Optimism and glamour as the Europe Electric Vehicle Road Trip gets underway

The ESCP Europe Electric Vehicle Road Trip (EVRT) is underway. Over the next 16 days, a fleet of EVs will circumnavigate the continent, taking in some of its major cities and on the way bringing to public attention the e-mobility wave that seems on the cusp of breaking.

This week’s launch event in London provided a fascinating insight into the current state of play in the world of electric vehicles and the forces that are propelling the sector rapidly up the public and political agendas. Realism over the many challenges that still remain there was aplenty, but in equal abundance was a huge sense of optimism about the opportunities that lie ahead.

Professor John Polak, Head of the Centre for Transport at Imperial College London, set the scene with a look back at the last great transport revolution. One hundred years ago the horse, which had hitherto provided the backbone of the transport system, was replaced in only a short space of time by electric-powered trams and other vehicles. Then came the internal combustion engine, which has been the workhorse of the mobility sector ever since. But this too now looks set to be supplanted as the second coming of electric vehicles gathers momentum.

“Rapid and extensive transitions in mobility can and do happen, and have happened. And when the time is right, when the circumstances are right, they can happen quickly,” Polak said.

Rapid change is usually a result of a convergence of numerous individual drivers, but a critically important ingredient is a strong economic case, Polak said: “That was the case with the transition from horse to electric to diesel and maybe back to electric again.”

That economic tipping point certainly seems to be getting closer, with predictions that price parity between EV and regular vehicles is only a handful of years away.

Some countries, notably Norway, have sought to bring the economic case for EVs into the here and now by incentivising consumers to choose electric over regular vehicles.

Christina Bu, secretary general of the Norway Electric Vehicle Association, described how through a mixture of tax breaks and other incentives, Norway has become the world’s leading e-mobility nation, with EVs enjoying a 29% market share of new vehicles sold in 2016. “In Norway now we have passed the early mover stage; we are in an early mass market,” Bu said.

The launch conference was given a touch of glamour with a presentation from Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E, the electric vehicle racing championship that is wowing crowds around the world with its brand of high-octane action.

Agag stressed that far from being simply sport, Formula E is playing a critical role in the development of the EV industry generally by giving manufacturers involved in the championship an important platform for trialling and refining new technologies.

“They are directly taking lessons from the temperature management of the battery, from energy recovery systems and directly putting them on the road cars,” Agag said.

Equally important to the industry is Formula E’s role in raising public awareness of EVs. Robin Heap, commercial manager at utility Engie, one of the sponsors of the Europe EVRT, said Formula E’s ability to engage the public, particularly the young, in the e-mobility movement was just the sort of PR the sector needs to help it takes its next steps forward.

Heap said the Europe EVRT event was helping play a similar role by bringing EVs to public attention and demystifying the concept of electric-powered mobility.

“We’ve got to get excited about talking about electric vehicles, because they are exciting,” Heap said. “That’s why this event is really good – it allows people to start to understand what electric vehicles in the future could look like; and that old-timer vision of loud noises and exhaust starts to disappear. We need to be out there talking in real terms about electric vehicles and what could happen today.”

As the EVRT fleet makes its way around Europe over the next two weeks, many of the lessons of the launch event will be transferred to the public as part of the expedition’s mission to educate and inform. Similarly, the experience gained from driving six thousand kilometres around the continent will be fed into future EVRT events, creating a virtuous circle of knowledge and learning that will help bring the e-mobility revolution a step closer.