One of the main arguments in favour of electric cars is that they produce far lower CO2 emissions in use than petrols or diesels. My own view is that while customers do care about the planet and they also like the fact that electric cars are green, they mostly switch and stay converted because EVs are nicer to drive and cheaper to run. But it is the lower CO2 emissions in the face of the need to address climate change that are the driving force behind all of the government’s switchover plans and financial incentives for battery cars.
There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that EVs do better than petrols and diesels on CO2 in use, especially as electricity generation in the UK and other countries increasingly moves away from coal and oil towards renewables such as wind. But the environmental impact of cars isn’t just about how clean they are in operation once they are built – it’s also about the materials, the energy and the emissions that are involved in their construction, which can be substantial. That means that any determined campaign of CO2 reduction cannot really just be about switching to electric and leaving everything else as before. We need to look a lot more closely at how cars can be built more cleanly and efficiently, how their working lives can be extended as much as possible, and see how to raise the proportion of the components and materials in the cars that can be reused in some way when they are finally scrapped.
Of course, there is quite a lot of work going on in these areas already. Manufacturers are working to produce batteries and motors with fewer scarce or expensive materials, and there is already a whole industry that can only be expected to get bigger that is devoted to giving the batteries removed from scrapped EVs a longer life.
A time will eventually come when a battery pack is only fit to be dismantled with a view to extracting any materials of value and safely disposing of the rest. But most battery packs from hybrids or EVs also have long potential second lives before they reach that stage – either as replacement items for otherwise healthy cars with duff batteries, or repackaged for applications such as home solar storage.
But what about the rest of the car? Volvo recently announced a “circular business” model aimed at reducing CO2 emissions by 2.5 million tonnes per year. As well as the obvious measures, such as recycling metals, especially steel and aluminium, the company will increasingly “remanufacture, repair, reuse and refurbish” parts – which sounds very comprehensive to me. The company already remanufactures major components such as engines and transmissions, but will presumably need to go further to achieve its goals. Of course, the concept of reusing parts, either as straightforward salvage or in remanufactured form, is already well established in the replacement market. But presumably the policy can only deliver maximum results if it is taken to its ultimate conclusion, with these parts eventually being fitted to new vehicles as well. That raises the question of whether the use of such components would ever be accepted by customers in new cars, perhaps after a campaign of information and education.
Renault Zoe owners happily accept seat covers made from plastic bottles and old safety belts, but many of us are a bit wary of, say, remoulded tyres. Perhaps tyres deserve new scrutiny. A lot of energy and materials go into making a tyre, and all that is lost if the tyre is discarded while it still has plenty of life left in it. The lives of truck tyres are routinely extended by techniques such as regrooving, to get extra tread depth.
Last year, Renault announced a plan that addresses these issues in a slightly different way. It is converting its Flins plant into a so-called re-factory. As well as harvesting and remanufacturing items at the component level, Flins will refurbish whole vehicles and also convert them from petrol or diesel propulsion to electric or hybrid drive.
I suspect we are just at the start of this journey. Salvage companies, scrap dealers and small-scale car repairers have been extracting every last pound of value from cars for years, and this end of the business has mainly been neglected by the big manufacturers. That is all changing now.