Electric car charging Sergei Fadeichev/Getty Images

A World Without Exhaust Pipes

The growing popularity of electric vehicles is set to curb one of the largest sources of global pollution. But a consumption bias continues to impede many buyers' embrace of the technology, and until it is addressed, electric mobility will fail to reach its potential, particularly in developing countries.

SAN JOSÉ – The efficient movement of people is crucial for any society. When transportation networks function well, they drive economic development and literally bring people together. But in many parts of the world, mobility is a matter of life and death; it is dirty, unsafe, and chaotic. Pollution and congestion from trucks, buses, and cars are daily hazards for millions, especially in emerging countries.

The Year Ahead 2018

The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

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Fortunately, big changes are coming to how humans move. For the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, when the modern internal combustion engine was invented, its demise is within sight. Car manufacturers have announced plans for scores of electric models, and politicians in several European countries have put an expiry date on gasoline and diesel cars, with leaders in India and China aspiring to do the same.

Companies around the world are making bold predictions that electric mobility is the future of transportation. Even those with the most to lose from a shift away from fossil fuels understand that electric vehicles (EV) are inevitable. In July, even Ben van Beurden, the CEO of Shell, conceded that his next car will be electric.

More people are arriving at the same conclusion, and those of us who have been championing EVs as one of the solutions to climate change are optimistic that a tipping point is approaching. Sales of electric cars have increased dramatically in recent years; some 750,000 were registered in 2016 – nearly half in China.

Still, it is human nature to resist change, and many prospective buyers remain hesitant. That is why addressing consumption bias must be the highest priority over the next few years. Several changes are needed to ensure that growth in EV usage and sales continues.

For starters, consumers must overcome the belief that zero-emission mobility is only for wealthy people in developed countries. Every year, 6.5 million people die from polluted air, and 92% of the world’s population lives in places where the air is unsafe to breathe. Vehicle emissions are a major contributor to dirty air everywhere. Investing in electric mobility and infrastructure – including electrified public transportation, charging stations, and electric car-sharing programs – will help, not hurt, development.

Support for such investments requires people to reject the false promise of “clean” fossil fuels. Some industry officials insist that electric cars are not ready for mass rollout, and that a better solution would be to build more efficient gasoline and diesel engines. This is the story we hear most often from car dealers in Latin America. But such views are as inaccurate as they are self-serving.

I have been fortunate to experience firsthand what electric mobility feels like, and how it is superior to gasoline- and diesel-only cars. I’ve traveled for thousands of miles across several countries on all-electric road trips. Once a driver experiences the clean, silent, and powerful technology, it is difficult to hand back the keys. Governments and consumer groups everywhere must work together to put more people behind the wheel of these inspiring vehicles.

Finally, we must address the structural imbalances that persist in our transportation policies. Simply put, those who suffer most from “dirty” mobility have the weakest political voice. For example, data from the United Kingdom show that it is often the poorest people that walk or take buses. Development of zero-emission public transit, therefore, is rarely a top priority for government leaders. To sway them, advocates must sharpen their defenses of the economic and social benefits of zero-emission mobility, such as the positive effects on public health.

Changing course will take time. In Costa Rica, my organization is working to encourage businesses and governments to sign an “electric mobility pact” to encourage investment in EV infrastructure. In early 2018, we will open an online registry, and by the end of next year, we aim to have 100 public and private organizations on board. Costa Rica’s legislature is also debating a bill to provide tax incentives for electric transportation.

Others in Latin America are finding their own ways to promote electric mobility. In Chile, for example, the focus is on solar power and the link between mining and EV manufacturing.

But political changes alone will not push EVs into the fast lane. To do that, customers will need to embrace a new clean-mobility narrative. In Costa Rica, we pride ourselves on the fact that nearly all of our electricity is produced by renewable sources, including hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind. This gives us an incentive to lead the global transition from gas-powered vehicles to electric cars, buses, and trains. We Costa Ricans are striving toward “un país sin muflas” – a country without exhaust pipes. Expanding that goal globally is the ultimate objective.

To be sure, pushing the electric engine past the gas-powered relic will remain an uphill battle. But new technologies, like better batteries and speedier charging stations, will help accelerate the transition. Just like the CEO of Shell, I, too, believe that the transition to electric mobility is inevitable. What we see on the roads today is just the beginning.


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