The acceleration of electric vehicles

Globally, mandates are pushing major carmakers down the road to carbon neutrality — but it seems some are taking the scenic route.

Article by Philip King

Polestar PreceptPolestar’s Precept concept, soon to be realised as the all-electric Polestar 5, launching in 2024. Photography courtesy Polestar.

In line with the mood of the times, the car industry has agreed that it needs to get cracking on carbon neutrality. How it gets there, and its estimated time of arrival, depends on who is driving. Every auto badge has a different answer, and every answer has back-seat critics.

For example, the COP26 climate conference held in November of last year drew a commitment to making cars 100 per cent zero emission by 2035, with Ford, General Motors, Mercedes and Jaguar Land Rover among the signatories. Conspicuous by their absence were such market heavyweights as Hyundai, Volkswagen and Toyota, and Greenpeace was not alone in calling for more ambitious plans and earlier deadlines for phasing out internal combustion.

Toyota, in particular, was forced to defend its position after a Greenpeace scorecard of carmakers, released at the time of the conference, marked it dead last. The Japanese motoring giant says carbon is the enemy, not internal combustion, and points to biofuels, hydrogen and hybrids as alternative routes to neutrality.

According to this view, electric vehicles are necessary but not sufficient. Half of an EV’s lifecycle emissions come from building it in the first place, according to the International Energy Agency, whereas for combustion engine cars, it’s 20 per cent. So while zero-emission vehicles are a boon to cities, their eco-merit depends on how they perform cradle to grave.

Another non-signatory, the Volkswagen Group, is also committed to being “net carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest” but it won’t be taking its foot off the gas entirely. That’s because another issue for EVs is price. They are becoming more accessible, but for much of the planet they will remain beyond reach for some time. So the group’s Skoda division will continue to develop combustion cars for Southeast Asia, Latin America and other emerging markets, where demand for affordable petrol vehicles is expected to grow almost 60 per cent over the next 10 years. To offset this, Volkswagen’s Way to Zero strategy includes a checklist of initiatives to decarbonise, from powering factories with renewables to recycling batteries.

And when it comes to EVs, Volkswagen is the brightest spark in the room. It accounts for one-fifth of the half-trillion dollars earmarked for EV development to 2030 — easily the largest single commitment, according to Reuters. That has already propelled it into the top rank of heritage brands in the electric race, second only to the upstart Tesla. The latest addition to Volkswagen’s EV line-up is the ID.5, a coupe-style crossover, which features four-wheel drive, 220kW of power and a 490-kilometre range in top-flight GTX trim. As with its siblings, the ID.3 and ID.4, it’s taking the scenic route to Oz and won’t arrive before 2023.

The company’s spokesperson, Paul Pottinger, says other nations have a greater claim on the limited production. “There is no compelling reason to sell mass-market EVs here,” he says. “In Europe, demand outstrips supply.” Instead, the Cupra badge — an offshoot of Volkswagen’s Spanish subsidiary, SEAT — will spearhead the group’s mainstream electric offerings, with plug-in hybrids due by mid-year and a battery runabout, the Cupra Born, by year-end. Cupra Born will flout its Euro origins and a starting price below Tesla’s Model 3 of about $55,000.

Cupra Born
SEAT’s electric Cupra Born, arriving in Australia this year. Photography courtesy Cupra.

Only a handful of EVs come in under that price, but the Korean giant Hyundai offers two: the Ioniq Electric and the Kona. Its third, the appealingly angular Ioniq 5, is the first of the next generation and it sold out immediately when it arrived in Australia late last year despite the $71,900 sticker.

Hyundai also has a multipronged strategy for achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2045 “throughout our entire value chain” and believes “green hydrogen” is a vital part of the solution, especially for commercial vehicles. Hyundai’s premium badge, Genesis, will lead its charge to electrification and achieve carbon neutrality a decade earlier than the group as a whole. Genesis plans to release eight EVs by mid-decade, with three due in Australia this year. Two — the GV70 and G80 — are variants of internal combustion cars while the third — the GV60 — shares new battery-specific underpinnings with the Ioniq 5. It has similar midsize proportions but more rounded, muscular styling and a luxury cabin. Prices for the GV60 — the most affordable of the trio — start below $100K, and it comes as either a 168kW rear-wheel drive or with dual motors and all-wheel drive. Clever electronics mean it can refill in about 20 minutes from the fastest superchargers.

The Genesis vision for “sustainable luxury” is summed up by its striking X Concept, which was revealed in Los Angeles in March 2021. The company’s brand chief, Jay Chang, says it “embodies our brand’s progressive and audacious spirit”, with the letter “X” symbolising a “hidden hero”. Upcycled materials give the cabin a unique character and although — of course — it is electric, with its long bonnet and short rear, the grand tourer has the priapic proportions of a high-performance petrol car. Genesis has left us guessing whether the X Concept will be as powerful as it looks, or even if it will reach production. But a halo car helps Genesis stand out from the crowd of freshly minted luxury badges that are a feature of the EV revolution.

Another relative newbie is Polestar, which began life 25 years ago as a racing partner to Volvo. It recently morphed into a separate EV outfit that doubles down on its parent’s Scandi virtues, combining Swedish design with a proselytising zeal for climate neutrality. In the wake of COP26, the CEO of Polestar, Thomas Ingenlath, slammed the industry for doing too little, too late.

“Car companies are still talking about selling petrol and diesel cars until 2040,” Ingenlath says. “This is not the time for incremental change but radical change.” In contrast, his company aims to make “a truly climate neutral car by 2030, without relying on carbon offsetting”.

“Building and selling electric cars isn’t the end point, it is the beginning,” he says. “We will need at least as much attention on creating a clean supply chain and, ultimately, recycling.” Polestar uses blockchain to log its suppliers and publishes the CO2 footprint of its cars. Its call for greater industry transparency echoes Greenpeace’s complaints about “poor disclosure” of supplier emissions and insufficient detail about how carbon neutrality targets will be achieved.

Deliveries of Polestar 2, the brand’s debut in Australia, will begin in March. With a starting price of $59,900 for the 165kW single-motor variant, it’s a direct challenge to Tesla’s Model 3. It also has a hero car on the way: the Polestar 5 (previewed by the Precept concept), due in 2024. This electric grand tourer raises the bar on sustainable materials, featuring recycled wine cork in the seats and carpet woven from reclaimed fishing nets.

Whether battery power and repurposed PET bottles are the only way to reach carbon neutrality is a question that remains to be answered: it’s entirely possible that the industry has underestimated the scale of the challenge, as it did with autonomous vehicles. What is clear is that, like the attendees at COP27 in Egypt later this year, each carmaker is charting its own path and, naturally, there’s huge potential for a wrong turn en route.

A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 52 of T Australia with the headline:
“Ready to Commit”
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