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The Trouble with VW was that their Porkies were Green not White

Wouldn’t it be great if the VW crisis (which was essentially caused by the pretence of greenness, and therefore a green lie not a white one) was not just another great corporate scandal and cover up but the moment the world embraced the one sure way to cut emissions – the electric vehicle? It is a subject that minor metal merchants have an interest in for the lithium and, to some extent, cobalt, used in the cathodes.

I think we know that big oil and big automotive, locked in their deathly embrace, aren’t going to go down without a fight; but perhaps September 3rd 2015 will mark the day they finally un-clutched.

Batteries

For months, I had been booked to go to the mother of all battery conferences, the Avicenne Batteries Event in Nice, on the Cote d’Azur.  A bit like the Cannes Film Festival, but only for batteries. That Sunday the heavens opened and 19 people lost their lives, either swept away or trapped in underground car-parks or tunnels. Our young taxi driver who drove us in a hire car from the airport to the hotel had had to save himself by climbing from his car window as the waters rose. Was it a sign?

The battery conference is appropriately sited in France because, thanks to its faith in nuclear power from the time of General de Gaulle, this has to be the place where the electric vehicle has most chance of penetration. Unlike the UK, if you buy an EV in France you are not going to end up a farm track with a flat battery wondering where the next charging point is – over here they’re everywhere. That’s why France has drawn battery heads from round the world to talk anodes, cathodes, electrolytes, separators, polymers, potential difference, voltages, watts per hour output and about the differing merits of a thousand different configurations of materials and solutions.

Technological Development

Here in the room was Mr Yoshio Nishi, Sony Executive Alumnus, who is credited with inventing the first lithium ion battery in the 1970s, as Sony led the world in personal music provision via the Walkman. He identified the need for a small battery that would be re-chargeable. There were rumours in the hall that he was somewhere on a list for a Nobel prize.

What was it about lithium ion batteries that made them so different? Essentially, it was their weight to power ratio. And what made them difficult to develop? Their safety. But now they have matured and more than shown their potential, powering the equipment on the Rosetta Spacecraft that landed just over 10 years later and a billion miles from Earth on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 12th November 2014 with all batteries in working order and –  Mr Nishi reminded us – made by Sony!

Listening to the scientists, touching on their battles with conflicting material properties, balancing advances in energy output with safety, shaving off inefficiencies with tweaks to separator coatings or anode/cathode formulations, was humbling in the extreme.

Amongst the exhibits, was the Bluesummer, a vehicle created by the Bolloré company, with a top speed of 110 km/h and range of 200 km in town and 100 km outside. Costing a snip at €17,000, this small and in some ways ugly vehicle has something to tell us both about the problems and opportunities facing the electric vehicle.

Ownership…or Sharing?

Rather like a Gallic Elon Musk, the Bluesummer is backed by one man’s vision, someone prepared to put his personal wealth behind the EV without any prospect of short term profit. That man is Mr Bolloré and, unlike Musk, his business model is focused on overturning the anthropology of car ‘ownership’ and replacing it with car ‘sharing’. Together with the support of the Mayor, Bolloré Bluesummer cars are located all round Paris lined up like Boris-bikes ready for hire. It is as simple to hire a Bluesummer as a Vélo Bleu. You register, you answer some questions via a Skype-like video link and you pay per hour. According to the talk I heard, your first 20 mins will cost less than a ride on the Paris Metro for the same duration. Apparently one Bolloré vehicle was used 19 times by 19 separate people in a 24 hour period. Shopkeepers, who once chained themselves to lamp-posts to prevent the siting of electric refuelling and parking points near their shops, now compete for them.

The psychological shift is from ‘car ownership’ to ‘car sharing’. The sharing economy is one that means you are content to pay and go. In other words you purchase the function of a car but do not need to polish or worship it on a Sunday morning.

The only question is, can the petrol-heads and diesel-heads who watch Top Gear be turned into battery-heads? Or will they just have to die out along with the now fraudulently advertised vehicles that were the icons of their religion. (N.B. correct use of the word Icon.)

Generational Change

Meantime, the Airbnb, Uber, Zipcar, Boris-bike generation does not appear to have the same urge to own things as we once did. This group, remember, has not just been defrauded of its clean air but of a fair-priced home in which to live. What car-sharing, Boris-biking and the above offer, is fair use at a fair price of things that most modern City dwellers need, yet contain less of the waste.

The Bolloré is not a vehicle idling on the drive, and your flat need not be empty while you are on holiday. The X factor is that these are social changes that are now sexy. That means, if you decide to be the person in your street to live by Airbnb, Uber, Zipcar, Boris-Bike, Bolloré rules you are making a statement. And it might just catalyse a whole generation to give up on big oil.

VW will no doubt recall the vehicles fraudulently fitted with emission defeat devices, try to compensate dealers and re-assure owners. But, if it really wants to make a break with the past and clean up its image it could not do better than to state that as of Sept 3rd 2015 it will enter a programme to abandon combustion completely and join the race to obtain the only market share that will matter in the next 25 years – that of the reliable electric vehicle. While some will say that EVs are not emission-free as it merely shifts the emission to power stations, I would argue that such emissions are concentrated and controlled, not sited in towns, and will be a vast improvement on the kettled particulates hanging over all modern towns and cities.

And Metal Traders?

As for metal people, I suggest they get in on the supply train before the industry accelerates from 0-60 mph in three seconds without them. As for sharing, there are limits. In London in the 19th century ice-cream vendors invented the ‘penny lick’ ice-cream – an ice-cream in re-usable glass containers which, when licked clean, were refilled and passed to the next customer but efficiently passed on TB at the same time.

Published October 28th 2015 on www.lord-copper.com