Volvo is going ‘all-electric’. It’s not as revolutionary as it seems

A Volvo electric car on charge. Image: Getty.

Last summer’s announcement from Volvo that all of its new models from 2019 will include an element of electric vehicle technology was a PR coup for the Swedish car maker. It received a disproportionate amount of attention as the “first major car company” to switch to all-electric. But the statement by their CEO Hakan Samuelson. that this “marks the end of the solely combustion engine powered car”, is more a reflection of Volvo’s position in the market than any justification of a global change.

Volvo, known for decades for its safety, has fallen behind other manufacturers when it comes to environmental credentials. It recently introduced hybrid versions of the XC90, XC60, S90 and V90. But let’s not forget that Toyota introduced the mass-produced hybrid, its Prius, worldwide in the year 2000. Toyota now have around 80 per cent of the global market for hybrid vehicles.

The question we should be asking is why Toyota or any of the other mainstream manufacturers have not come out with the same proposition to end the role of solely combustion engine powered cars? The answer lies in the fact that the major part of Volvo’s sales take place in Europe, the US and China. These markets have the potential to have the basic infrastructure in place that’s needed to support the electrification of vehicles.

Other manufacturers have a more global perspective and appreciate that, in parts of the world such as Africa and parts of South America, the idea of a regular supply of electricity for basic needs is of more pressing concern than the facility to plug in an electric vehicle. To some extent this position is really an admission that Volvo has limited expansion plans in developing markets and is happy to concentrate in its more established countries. A cynic might also suggest that the move helps the company meet the new more stringent EU emissions targets that are due to be introduced over the next few years.

Hybrids use two power sources. Image: Volvo.

Hybrid vehicles, by their very nature, require two power sources. One is a small, usually petrol-fuelled engine that charges the battery that drives the car. There are also more sophisticated developments that involve charging the battery while the car brakes but these are usually supplementary to the main form of electricity generation. Volvo’s claim gives the impression that petrol engines are a thing of the past when, with the current technology, they are still a critical part in the hybrid system.

New infrastructure

For car companies there is at least one major issue with a truly and entirely electric future. This prospect would mean that for the first time it would be those providing the infrastructure that would dictate what was happening in the motor industry.

Electric vehicles work well when the driver can charge the vehicle on a regular and convenient basis, usually overnight. This is fine if you have a driveway and a power source available. If, however, you live in a block of flats or in a terraced property there is a major issue. Battery life and access to a charging point add barriers in potential customers’ minds over the purchase of an electric vehicle. This makes the hybrid alternative a much more attractive proposition for all the major manufacturers who have or are in the process of developing hybrid models.


Volvo’s announcement also steals the show from perhaps the most interesting discussion about the future of cars. That’s whether or not hydrogen-powered vehicles will dominate the market – either as part of a hybrid system or as a fully hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine. There is only the Toyota Mirai available in a few developed markets and only 3,000 have been sold globally. The reason: a serious shortage of refuelling stations.

The emissions from these vehicles is water, and they are claimed to be environmentally neutral. Toyota and Hyundai have made major advances in this area but face the bigger problem of building the infrastructure to refuel hydrogen-powered cars. The installation of refuelling stations would require significant investment.

The ConversationSo, despite Volvo’s claims, the future of motoring will undoubtedly still include a petrol engine in some format in the immediate future. The only way that this is likely to change is if governments divert their infrastructure spending away from rail into opening up greener alternatives for drivers. This would improve the environment while still allowing the mobility that a car gives to people in everyday use. Even with car ownership declining in some cities, something will have to power the buses and taxis – and the cleaner that can be, the better for all.

Jim Saker is director of the Centre for Automotive Management at the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Five lessons for cities from a decade of Centre for Cities research

The view of Vancouver from Locarno Beach Park. Image: Getty.

With the government potentially facing years of “trench warfare” in Parliament, and Brexit set to dominate the national political agenda for the foreseeable future, local leaders have the chance to play a critical role in driving the UK’s economy in the coming years. However, it’s also clear that UK cities will face big challenges in the new economic circumstances outside the EU, and in responding to other issues such as globalisation and automation.

To meet these challenges and opportunities, local leaders will need to make the most of their existing resources and powers – and one of the best ways to do so is to learn from the experiences and ideas of other places.

That’s why the Centre for Cities recently launched a new, easy-to-navigate case study library featuring over 150 examples of good practice from cities in the UK and across the world. Drawn from more than 10 years of Centre for Cities research, the library offers examples of innovative and effective urban policy making in areas such as housing and transport, skills and employment, business and enterprise, and leadership.

In the process of compiling the case study library, five key lessons for cities stood out in particular:

1) Pooling resources with other local authorities can help places achieve more than they can do on their own.

Take Cambridge, for example. Its ability to deliver housing changed in the mid-2000s thanks to the establishment of the Cambridge sub-regional housing board.

By working in partnership with neighbouring authorities (as well as with development companies and a strategic planning unit), Cambridge has been able to reach a consensus on the importance of increasing density and introducing transport-oriented urban extensions.

2) Cities should also make the most of the support and initiatives that non-public sector partners can offer.

For example, Manchester City Council worked in partnership with NESTA and other agencies to launch an innovative ‘Creative Credit’ voucher scheme in 2010. Through this initiative, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the city region were given vouchers worth £4,000 to spend on buying services from creative companies provided they spent at least £1,000 themselves. The pilot was oversubscribed and its evaluation showed a positive impact on sales and the innovation capacity of participants.

3) Having a clear understanding of the needs of people targeted by a specific programme or project will be vital in its success.

This is demonstrated by the success of Blade Runners, an employment programme set up by the City of Vancouver to support 15-30 year olds facing multiple barriers from getting into training and/or employment (such as substance misuse, homelessness, transportation costs and legal issues).

Three quarters of the participants in the programme completed training and moved into jobs, a success rate made possible by the continuous, targeted support provided by Blade Runners coordinators. This included referring participants to appropriate resources, and providing them with breakfast and lunch, living allowances, travel tickets, tools, equipment and work gear for training.


4) Even when cities do not have formal powers to make a difference, they can still use their leadership role to influence and inspire positive changes.

For example, in 2010 the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson launched the London Apprenticeship Campaign which aimed to increase awareness of the scheme. Letters signed by the London Mayor were sent to CEOs of large businesses outlining the value of apprenticeships, and the potential benefits of recruiting apprentices. The campaign had a positive impact on raising awareness among employers and helped to boost the profile of apprenticeships in London.

5) Monitoring and evaluating projects from their early stages is crucial for their long-term success.

San Francisco offers a clear example of how long term policy making coupled with close monitoring can drive change and create jobs. In 2002, the city set itself the goal of a 75 per cent reduction in landfill waste by 2010 and zero waste by 2020. Thanks to close evaluation of the projects, the city realised its efforts were not enough to reach the target, and so introduced a further 20 laws to address these issues. The city is now ahead of its schedule in meeting objectives.

You can access the case study library and to read about these examples in more detail here. We are always keen to hear about new case studies, so please do get in contact if you’d like to share good practice from your city.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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