Eric-Mark Huitema

Earlier this week, I presented how Europe’s automobile industry is getting ready to make the transition to carbon-neutral transport at a high-level conference hosted by Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President in charge of the European Green Deal. Indeed, the new Commission has made this Deal the centre piece of its work plan for the next years, with the aim of making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent.

As ACEA we believe that carbon-neutral road transport is possible by 2050. Automobile manufacturers want to do their part, and they fully support the aims of the Commission’s Green Deal. However, addressing the challenges ahead of us as we pave the way to carbon neutrality is a joint responsibility. It will represent a seismic shift, requiring a holistic approach with increasing efforts from all stakeholders.

Already today, our 16 members are making massive investments to deliver the ambitious 2025 and 2030 CO2 reduction targets, but our industry needs more legal certainty and long-term stability as it moves towards carbon neutrality in 2050. And that is exactly why our President, Michael Manley, launched ACEA’s brand new ‘10-point plan to help implement the European Green Deal’ at last week’s annual reception. I would like to take this opportunity to run through some of those key recommendations and share my views with you.

First of all, technological neutrality must be guaranteed in order to reflect the many different mobility needs of our customers throughout Europe. In practice, this means that policy makers should not impose specific technologies, nor ban vehicles that can still deliver CO2 reductions, in order to drive the best possible results. And the new Green Deal also speaks about more stringent standards for pollutant emissions. In this respect, the balance between improving air quality and reducing CO2 must also be accounted for in a technically neutral manner.

Secondly, knowing that the average age of vehicles keeps rising year after year, a more holistic approach to carbon neutrality is needed that also tackles the use of all vehicles on our roads. This will require a smart combination of further improving the efficiency of vehicles – the so-called ‘tank-to-wheel’ CO2 emissions, which are our industry’s responsibility – as well as an increasing move towards low-carbon energy carriers to cover the ‘well-to-tank’ part of CO2 emissions.

Needless to say, vehicle manufacturers are fully committed to further lowering both CO2 and pollutant emissions from new vehicles. They are all striving to reach the 2030 CO2 targets set recently for passenger cars, vans and heavy-duty vehicles – and these targets should remain on a tank-to-wheel basis. In addition, however, a ‘well-to-wheel’ concept with split responsibilities should be applied after 2030 to properly account for the performance of both vehicles and energy carriers, such as fuels or electricity.

But I would like to stress that reaching the targets of the Green Deal is not just about which powertrains or fuels we use for our vehicles in the future. We also need to look at other key factors that play a role in reaching those targets. Indeed, the overall efficiency of transport – so how vehicles are used – has to be further improved as well. The importance of such a holistic approach is something that becomes even more apparent when talking to our members.

After taking office as Director General of ACEA in October last year, I made the promise to visit as many of our member companies as possible. This month I went to Munich to visit the headquarters of the BMW Group and went up north to Södertälje to learn more about the commercial vehicles that Scania makes in Sweden.

My personal takeaway from both visits is that if you only focus on tailpipe reduction targets, like some in Brussels tend to do, you forget to look at the potential of other measures to further bring down CO2 emissions. At Scania, for example, I experienced first-hand how high-capacity vehicles – those are special truck-trailer combinations capable of carrying twice as much freight as standard trucks – can be used to consolidate freight from smaller trucks. This means that they reduce fuel consumption, and thus produce significantly less CO2.

For nearly a decade now, the Swedish truck maker has been running a fleet of these high-capacity combinations between Södertälje and their plant in the Netherlands with great success. According to a recent ACEA paper, three high-capacity vehicles can replace six regular trucks, cutting CO2 emissions by up to 27%. For the time being, however, only eight EU countries welcome these combinations on their roads, which means that they can’t be used for cross-border transport throughout Europe yet.

Similarly, digital innovations such as intelligent transport systems (ITS) and increasing levels of automated driving can also make a major contribution to reducing our environmental footprint. And what I saw in Munich demonstrates that the technology is already here. After a full day of meetings, I was driven back to the airport in an automated car that performed all driving tasks on the motorway, including overtaking and changing lanes. Although seated behind the steering wheel, technically I could have just closed my eyes. The result was an extremely smooth ride.

As many of these vehicles are going to be deployed in the decades ahead, I am convinced that they will make a major contribution to reducing traffic congestion, and with that to decreasing emissions. Without a question, automation will help us to address climate change and improve air quality, especially in urban areas. But again, also in this case the EU legislative framework is not ready yet for the widespread introduction of these vehicles.

Now, let’s go back to the third key recommendation from our 10-point plan that I want to share with you. With respect to alternative fuels, a dense network of charging points and re-fuelling stations must urgently be deployed across the European Union, and it needs to be suitable for both passenger cars and commercial vehicles.

In my view, this is the single most important enabler for achieving carbon neutrality in the road transport sector. That is why ACEA believes that there should be a review of the EU’s Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive with a view to including mandatory targets for national governments as well as clear enforcement measures. This update also has to reflect the specific requirements of alternatively-powered trucks, as their infrastructure needs differ greatly from passenger cars.

At the same time, we need to recognise that new low-emission technologies are expensive and will remain so for the foreseeable future. To ensure that the higher prices do not slow down fleet renewal, consistent and economically-sustainable incentives should be put in place for users of cars and commercial vehicles.

I am convinced that this is the most efficient way to accelerate the uptake of clean technologies across the board. Because the switch to carbon-neutral transport will only be successful if low- and zero-emission vehicles become the preferred choice for consumers – and especially for professional transport operators, who always look at the total cost of ownership.

And finally, let me emphasise that the transition to carbon neutrality must be very well-managed by policy makers. They cannot ignore the wider social and economic implications of this seismic shift. Mobility must remain affordable for all Europeans, regardless of where someone lives or how much they earn.

Moreover, if Europe really wants to make a major leap forward with the Green Deal, this occasion should also be used to strengthen the global competitiveness of the EU auto industry. Not just for the manufacturers represented by ACEA, but especially for the 13.8 million Europeans employed by our sector.

Eric-Mark Huitema
Director General of ACEA

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