Why electric isn’t the only answer to the net zero question

This article first appeared in AutoCar Professional.

Celebrating Autocar Professional’s 16th anniversary provides us with the perfect opportunity to reflect on what’s changed in just over a decade and a half. When this magazine first went to print in 2004, Manmohan Singh had succeeded Atal Vajpayee as Prime Minister, Michael Schumacher was F1 World Champion, England were victorious in the one-day international series against India and I was working in Japan, having just established Nissan’s light commercial vehicles unit. For so many reasons, 2004 seems like a different world.

Sixteen years ago, consumers were mildly aware of the threat of climate change, but national and international discourse on the issue was nowhere near as fluent and prominent as it is today. Today, climate change is a silent emergency for which it’s not merely an option to go green, it’s essential. The global pandemic has been a wake-up call for the planet. Companies and governments around the world are taking action with big and ambitious commitments, for instance Microsoft has stated that it will go carbon negative by 2030. C40 cities are committed to addressing climate change and 167 cities have further agreed to sign by the 2020 deadline to urgently pursue climate action. With these bold steps, there is hope that we will be able to achieve carbon neutrality in the future.

Sixteen years ago, electric vehicles (EVs) were merely a pipe dream for many manufacturers; Tesla was barely a year old and the Nissan LEAF, which I’m proud to have launched as the world’s first mass-market EV, was still six years off production.

Today of course, electric vehicles are commonplace. Globally, more than 10.5m “plug-in” cars are on our roads today. Without question, electric vehicles are the most popular and widely understood option for consumers wanting to reduce their carbon footprint and politicians wanting to meet environmental commitments. Are electric vehicles of huge part of the future vehicle fleet? Yes! But are they the only way to reach net zero? The short answer is no.

Whilst battery electric vehicles are almost certainly the technology of choice for passenger vehicles and urban buses, the same cannot necessarily be said of HGVs, intercity coaches, high-performance sports cars, or even, eventually, flying cars and planes. If we legislate only for electric vehicles, we are taking a myopic approach to the long-term objective of achieving a net zero society and stifling alternative creative solutions that maybe more appropriate to certain missions.

Synthetic fuels and hydrogen remain valid options for the wider transport mix that mustn’t be forgotten, even as the popularity of electric vehicles rise and their costs fall. For this reason, it is vitally important that governments around the world are mindful not to prescribe the technologies that are at our disposal to reach net zero ambitions. On this front, the Indian Government’s approach to the adoption of Mobility as a Service (eMaaS), or the selling ($) of mobility per km following a path similar to the solar power (renewables) sector in India, may serve as a source of inspiration for international governments.

Instead, political decision-makers should be promoting technical Darwinism; a ‘battle of the brains’ that pits engineers against one another to stimulate innovation. As history has demonstrated time and time again, humanity is at its best when deploying our world-class research and innovation. The most recent example of this being the remarkable achievements of turning around multiple COVID-19 vaccines at break-neck speed. This provides us with evidence of what can be achieved when innovation is prioritised and accelerated – we must apply that same initiative to achieving our environmental objectives. If India wants to become a global leader in the ‘green economy’, which no doubt it does, the decision-makers must begin equipping the brightest minds accordingly.

That isn’t to say we should put the electric vehicle megatrend to one side, quite the opposite. Economically speaking, this is the where the investment and attention is headed, and it would be remiss of the India not to compete with the major players in this field. However, there are a handful of key areas where I worry about India’s ability to do so.

Battery Electric (BEV) powertrains are the most logical solution for urban buses right now. My own company, SWITCH Mobility Ltd (part of the Ashok Leyland Group) is the purveyor of pure BEV Buses and light commercial vehicles for urban mobility across the globe. Clearly therefore, India has the capability to design and manufacture these within the country. A State drive to urgently adopt this bus technology does two things, it puts India back into the race verses China for the fastest growing fleet, breathing life into the domestic bus makers and secondly it will make a tremendous impact immediately on-air quality. Of course, India will need to back this up eventually with a move towards sustainable electricity supplies, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.

Most urgently, the Indian government must stimulate investment in battery manufacturing and gigaplants. Compared to other economies, India is falling behind. Without gigaplants on Indian soil, it risks becoming a technological island. As a country, India should lead in being more creative and developing its own chemistry capabilities rather than simply licensing chemistry from elsewhere.

As we emerge from an unstable period that included an unconventional US presidency, a devastating pandemic and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the stage is set for a renewed focus on the need for climate action. It has always been my belief that if the automotive industry can lead the way and with multiple options for reaching net zero, we might just get there.