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Commentary: The curious case of the European ICE car ban – Irina Slav

These translations are done via Google Translate

By Irina Slav

More from Irina Slav

The energy transition front of the European Union — and the UK — has had it in for internal combustion engine vehicles for years. Petrol and diesel car are simply incompatible with the energy transition, even though the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, for a random example, drives a diesel car. According to that front, if there is to be a transition, petrol and diesel vehicles must go and be replaced with electric ones.

First, they tried the carrot: subsidies for EV buyers, subsidies for EV makers, subsidies for charger installers, subsidies all around. For some unfathomable reason, while a lot of people did switch to EVs, their numbers were nowhere near where the green frontmen and frontwomen want them to be. So it was time for the stick.

The stick is what amounts to a ban on the sales of internal combustion engine vehicles from 2035 across the EU (also in the UK but earlier, in 2030). The ban is dressed in the goal of achieving a 100% reduction in emissions from the carmaking industry. After the European Parliament voted for it, now it’s up to member states to shape the ban in its final form. Or break up the EU.

“The EU Parliament has today taken a decision against citizens, against the market, against innovation and against modern technologies,” said the president of the German car industry association, Hildegard Mueller, as quoted by Euractiv.

You’d think she means things like right of choice and making your own decisions about means of transportation but she was strictly speaking about the practical implications of a ban when there are not enough charging points even in Germany, let along the whole of the EU.

“It is therefore simply too early for such an objective. It will increase costs for consumers and put consumer confidence at risk,” Mueller said. And she is quite right.

In 2020, there were 246.3 million cars on European Union roads in total, according to data from the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association. Of these 246.3 million cars, 51.7% were petrol-powered, 42.8% were diesel-powered, and 2.5% were powered by liquid petroleum gas. Plug-in hybrids accounted for 0.6% of the total, and battery electric vehicles accounted for 0.5%. This 0.5% must go up to 100% in eight years, under the ban plan.

What must have escaped the planners’ attention is that there is currently a looming shortage of EVs globally thanks to — surprise — a looming shortage of batteries, and with raw material availability and battery metal prices where they are, who knows when it will end. This puts the EU’s electrification plan in a fascinating perspective.

On the one hand, you want to get rid of millions upon millions of future ICE cars and replace them with millions upon millions of electric cars. Carmakers are spending billions on developing their electric vehicle manufacturing platforms and trying to build a supply chain for metals and minerals, the key word here being trying, unfortunately.

On the other hand, the ACEA car fleet chart shows that while in Germany the average age of cars is 9.8 years, this rises to 14.3 years in Poland, 17 years in Lithuania, and 16.9 years in Romania. In other words, while many swap their cars for new ones once they hit five years, more, it seems, keep driving their four-wheeled emitters for quite a bit longer than that. And then they sell them in the East, meaning Eastern Europe, so other people can keep driving them.


It’s worth noting that the ban concerns sales beginning from 2035. However, chances are that there will also be punitive measures for the drivers of ICE cars in order to motivate them to go electric.

There already are such measures: EV buyers don’t pay the so-called eco-tax that all petrol and diesel car buyers pay in Bulgaria and, I assume, across the EU. Owners of older, less fuel efficient cars also pay higher annual taxes — the older the car, the higher the tax.

The EU, then, has all the levers it needs to force people into going electric… as long as there are enough EVs to go around, of course, and this remains an open question for the time being.

The ban has yet to be finalised and agreed by all member states. Things can yet change. But if they don’t and if the whole EU, that is, all the EU governments, agree to go fully electric in passenger vehicles and vans, I will do something I rarely do and predict a breakup for the European Union by 2035.

I first mentioned the possibility of the ICE car ban breaking up the EU on Twitter and the responses I got without exception amounted to “Nah, it won’t last even that long.” I disagree with this prediction because there are plenty of reasons for the EU to want to survive. An end to the sales of internal combustion engine cars, however, may well prove the crack that breaks the whole thing up.

The rate of motorisation in the European Union was 560 cars per 1,000 people in 2020, according to ACEA. I’m willing to bet the number is higher per 1,000 people of driving age. There are, in other words, a lot of cars in the European Union and many of their drivers are attached to them. I’m not joking. We like our cars, or at least the idea of having a car to move around.

I’m sure millions of people wouldn’t mind switching to EVs but only under a few conditions: first, they would need to be cheaper or at least no more expensive than the ICE cars they would be giving up; second, they would need to be assured there are enough charging points; third, charging will need to become much faster, and fourth, electricity will need to be affordable. It would also need to be, not to put too fine a point on it, reliable.

Currently, none of these conditions are close to being met. Perhaps the easiest one to meet is the one about charging points: they simply need to be built. Then again, it may not be that simple — the EU will need a lot of charging points if it bans ICE cars, and at all the right locations, too.

The most challenging conditions, I believe, are price and charging times. EV prices have only just started to go up and official bans will inevitably boost demand, pushing prices further up. Material price inflation will also contribute to making EVs costlier. Finally, charging technology will need to move in leaps and bounds over the next eight years to achieve charging time parity with filling up a petrol car tank.

Because of all these challenges and the limited ability of the EU and European carmakers to overcome them, the ICE car ban will most likely fail. What the consequences of this failure would be is an interesting and, no doubt, entertaining question. One of them may well be that some member states will get fed up with the EU and strike out on their own.

P.S. Fun fact, per Euractiv: “However, Italian luxury car manufacturers managed to obtain an exception for carmakers like Ferrari, Bugatti and Lamborghini who could be exempt from the de facto ban on the combustion engine, the so-called “Ferrari exception.”” If that’s not a blatant case of double standards I don’t know what is.

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