly ways, as they avoid the stick and do backroom deals with the carrot-holder.


We cannot split the world into those who want the best for it on one side, and those who will make a profit under whatever conditions are available on the other. If we’re to believe in positive collective action enough to pursue it, we have to re-imagine business as a human activity whose profit motive is partial, not paramount.


Clearly, the environment would benefit most if we were to stop driving altogether. Electricity is only cleaner if it’s made in a cleaner way, and long-term, the goal has to be an electric car powered by renewable energy. There is a case to be made about the looming crisis of our lithium demands, as all our waking activities hop from one battery to another. Those are conversations to have alongside, and not instead of, the electrification of cars.


The American physicist and environmentalist Amory Lovins gives a lecture about catastrophic climate change and our prospects for avoiding it. It starts with him arriving with a helmet on his head and inviting people to hit it. It’s made of the chassis material of the future. It doesn’t look particularly impressive, he looks like a nerd with a bowl on his head. It’s hard to conceive, from a standing start, what car chassis material ought to look like, yet you have to admit, it should not weigh much. The talk ends with a portrait of a car that is so light that it can incorporate its own solar panel, so modern that it can store its own energy, so efficient that its range, give or take a bit of wear and tear, is infinite, and its cost, less the purchase price, nil.


This is not a component of the fight against climate change, this is the component. This is the single biggest change that would alter the course of history. We are some discoveries away from perfection – solar power storage isn’t there yet – but the main factor is speed. It will change all our lives if we get there fast enough, and mire us in catastrophe if we don’t. Volvo just made it faster.