An Environmentalist at a Car show

Posted on March 13, 2012


So I was fortunate enough to visit the Geneva Auto Show. Now normally this isn’t really a prime destination for me. I am what you might call a car-skeptic. Ok maybe that’s too strong a term. I do drive if I must but I always feel that driving is something of a failing – either on my part because I’ve been to lazy to take a somewhat more circuitous public transport route, or on the part of public infrastructure for not offering my a reasonable way of getting where I want to go without getting in a car. I am however interested in transport technology, and in the evolution of the car as a part of that. Cars are here to stay in one form or another, because they provide something that many people need. Although we’ve done ourselves a great disservice by pandering so completely to car transport that we’ve clogged our cities with traffic and filled our air with filth, we cannot undo that overnight. Therefore, any environmentalists has to be interested in cars, and now they can be improved.

And on the whole, I found there were many positive points to take away from the show. Car sizes appear to have stopped inflating. While few models are comparable in compactness to models from the last century (such as the iconic Mini, who’s new model is much bigger in all dimensions), the trend of ever increasing sizes seems to have ended. Peugeot’s 208 is even slightly smaller and lighter than the preceding 207 (though still much bigger than the ever-faithful 205 of the 80s and 90s).

There was a real show of effort for improved fuel efficiency. And not just through hybrids – there were many examples of improved versions of traditional petrol and diesel engines which achieved impressively low emissions. In fact, I have been pretty much put off hybrids by what I saw – many diesel engined cars advertised equal or even lower fuel consumption than hybrids, while dispensing with the increased complexity and resource use of hybrids. I think car makers are starting to admit that fuel efficiency can be significantly improved by judicious application of current technologies: smaller optimized IC engines, lower weight, better aerodynamics, better control systems, and so on.

Even manufacturers who have traditionally not paid much attention to this area have started making their moves. Mercades in particular had a range of hybrid drive trains as well as more efficient versions of classical models. I was pleasantly surprised by their new A-class – although not a particularly small car it still comes in a version which manages 4.4l/100km. Ford also had a sizable offering of efficient traditional engines, with diesel models offering 3.5l/100km, matching the economy of the hybrid version of the same car.

I feel hybrids show their gimmickry in this light – adding an electric engine and battery uses extra resources and is much more complex. The complexity in turn reduces reliability in the long term and increases the life-cycle emissions of the vehicle. And despite all the extra stuff, similar tailpipe emissions can be achieved by using small, highly optimized engines in well designed cars. Of course, hybrids will retain a performance advantage – the electric component allows more instantaneous power which is often a selling point. Never the less I think hybrids are going to be eclipsed by what i felt was the star of the show:

Pure Electrics.

I was impressed by this category not just by the cars themselves, but also by the number of them. While last year the Nissan Leaf was the only commercially available electric car, there are now offers from Renault, Ford, Peugeot/Citroen/Mitsubishi, Chevrolet/Opel, BMW, as well as a number of small specialty manufacturers. These were not concepts (well, the BMW was) but production ready models which are on sale now or will be within the year. This is a real, fundamental change, which completely throws out the legacy of internal combustion. What I like the most is the impression that people are taking this seriously. For decades car makers paid lip service to the hydrogen economy, claiming hydrogen cars were on their way without really making any plans to ever sell any. Now, with electric cars, people have realized that they can be made, sold, and used right now. Not in X years, not only if someone builds a fueling network, but right now. Of course there is still work to do to provide fast chargers in key locations, and the technology is evolving rapidly, but it electric cars are no longer the domain of crazy prototypes but are a commercial reality.

And the models themselves are impressive – not clunky first generation machines but real contenders to replace petrol machines. The Nissan Leaf (which I was able to test drive) is particularly impressive, especially given that it has been on sale for significantly longer than the others. It feels smooth and well thought out, with an elegantly understated interior. It is extremely well built and glides along the road in blissful silence. In fact the single thing I didn’t like about it was that the battery is only guaranteed for 5 years. Now I come from a background where cars are used, and used, and used. And when they break down, they get fixed and used some more. These are not collectors cars, they are quite worthless, but every last drop of usefulness is squeezed out of them over 25years or more until the wheels literally drop off. So being told on purchase day that a key component of the car, especially one which is such new technology, is only guaranteed 5 years is a big turn off. Ford, with their electric Focus, offer a 10 year guarantee (partly due to improved battery management). This I like more. On the other hand, Nissan are said to be working on a scheme whereby owners could resell their old batteries for use in grid-storage applications. I will be monitoring this one.

