opinion : Andy West

The future is electric

Andy West

AUGUST 6 — I have never been a car man.

I know a lot of people are deeply fascinated by the intricacies of engines, suspensions and tires, but I’m afraid all that mechanical stuff just leaves me stone cold (as shown by the fact that I can only generalise about exactly what it is that petrol-heads are so into… I just don’t know).

The motor car, I am fully aware, was a hugely important invention which plays an enormously fundamental role in our day to day lives and requires impressive levels of engineering.

But as long as it takes me from one place to another without giving me any problems, the extent of my interest is fulfilled and the only thing I could tell you about my current car is that it’s black.

However, in the last few weeks I have become interested in an automotive matter for, perhaps, the very first time in my life, after becoming aware of the new but rapidly growing popularity of electric cars.

First, I spent a few days travelling with a friend who had just got himself, through his work, a smart new hybrid.

This meant absolutely nothing to me until he patiently explained, as we were bowling down the motorway at 70 miles per hour, that the car was not currently consuming any petrol… all the power was coming from a massive battery, stored under the boot in the back of the car, which automatically kicks in whenever the car is cruising.

Over the few days we were together, practically everyone we saw wanted to talk about his new car, oohing and aahing over it in impressed tones and muttering informed statements or questions which, as far as I was concerned, might as well have been in Greek.

So people were obviously interested, but I thought nothing more of it until a couple of weeks later, when another friend gave me a lift in his car which, he explained, he had just finished charging and should be able to complete our journey without needing to visit a charging station.

An e-Golf electric car is pictured outside the new production line of the Transparent Factory of German carmaker Volkswagen in Dresden, Germany on March 30, 2017. — Reuters picAn e-Golf electric car is pictured outside the new production line of the Transparent Factory of German carmaker Volkswagen in Dresden, Germany on March 30, 2017. — Reuters picCharging? A car? What, like you would charge a mobile phone?

Yes, exactly like that. A couple of hours before we departed, he had plugged his car into the electricity supply at home, and now it was fully charged, with enough power to last for at least 100 miles.

This was another matter entirely — not just a hybrid car, with a battery powerful enough to take the slack when the going was good, but an entirely electric car which uses absolutely no fuel whatsoever.

Since then — or perhaps I’m just noticing it now — the issue has been in the news more and more often. Last month both France and the UK announced plans to ban the sale of fossil-fuel powered cars by 2040, and earlier this week German car manufacturers bowed to pressure from environmentalists and agreed on a deal to cut emissions.

You’ll notice a distinct difference between the respective approaches of those countries: while France and the UK have vowed to outlaw fuel cars altogether, the German government can do no more than enforce a fairly feeble reduction in the level of allowed pollution.

There’s an obvious explanation. Even my limited knowledge is enough to realise that replacing all fuel cars with electric models will be a massive change for the motor industry, and that no country will be impacted more than Germany,

As the home to world-famous brands like BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes, it’s no surprise to learn that Germany is by far the biggest provider of car manufacturing jobs in Europe — according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, in 2015 more than 850,000 people were directly employed by the industry in Germany, while second-placed France trailed way behind with 224,000 jobs.

In the near future the entire industry will undoubtedly experience a profound shake-up, and many established car companies — which includes some of the most prestigious brands in Germany — will be negatively affected as new entrants onto the marketplace, such as American electric car specialist Tesla, benefit from greater levels of research and development to surge ahead.

Not all German manufacturers are attempting to resist the march of progress, with Munich-based BMW particularly noted for their commitment to electric — its i3 model recently was named the “Best Electric Car” of the year by top-selling British magazine Auto Express.

This, surely, has to be the way forward. Despite the desperate attempts of climate-change deniers like Donald Trump to close their eyes and ears and pretend that nothing is happening, the fact is that our planet cannot sustain the levels of damage we have been subjecting it to in the last century.

As one of the biggest sources of pollution, the car industry will have to be among those human activities which change the most drastically and established manufacturers will have to adapt… or die.

Earlier this year, German TV network ARD aired a documentary which claimed that Daimler — the parent company of Mercedes — had stopped production of electric cars altogether to focus the production line on traditional models.

That kind of thinking is surely commercial suicide. The world is changing, as it always does, and past triumphs count for nothing in a ruthlessly competitive marketplace.

If even know-nothings like me are becoming rapidly acquainted with the idea that electric cars are the future, surely the actual manufacturers should do the same? Germany might have been a market leader in cars for decades, but that doesn’t have to be the case forever.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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