CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 19 August 2017

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Volvo makes brave move on electric cars

In July this year, the Swedish automobile manufacturer, Volvo, announced it will cease putting internal combustion engines in its cars in 2019 and will only make fully electric or hybrid models.
 
This is the boldest commitment by any automotive company so far in the development of electric or hybrid cars. But other manufacturers are also moving in that direction and this year, General Motors launched the Chevrolet Bolt, which is a battery powered car.
 
It sells at US$35,000 ($271,250) and can travel 383 kilometres on a single charge. Ford has also sold electric versions of a few of its mainstream models and says that it will introduce a battery powered SUV by 2020.
 
Other electric engines will follow in due course. Fiat Chrysler has lagged behind other automotive companies in its development of electric cars.
 
It does sell an electric version of its Fiat 500 subcompact and a hybrid gas-electric variation of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, but so far has not announced when it plans to build an exclusive electric car.
 
In Europe, Renault-Nissan has led the way in electric cars with almost 300,000 sold to date.
 
But the fact that electric cars represent the future was shown early in 2017 by Tesla, a United States of America (US) technology company which makes a limited number of electric cars, when it surpassed Ford and General Motors in stock market value.
 
This is in despite the fact that Tesla manufactures significantly fewer cars than the big giants and that have sold millions of cars for over 100 years.
 
It is clear that investors feel that the cars market is going electric in the not too distant future.
 
Although Volvo is a Swedish company, it is owned by Greely Automobile Holdings of China, which already makes a battery powered car for the China market.
 
But given Volvo’s link up with the Chinese company, it will have a head-start when the sale of electric cars begins to take-off in China, as many predict it will.
 
The Chinese government is supporting the development of electric vehicles in an effort to reduce harmful emissions from internal combustion engines.
 
There are risks, of course. Hybrids, which combine petrol and diesel engines, represent only two per cent of cars in the US. Writing in The Guardian, Zoe Williams recalls the 2006 documentary, Who killed the Electric Car?
 
The electric car failed, but not because nobody wanted it. In fact, it was the opposite, too many people wanted one. General Motors became anxious “that it would look as though California legislators—who had launched a zero-emissions target—had won.”
 
A car company would not want that! Car manufacturers, like other transnational corporations, have not always been on the side of the angels.
 
During the administration of Barack Obama, the US government supported the development of electric engines. Obama predicted one million electric cars would be on US roads by 2015. The actual number was 280,000.
 
So far, Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, has not pursued similar policies in relation to developing electric engines. In fact, the number of hybrid engines has fallen in recent years as petrol prices have fallen in the US.
 
Still, experts predict that the number of electric cars will grow rapidly as the technology improves in the next few years. Prices will fall and more electrical outlets will be available for charging.
 
This development is crucial. It used to take six hours to charge a car battery. Currently, a full charge of an electric car, with a range of 169 kilometres, takes a half an hour using a supercharger in your garage. We will need to build up battery charging locations right across the country in markets, railway stations and carparks. Today there are only 4,000 charging stations across Britain.
 
As batteries become more efficient and charging time drops, electric cars will be more attractive to many people. Of course, if we wish to lower greenhouse gas emissions we will still need to be sure that the electricity is generated through renewable technologies.
 
In addition, we will need to generate a lot more electricity as transport becomes dependent on it. One think tank warned, “As few as six electric cars in one neighbourhood could risk a brown out.”
 
The day after the Volvo announcement that the company will not make diesel or petrol cars after 2019, France let it be known that it would ban all diesel and petrol cars by 2040.
 
Nicolas Hulot, the ecology minister in the government of Emmanuel Macron, described the move as a veritable revolution. He continued, saying, “Our car makers have enough ideas in their drawer to nurture and bring this promise—which also is a public health issue.”
 
It would appear that the combustion engine, which played such a dominant role in motor transport for over a century and which is still dominant might face extinction within a few decades.
 

• Father Sean McDonagh