Renault impressed me with its unusual two seater Twizy. I am actually quite excited about this car (technically a quadricycle). For one thing i think it looks great fun. But more importantly it represents a different approach to mobility, especially urban and suburban mobility. It is a move away from Das Auto as the centre of an existence, instead offering a fun, lightweight, affordable, and completely clean way of moving from A to B. It’s not terribly solid, nor comfortable – it seats 2 with the passenger awkwardly straddling the driver a bit like a motorbike, it’s not built of high grade materials, but it does come for around €7000 (about the price of a nice Vespa) – an electric vehicle for all from a respected manufacturer. I could also totally see these things being customized in all sorts of ways, from people making it theirs with stickers and paint to people modifying them for added luggage, for longer distance travel, or even adding solar panels to it’s roof. I certainly would!

I also like the Twizy for being one of the few, maybe the only, examples of car makers thinking out of the box. Which is, I think, one of the biggest negatives from the show. Despite the eco-models, new drive trains, and occasional wild prototypes, everyone is still making “just cars”. Cars exactly as they have been conceived since the early 20th century. The Geneva Auto show tells us a lot through what we did NOT see. Completely absent, for instance, were any notions of different models of car ownership. In increasingly urbanized living, few and few people need to own a car, especially in places with good public transport (i.e. most cities in western Europe). But that doesn’t mean they never need one – people need to move furniture, go on holidays, etc. That’s why variations on car-sharing initiatives are springing up everywhere, whether through ride-sharing websites, the Autolib shared cars in Paris, private car sharing or rental agencies. However none of this was in any way reflected in the show. No one was prototyping, for example, technology to make car sharing easier. Or cars designed for alternate approaches like that.

Similarly, while there was quite a lot of examples of improved fuel economy, I certainly got the feeling that a lot of it was playing to meet regulation and not much more. Of course it’s a good thing to see that fuel economy regulations which incentivize emissions of less than 100g CO2/km are actually working. But it’s not so great if car makers are targeting 99gCO2 and leaving it at that. Certainly they aren’t working on taking the idea further, for instance to consider the whole life-cycle emissions of their vehicle. I didn’t see anything about cradle-to-cradle design, with cars designed from the start for reuse and recycling, nor about the use of more sustainable materials. This is all symptomatic of the fact that while car makers have taken new environmental regulation on board, they haven’t taken *environmentalism* itself on board – they have not committed at any more fundamental level to work towards sustainability.

I mentioned car sizes early – as I said, cars seem to have stopped growing. But they haven’t really started shrinking either. This is one of my pet peeves – car makers complain that it’s hard to make cars more efficient, meanwhile each new model is taller, longer, and heavier than the previous one. The difference is shocking when you see new and old models of the same car parked next to each other, or see how cars which were considered big in the early 90s now look quite average. I guess its a consumer desires thing, but I really would like to see someone make cars small again. If nothing else I would absolutely love it if someone would start making old-fashioned minis again.

More generally, no one really had anything NEW. Of course they had new car models, the luxury makers had faster, shiner, more expensive models of their rich-mans toys, the big names had redesigned bodies and interiors, but no one tried, even a tiny bit, to rethink the IDEA of the car, to experiment with the basic concept of mobility. It is not like there are no concepts out there – I have come across ideas for folding cars which are available on subscription, self-driving cars, cars that follow electric rails like trams, and more. But what I overwhelmingly saw at the show was more of the same, with no imagination applied.

I will say, to lighten things a little, that what I also didn’t see much of were puke-worthy grotesqueries. Hummers and their ilk were blissfully absent. The sports car makers still had their gas-guzzlers out there but at least stuck to making them race-cars and didn’t try to make SUV versions of them. In fact I think the Porsche SUV was not even present on their stand – for me that car is the height of stupid, irresponsible, even disgusting car design, and whoever buys one is a massive retard. The displays dedicated to profligate excess, such as Rolls Royce, where surprisingly small and low-key.

So, a positive experience on the whole. I remain lukewarm to the idea of cars in general – I still feel that the need to own a car is a failure of public infrastructure. But it’s good to see that there is progress on the environmental front, even if it is mostly regulation-driven. It certainly adds weight to the argument that environmental regulations come first – we can’t expect car makers to improve voluntarily. I am also pleased to see the progress in electric cars. I’m now fully confident that this is the path of the future and that the switchover process has begun. There is definitely plenty of room for the technology to grow and mature, so it’s reassuring to see how good some of the implementations are already. But in the end there remains something of a lack of really deep innovation, of attempts to re-invent the car and individual mobility. Maybe I’m asking too much, but I think if we do not always aim higher, we will only stagnate.

Posted in: Green