Amongst all the hoopla in Paris this week as the COP21 conference on climate change revs up, Madame Ségolène Royal, the French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, announced that she wants to create “an electric car for the people.” What does that mean? According to Mme. Royal, it means a car that costs between $5,400 and $7,500.
“In emerging countries, the growing middle class means that there are more and more vehicles being purchased and most of these cars are fossil fuel cars,” she pointed out. “This is a very attractive solution.” Indeed it is, although exactly who would build such a car or how they would do so profitably she did not say. Royal said that she hoped the competition would spur innovation in material and battery development, as well as new modes of car use. She admits that the result “may not look like traditional electric cars.” Can you say, “Renault Twizy”, boys and girls?
This is not the first time that a visionary has set out to build a car for the people. The name Volkswagen in German translates to “people’s car.” In East Germany while under communist rule, the people’s car was the godawful, pollution spewing Trabant. India has taken a turn at producing a low cost electric car. It is made by Mahindara and called the E2O. Its pretty basic transportation but sells for around $15,000. You can buy a new Civic for less than that.
Everyone agrees that electric cars have to get cheaper before then can go mainstream. Tesla plans to introduce its lower priced Model 3 in 2017. It is expected to start at $35,000, though various desirable options like dual motors, more powerful batteries and a crossover with falcon wing doors could easily push that to $50,000 or more.
France bet heavily on diesel powered cars over the past 40 years. Today, almost 70% of all new cars sold in France are diesels. What France didn’t count on was how dirty the tailpipe emissions from early diesel engines can be. Today, there are millions of oil burners chugging around France and spewing out NOx emissions and particulates. The problem is so severe that Paris has experienced days this year when the Eiffel Tower has disappeared inside a miasma of smog.
France is now taking drastic measures to get the oldest and worst polluting diesels off the road and into junk yards. The mayor of Paris has imposed stringent rules preventing diesel cars from driving in her city and has even declared Paris a car free zone on occasion.
Surely Minister Royal’s proposal is just so much bureaucratic doublespeak, some pie in the sky chimera that has no chance of ever coming to pass, right? Maybe, but perhaps it’s time to revisit this advice from Elon Musk, a man who knows a thing or two about impossible dreams. “If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it. The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.” In other words, “Mme. Royal, you go, girl!”