Beating the jams in France’s journey to electric vehicles

By on 19/10/2018
Paris's electric car sharing scheme, Autolib, has been ended five years early after the city’s commercial partner Bolloré requested an additional 233m euros ($270m) in subsidies (Image courtesy: mariordo59/flickr).

France has ambitious plans to shift to electric vehicles, finds David Whitehouse – but its focus on encouraging big corporates to drive the agenda has proved ineffective: it’s time to empower small businesses

The more ambitious the goal, the tougher the implementation. French President Emmanuel Macron announced in 2017 that the country will end sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, as it seeks to meet targets under the Paris climate accord. The city of Paris will banish petrol- and diesel-fuelled cars by 2030. Getting from A to B may be more complicated than Macron, or many French motorists, had suspected.

France lags behind in the race to embrace electric cars. Only about 1.5% of new cars sold are electric-powered, compared with the frontrunner Norway on about 50%. At stake is public health, as well as long-term environmental protection. It’s estimated that air pollution kills 40,000 to 50,000 people each year across France.

According to Christophe Sebastien, a sustainable development executive with French power giant EDF, French efforts to embrace clean mobility have to date been “a flop.” Norway has done much more to facilitate the shift, he says – offering stronger fiscal incentives and providing free parking for electric cars.

Unplugged

The biggest problem, Sebastien argues, is the lack of charging points for electric vehicles, especially on motorways. France lags behind countries such as Lithuania and Latvia on this front, despite being given European Union funding to create the infrastructure. Sebastien points to recharging systems in Norway, Lithuania and the Netherlands that can cater to all the vehicles on the market. But French systems are not adapted for all vehicles. Drivers who purchase standard foreign imports such as electric Volvos struggle to find charging points, he says, adding that many such points are “already obsolete. There has been a scandalous waste of EU money.”

French efforts to embrace clean mobility have to date been “a flop”, Christophe Sebastien, sustainable development executive, EDF

Sebastien describes France’s efforts to date as a “catastrophe”; he believes that the government’s efforts have been hampered by attempts to protect the largest French carmakers from foreign competition. This, he argues, has been reinforced by a “lack of ambition” within government, compounded by a lack of expertise. “Decision-makers don’t have the necessary technical competence,” he says.

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Pascal Hureau, an associate director at Ecosystem Consulting in Paris, expects French recharging infrastructure to improve significantly over the next couple of years. Hureau sees the current low level of electric car use in France as an opportunity in disguise: it means that infrastructure improvements will run ahead of, and stimulate, electric-vehicle take-up. “The barriers are going to come down,” he argues.

How to charge?

Sebastien at EDF argues that there is no demonstrated profitable model for supplying electricity for cars. However, Hureau expects this to change. And he predicts that bigger electric battery-production factories – notably in China – and design improvements will lead to much cheaper electric batteries within five years. A battery now accounts for about 45% of the cost of an electric car, he says, but that should fall to 25-30%; then electric car prices should fall by a similar amount, making them fully competitive with fossil fuel vehicles in pricing terms.

It is much cheaper to install electric charging points in underground residential car parks than on motorways, Hureau notes. Many small companies are targeting this market, he says, and building management companies will need to take the lead over the next five years; more, in his view, can be done to encourage and incentivise them.

French recharging infrastructure will improve significantly over the next couple of years says Pascal Hureau, an associate director at Ecosystem Consulting in Paris.

Jérôme Fauchet, a mobility solutions consultant in Lyon, agrees that the private sector – and especially small businesses – are the key to progress. Fauchet, previously a marketing executive for Renault’s electric cars, has no doubt that France has the expertise to meet its aims, but argues that a change in culture is needed.

Agenda needs more power

The reason for the slow take-up of electric cars in France, he argues, lies in the fact that the traditional French carmaker doesn’t want to encourage new entrants. The much higher rate of electric car sales reached in Norway, he argues, has been achieved due to the absence of a major domestic car producer. Renault and PSA, he notes, remain mass employers in France. The stick rather than the carrot needs to be brought out, according to Fauchet. Motorists, he says, are not being made to pay for the consequences of their activity in the same way as, for example, smokers. Straight bans on polluting cars are the way forward.

Fauchet draws encouragement from the host of new small companies that are attacking the problem of clean mobility. What is needed to help them, he argues, is greater willingness to finance their R&D. And this demands changes to European Union research funding: currently, money flows to big names such as Total and Vinci rather than innovative start-ups. A “French Silicon Valley” is needed, he says. And Fauchet believes that glimpses of this are starting to appear: he cites Xavier Niel’s Station F in Paris, which claims to be the world’s largest start-up campus for entrepreneurs.

France has to get out of its “comfort zone”, Fauchet argues. There is, he says, no “culture of failure” in France. If a venture fails, then getting funding for a second try is extremely hard. This has to change, Fauchet says – noting that the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba needed several attempts to get off the ground.

Small businesses – are the key to progress says Jérôme Fauchet, a mobility solutions consultant in Lyon.

Fauchet says he knows of dozens of innovative projects in new mobility that either can’t get financing, or find themselves smothered by the embrace of a large French corporate. “We don’t finance the small groups so as not to annoy the big ones,” he comments. “It’s absurd.”

Small business, then, is the key arena in which the transition to clean mobility will be fought. The sources of future energy are clear, and the goals defined. The extent to which private-sector innovators are empowered will help define our modes of mobility in the future – and the quality of the air that we breathe.

About David Whitehouse

David Whitehouse spent 17 years as an editor with Bloomberg News in Paris. Still based there as a freelancer, he writes for The Economist Intelligence Unit as a financial services analyst. He is the author of a book on France's role in the Rwandan genocide and the trials of Rwandan suspects, which began in Paris in 2014.

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