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Research on the road to green cars

The European Parliament had an opportunity to see progress made in the European Green Car Initiative (EGCI) on 31 May 2011. Many of the automotive firms involved in EGCI projects exhibited their latest vehicles, while a workshop reported to MEPs of the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Committee.

Green Car technologies on display in Brussels. © Hywel Jones

The EGCIexternal link was launched as part of the European Economic Recovery Plan in 2008 in response to the financial and economic crisis. Its objective is to support R&D in the use of renewable and non-polluting energy in road transport. The main focus is on the electrification of mobility and road transport, although research topics include internal combustion engines, bio-methane use, and freight logistics.

The European Commissioner for Research and Innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn visited the exhibition, as did Information Society Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who emphasised the relevance of the Digital Agenda and the EGCI to each other. One of the talking points of the day was the ways in which ICT, through intelligence in cars and in transport systems, can help energy efficiency and make hybrid and electric vehicles more attractive and practical options for consumers.

In opening the workshop, Paul Rübig MEP,the Chair of the STOA Committee, said of the exhibition that it was “good to see how progress is being made.” Europe needs to be competitive as there is no guarantee of markets for European companies. “We are in a global race for leadership,” according to Rübig, as “other parts of the world are developing and investing a lot in science.”

Rübig also emphasised the industry’s role in addressing Europe’s sustainability. “Improvement of energy efficiency is today’s challenge,” he said. “The EGCI is one of the initiatives needed for this, as we need sustainable cars.”

The EGCI itself was presented by Liam Breslin, Head of Unit for Transport in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research. The automotive industry had been selected for support through the EGCI as it is “probably one of the most important industries in Europe,” he said.

Breslin pointed out the initiative’s success in rapidly mobilising one billion euro in funding, half provided by the Seventh Framework Programme. The EGCI moved from being announced in November 2008 to a first round of calls, worth 108 million euro, in July 2009.

Another achievement has been in coordinating joint calls in areas covered by the DGs for Research, Information Society, Transport, Energy, Environment and Enterprise. To make sure this money is focused effectively, the initiative is based around three key priorities: road and urban transport electrification, heavy-duty vehicles, and logistics and co-modality.

To guide the research roadmap, an Ad-Hoc Industrial Advisory Group works with the commission and industry stakeholders. These include the European Technology Platforms for smart systems integration (EPOSSexternal link), intermodal transport (EIRAC), Smart Gridsexternal link and the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council (ERTRACexternal link).

The ERTRAC Chair, Wolfgang Steiger of Volkswagen, introduced the EGCI’s research roadmap by saying, “this is not just a vision. It also includes concrete milestones for not just technology, but also framework conditions and standards where needed.”

Framework conditions do indeed present potential barriers to mass market take-up of electric vehicles. During a panel discussion on the factors that could put off consumers, Nevio Di Giusto of the Centro Ricerche Fiat and the EGCI project P-MOBexternal link said they would be “reliability and economic sustainability”.

Ian Faye of Bosch and the OpEneRexternal link project emphasised that network and usage models based on the internal combustion engine cannot simply be transferred to electric vehicles. “If a customer does not have easy access to power for charging, living in an apartment above ground level for instance, then they will not even think of buying an electric car.”

Horst Kornemann of Continental and the ID4EVexternal link project identified reliability as the key issue, whereas Heike Barlag of Siemens and the Green eMotionexternal link project said potential customers would be worried about convenience due to the long time needed to charge batteries. This still takes much longer to do than to fill a petrol tank, “so we must be able to provide other conveniences to compensate, such as extra road lanes or parking spaces only for electric vehicles, as well as exemption from congestion charges.”

These reflections from the industry participants in EGCI research projects seemed to endorse the initiative’s approach in including stakeholders form the regulatory and legislative arenas. All these barriers will need to be negotiated in turning advanced technology into sustainable transport.

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