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Three successive developmental steps were needed to succeed in shifting the automotive sector into the post-petrol era and banning combustion engines by 2035. A perspective from Valéry Michaux, professor at NEOMA.

The original article was published in France on the website The Conversation : Automobile : les trois étapes qui ont conduit l’UE à mettre fin aux véhicules thermiques d’ici 2035, on 7 July 2022.

It took eight years, a global upheaval, two political shockwaves and three successive steps of development to succeed in shifting the automotive sector into the post-petrol era. The banning of combustion engines by 2035 for new cars was approved by 27 member states of the European Union at the end of June. It was a clear demonstration of how revolutions require intermediate stages, with the previous stage making the following stage possible.

Long-standing inertia

International research shows that Europe has tried to spur on the conversion of the automotive sector for more than 35 years. The only effect the various European public policies that were developed had, particularly those that sought to limit engine pollution, was succeeding in improving the combustion engine.

The result was that in 2016, the electric car only accounted for 1% of the automobile sales worldwide.

In 2001, eight years later, 40% of the vehicles registered in Europe were no longer petrol cars.

How do we explain this shift that can seem quite abrupt after the 35 years of inertia that preceded it?

“Socio-technical regime”

The research is particularly focused on these types of phenomena that refer to the dynamics of the sociotechnical systems underlying industrial sectors. After they stabilise, the sectors become locked on a given way of operating based on dominant technologies, specific regulations, particular production and distribution infrastructures, usual supplier networks and logistics chains, with it all matching the expectations and values of their consumers, etc. Certain authors refer to this as a sociotechnical regime.

These sociotechnical systems are very difficult to change abruptly. They change slowly in increments, integrating the innovations that are the most compatible with the system already in place and “naturally” eliminating the innovations that question the sociotechnical system too much. The term for this is “sociotechnical lock-in.”

In the automotive industry, the industrial and economic models for electric cars, whose value is based on batteries, were at the time not compatible with those of the combustion-engine car, whose value is based on the engine.

The research we conducted from 2015 to 2022, which will appear in Revue interdisciplinaire droit et organisations (RIDO) and Management et avenir allowed us to analyse the transformation trajectory of the automobile sector and understand how Europe succeeded in getting out of this situation of sociotechnical lock-in and finally tilted the industry to ending production of combustion-engine vehicles.

This research shows that several successive transformative stages were needed to shift the view of politicians, professionals in the sector and consumers.

2015-2017:  the shockwave of Dieselgate

In 2015 to 2017 came a pivotal period or stage. This first stage saw the impact on public opinion and on the policies from the shockwave of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, which revealed the rigged system of measuring the emissions on Volkswagen diesel engines. This scandal starkly highlighted the air quality problems in cities, and a lot of European countries then begin to initiate policies to abolish diesel in city centres.

At that time, the third-generation battery and electric-vehicle technologies were the only mature technologies available just when an alternative needed to be proposed to shock consumers. In fact, between 2010 and 2015, all the automotive makers were already working on electric car models, but since the market had not taken off yet, these projects were tucked away into the drawer. They only had to pull out and display these models to rub out a bit of the negative effect of Dieselgate. But electric cars were still seen as a marginal solution.

2018-2019: first shockwave in the EU

In 2018-2019, the second turning point or stage arose. An increasing number of European countries started to plan to take further steps to fight against city-centre pollution and reduce  CO2 emissions. Certain countries started enacting legislation to set dates marking the end of combustion engines.

Europe wanted to push electric cars forward, but it remained worried about its dependence on Asia for batteries. The twenty-seven EU countries did not want to repeat the error of solar panels by promoting a technology that they hadn’t mastered. That’s why Brussels started to encourage collaborations between France and Germany to create a battery sector in Europe.

From its marginal existence, the electric car started to be seen as a niche that could help confront environmental constraints when combined with hybrid cars and more environmentally friendly petrol vehicles.

In 2019, the views of both politicians and sector professionals began to evolve. The idea to make Europe an electric car leader continued to take hold among politicians by recognising that the European territory had the assets to do that (more environmentally favourable fourth-generation batteries). This shift in perceptions made a new series of political decisions possible, which caused a shockwave. The CO2 reduction objectives set by the European parliament were increased.

Crisis meetings became increasingly frequent at automakers. These objectives forced them to integrate 60% of electric cars into their product portfolio by 2030. They were thus going to have to adapt at a more strenuous pace than they had anticipated.

The carmakers’ strategies also started to go down different paths. On one side, the large majority of manufacturers wanted to leave the choice up to the consumer based on use: petrol, rechargeable hybrid, battery-powered electric and hydrogen. The hybrid also became the standard solution. On the other side, some producers focused on a 180-degree turn towards 100% electric vehicles with campaigns to show that the batteries are better for the environment than the hybrid alternative. This was particularly the case for Volkswagen.

2020-2021: the second shockwave in the EU

Then in 2020-2021, the third pivotal moment occurred where the entire paradigm of the automotive sector shifted. The evolution in outlooks as well as the efforts of automobile builders to invest in battery factories located in Europe made for a new phase where the CO2 reduction objectives in certain countries were tightened. Outside of Europe, the United Kingdom announced the end of combustion-engine vehicles in London by 2025 and nationwide by 2030, thus joining Norway as well as the European countries of Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Slovenia.

There were intense discussions among the stakeholders in Brussels. To shift towards the electric car required builders to make such sweeping changes and major investments that pursuing improvements to the combustion engine as part of the new European standards and developing their electric cars at the same time became difficult.

To lower costs, it became preferrable to focus solely on developing electric cars to achieve the critical mass as quickly as possible. It was the only solution to ensure that the price of electric vehicles quickly matched the current price of petrol cars. The evolving outlooks of professionals and politicians was furthermore shared by the unions that saw in it a solution to bringing production back to Europe.

These developments led to a second shockwave in Europe during the summer of 2021. At the same time as the last report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showing that it would be difficult to meet the objective of the Paris Climate Accords on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the European Commission announced the moratorium on marketing new combustion-engine cars for 2035 (cars and light-duty vehicles), a decision that had just been approved.

It was five years before the date set by most European countries, including France. Above all, it was also the end of hybrid engines and ethanol-based fuels. The objective was to reach a 55% reduction in CO₂ emission by 2030. It was a symbolic date because with the life cycle of a car being about 15 years, most combustion-engine cars will have disappeared by 2050.

From now on will we have an era of complementary solutions?

This proposal was openly debated in the European Parliament and Council.  It was finally voted on in the Parliament then in the Council of the European Union under the presidency of France in June 2022.

Italy and Germany received the option to, until 2026, study alternative technologies like synthetic fuels that prolong the use of combustion-engine vehicles and new forms of rechargeable, zero-emissions, hybrid engines. The Ferrari Amendment further introduced a five-year exemption to the obligations for manufacturers that produce less than 10,000 vehicles per year.

In the context of the War in Ukraine where energy sovereignty has been called into question, this open door to synthetic fuels produced from green hydrogen or biomethane produced locally in France offers many different signs as to the future of the car in Europe.

All things considered, the majority of manufacturers have announced today a move to new, 100% electric cars between 2025 and 2030, including all the American automakers. This further shows that Europe is now taking along with it other stakeholders in the world like the United States.