The Diesel Is Dead – Long Live the EV

VDA President B. Mattes, flanked by B. Althusmann (left) and A. Scheuer (right)

Few expected something to be different after the change at the top of the German transportation ministry. The replacement of Alexander Dobrindt by Andreas Scheuer didn’t usher in a new era at the department. It is true that Scheuer is four years younger than his predecessor. But both belong to the same political party, and Scheuer’s time as head of the ministry has likewise been little more than an exercise in cozying up to the auto industry. Chances for a real turnaround in the transportation sector are getting slimmer by the day.

I am not about to dedicate another article to climate targets and dieselgate, and I won’t use these next lines to write about an energy market transformation that may have already failed. Instead, I will focus on how politics could make or break the success of a new transportation system. Most of what you will read below has little to do with technology. Whether we will soon drive fuel cell cars or battery-electric vehicles, or both, isn’t the most critical question at this point. A more important one to ask is who has benefitted or who is still benefitting from past and current decision-making.

Where we are

Many of the issues surrounding the diesel emissions scandal remain unresolved. In Europe, there have been no lawsuits filed against the perpetrators of the cover-up, which means that the courts haven’t weighed in either. This explains why the public debate about the fuel’s future is still raging.

A completely separate issue, though often conflated with the results of rigged emissions tests, is that of particle pollution, also known as particulate matter. But despite multiple rulings in this case, there is a lot of uncertainty as to where driving bans will be next.

The debate over electric transportation has been just as heated. Some see electric vehicles as the solution to all our worries. Others have warned repeatedly that we would only replace one type of resource dependence with another and create new environmental challenges along the way. What’s more, the electric vehicle community comes across as hopelessly divided, with one side favoring BEVs, that is, battery-electric vehicles, and the other FCEVs, or fuel cell electric vehicles. And even though some have stressed time and again that it is not an either-or situation, most won’t even acknowledge that the other side has as much right to promote their ideas as they do. A good opportunity to watch this ideologically driven – and sometimes frantic – exchange between BEV and FCEV fans is to follow the discussion on social media.

Above all, what needs to be asked is if transforming the energy market will, should or must be accompanied by changes in the transportation sector. Eight years have passed since the Fukushima disaster. Yet, almost nothing has been done to transition to a more sustainable energy system. Also, what exactly is sustainable? Has anyone ever come up with a comprehensive definition of what a sustainable market should look like? Is there a plan or a road map to guide the market transformation at each step?

To engage the public in a debate about the above is the right thing to do. But for how long? With what result? And who will benefit from it?

Will we see a repeat of what happened when the European Union weakened restrictions on vehicle emissions because of the combined efforts of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German economy minister at that time? Are lobbyists for the German auto industry the only ones that have the chancellor’s ear?

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