The sustainable mobility revolution has just started

Automakers focus on sustainability

We have observed it in recent days in the Volkswagen Power Day, which shows us concretely how the pandemic has forced the world’s car manufacturers to change course and exploit this opportunity.

During the event, the top management of the German company – including Herbert Diess and Thomas Schmall – outlined the group’s plan for the next ten years, aiming to become a leader in the electric car sector.

Technologies and production facilities are the key elements for the complete electrification of its vehicle range, with simpler and less expensive battery production.

The group’s vision is not limited to production facilities but has established collaboration agreements with Utilities across Europe for the installation of around 18,000 fast-charging points by 2025, with a total investment of around 400 million euros.


The governments are turning green, the latest investments in electric mobility

Not only private companies are investing in sustainable-electric mobility, but also institutions. In Italy for example, the government and local administration have seen two problems to be faced: the pollution from particulates in cities like Milan, where – after the first lockdown phase – the values are back on the rise; and the lack of charging stations on the territory to support the growing demand of private electric cars.

From the European Institute of Innovation and Technology comes the announcement of Eit Urban Mobility, which provides new funding, made available to startups, scale-ups and SMEs that will get funds to develop their innovative solutions in the field of urban mobility, the ceiling is 100,000 Euros.

The Lombardy region has allocated 5 million Euros for those public administrations that will encourage sustainable mobility through the creation of charging infrastructures for electric vehicles.

On a bigger scale, the new Ministry of Ecological Transition has launched a concrete intervention to transform the circulation of local school transport vehicles, improving their efficiency. It is 20 million Euros to convert local school transport to hybrid and electric vehicles. But that’s not all: on a national level there are also bonuses and incentives for citizens who will convert their combustion vehicles into electric or hybrid vehicles.

These are just some of the Italian interventions to promote electric mobility, showing how widespread is the commitment between all parties – private and institutions – to make the transition faster and more efficient.

What is the real environmental cost of producing an electric car?

Another very interesting and debated issue, regarding electric transports, is the actual reduction in terms of emissions compared to combustion vehicles. Let’s clear up from the outset that current technologies would allow lower environmental costs during the life of an electric car, but in some cases, they are still too expensive.

So, what determines the environmental cost of electric cars? Mainly the battery production processes and the electric grids which power the charging points.

As far as electric grids are concerned, the commitment of many states is to move towards energy produced from renewable sources. This would be important to reduce the carbon footprint of plug-in cars during their lifetime.

But the largest share of emissions, more than 30%, comes from battery production and disposal. Like many other batteries, the lithium-ion cells that power most electric vehicles rely on raw materials – like cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements – that have been linked to serious environmental and human rights concerns.

Cobalt has been especially problematic. Most cobalt mines are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where bitter conflicts are taking place, moreover the extraction of this mineral produces serious effects in local communities, due to sulfur oxide emissions, which poisons the air. Another problem is the significant use of water in battery production, which makes the manufacture of electric cars 50% more water intensive than combustion cars.

These downstream problems in the production chain are offset by lower emissions over the life of the vehicle, as shown in the study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who compared several significant factors, including those mentioned above and the gasoline consumption of combustion cars.

link to show the MIT study: https://www.carboncounter.com/#!/details?powertrainFilter=BEV&classFilter=Compact%20SUV

Is there currently any way to lower the environmental costs of electric cars?

A very interesting possibility would be to recycle the spent batteries of electric cars and in the next years it will be a very important topic to take into account, given the huge number of batteries that will have to be changed from first generation electric cars.

What is currently frightening is the fact that estimated recycling rates for lithium-ion batteries are only about 5 percent. While experts point out that in them you can find useful elements and still in optimal condition to be reused in other areas with still a long life in energy storage. On this point are working several centers around the world, but for the moment the recycling of these batteries is still complicated and very expensive, both economically and environmentally.

Despite this, there is no doubt that it remains essential to find a way to give new life to materials that may still be useful, trying to lower our environmental impact as much as possible.


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