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Electromobility: a saviour or a hype?

Electric cars have major environmental advantages, which is why they are the talk of the town. But is all that glitters gold? What are the prospects for these technologies? And what benefits and disadvantages do they bring?

Can you guess what proportion of Switzerland’s CO2 emissions come from transport? 40%. It is therefore only logical that mobility is also included in the climate change debate. As of 2020, Switzerland and the EU will be subject to a more stringent climate goal, according to which new cars are to emit a maximum of 95 g of CO2 per kilometre – a stark difference to today where an additional 35 g are permitted. It is thus high time to act and look for innovative solutions. Electromobility appears to be a promising route in this respect.

Older than petrol cars

Today, electromobility is celebrated as an innovative idea. However, its roots date far back. As early as in the 1830s, electric vehicles were being designed across all of Europe and America – tricycles, carriages, rail vehicles and, towards the end of the century, cars too. English naturalist Michael Faraday lay the groundwork for such developments, discovering that electromagnetism could create a continuous rotation. E-mobility is therefore older than the combustion engine.

From a surplus of raw materials to environmental concerns

The heyday of electromobility came to an end when American engineer Charles F. Kettering invented the electric starter for combustion engines in 1911. Petrol cars also had a greater range and oil was cheaper and abundant. Owing to the commencement of assembly-line production of fossil-fuelled cars, the production of e-cars came to a complete standstill in the 1920s.

It was not until the oil crisis of the 1990s and the steady increase in environmental awareness that electromobility came back on the scene. However, the decisive factor for the car industry’s profound turnaround these days is probably not concern for the environment but rather money. If new cars emit more than the 95 g of CO2 per kilometre in future, penalties will be charged. For the next year alone, the industry association auto-schweiz is expecting fines of up to CHF 300 million.

A growing market

Almost all well-known manufacturers have now announced that they will focus more heavily on electric or hybrid cars. There are currently some 1.3 million electric cars driving along the world’s roads. The largest and fastest-growing market is China, which is not only producing but also selling the most electric cars. Norway is also at the forefront. Here, due to tax implications in particular, seven out of ten new registrations in the first half of 2019 were electric cars or hybrids. From 2025, the northerners even want to ban petrol and diesel cars completely. Other significant markets for electromobility are the US, Germany and France. Switzerland is falling behind in these figures, as although almost 6’000 e-cars were registered in the first half of the year (many times greater than the number registered last year), the total market share is a mere 3.8%.

The fear of too little reach is unfounded.

A multitude of advantages

In addition to zero carbon emissions, electromobility has many other positive aspects. Firstly, it reduces odour and noise emissions, which promotes quality of life, especially in cities. Secondly, electricity is quite a bit cheaper than petrol or diesel. When driving downhill, the recuperation can even generate new energy. And thirdly, the engines hardly require any maintenance because they do not have wearing parts such as toothed or V-belts.

What does "sustainable" mean?

It is, however, worth taking a second, vigilant look at some of these parameters. For example, emission-free running does not mean that the car is actually sustainable. This largely depends on the way the electricity used to manufacture and charge the car is produced (e.g. coal or hydropower). Nevertheless, when it comes to disposing of the batteries, technological progress is being achieved, as electrotechnology researcher Andrea Vezzini from the University of Bern confirms: "92% of batteries can be recycled nowadays. The technology is there. But no one is building a recycling plant because all the batteries are still in the cars." What is more critical are the raw materials such as copper, nickel, aluminium, cobalt or manganese that are often mined unsustainably under questionable conditions. It is up to the manufacturers to make improvements in this respect.

The issue of range

In day-to-day life, Swiss people still have reservations when it comes to electromobility. The most common fears relate to the range of the vehicles and the underdeveloped network of charging stations. Of course, no one wants to be stranded in no man’s land with an empty battery. However, this fear is arbitrary since, according to manufacturers, the new models boast a range of up to 600 kilometres. "In reality, you can deduct a fifth from this value depending on driving behaviour and the road layout," says Head of the Fleet at Mobility, Viktor Wyler. He therefore does not think range should still be an issue. "Especially not in Switzerland, where distances of several hundred kilometres are rarely covered," says Wyler, knowingly. Our country still has a lot of work to do in terms of charging infrastructure. But, according to electro expert Vezzini, there are good innovations in this field too and the government wants to build quick-charge stations in lay-bys on a large scale. "These will be built in two years and are able to give vehicles energy for around 100 to 150 kilometres in 20 minutes."

Mobility is massively expanding its range of alternative drives

In summary, electromobility has major advantages. And there are increasingly fewer drawbacks than before. The sharing provider Mobility has therefore decided to double its range of alternative drives to 700 by 2023. Electric and hybrid cars are being added, half of whose electricity comes from solar power and the other half from hydropower produced by Switzerland. "We believe in the electrical future and want to make it more appealing to our customers," concludes Viktor Wyler.