Gas station

The Infrastructure for Alternative Powertrains

Oct 22, 2018

What you have known as mobility is about to change. It will affect all aspects, whether this is the private car, a delivery vehicle on the last mile, or large trucks rolling on the highways.

The reason: Alternative powertrains

They have evolved over time, improved on the initial faults and weaknesses and gone from strength to strength. Alternative powertrains have moved out of the dark shady corner of being a toy for idealists and visionaries and have found their way into the mainstream. A few years ago private car owners, entrepreneurs or shippers had to decide whether to invest in diesel- or petrol-fueled vehicles. Now the decision-making process is vast as it has expanded beyond combustion engines ones powered by hydrogen, electricity, LNG and so on.

However, this is an oversimplification of a very complex issue. While the powertrains have evolved into serious alternatives, the accompanying infrastructure hasn’t. When you drive your diesel-driven car and need to refuel – you know where to go. You know where the next gas station is. You know its approximate cost. It’s the other way around with alternative powertrains. Outside of your home area, you don’t know where to go. You don’t know how much it will cost you. Finding a supercharger becomes almost like the search for a lost treasure, buried far and wide.

This affects private cars as well as commercial vehicles. Never before has there been such a strong need in reevaluating the infrastructure for alternative powertrains and looking into the burning questions. These include: What is needed first – The infrastructure or the demand? Who’s going to pay for it? Which infrastructure is needed for which use case?

Where Politics Need to Engage – And Where Not

Enter the New Mobility World. At the world’s largest exhibition for commercial vehicles, the IAA 2018, experts in this field were trying to find answers to the questions mentioned above. The realisation of the day: We need more courage. Courage to be brutally honest with ourselves. The cost of transportation will get more expensive, as Stefan Siegemund, deputy head of renewable energies and mobility at the German Energy Agency (dena), made clear during the NMW. We may delay this development, but we cannot stop it.

And the problem fields for politicians are diverse. Siegemund pointed out that huge investments into the infrastructure of alternative powertrains by the state are not the best idea. Yes, investments are needed to lay the groundwork for a dense infrastructure – to create visibility and showcase the advantages – and to encourage the purchase of alternative means of transportation (because alternative powertrains won’t reach cost parity in the near future). But other than that, consumers and shipment companies should be challenged. The development of an infrastructure for alternative powertrains should be in the hands of the market, and not on the shoulders of politicians. Politics should only engage when the market fails.

The Development of Infrastructure Depends on the Political Will

Stefan Calgano, Managing Director at LIQVIS, pointed out another big problem for the development of a new infrastructure: The varying political will. He stated that the European Union helps to build and develop the infrastructure for alternative powertrains, Germany encourages the demand, but especially cities and municipalities  partially block these efforts. According to Calgano, there is, for example, no will to provide land for service stations.

Another example is the blue corridor. An ambitious network of LNG-filling stations from Europe’s northern borders to its southern ones, alongside the most important cross-European truck route. In most European countries, the progress of this project is apparent; in Germany on the other hand, nothing has happened for a long time. Things are only slowly getting off the ground now, after increasing pressure.

But it’s not all about the investment in the physical infrastructure. The right regulatory framework needs to be set as well. Andreas Sujata from Streetscooter noted that companies need to invest large amounts into new vehicles and the infrastructure and that these investments are demanded as well. But the companies don’t have any legal security. An example of this are write-offs, where companies are still wondering how to include in their plannings and how to carry them out. Policy makers need to do their part and offer quick solutions.

One of the drivers in the field of infrastructures for alternative powertrains is the EU. Thorsten Herbert, the program manager for traffic at NOW, points out that a new EU directive, which requires its member states to develop plans to improve the infrastructure for alternative powertrains, drives the evolvement of the new infrastructure. However, Herbert emphasised that EU-states have to work together to avoid island solutions, where one country focuses on powertrain and other countries on completely different ones.

The Rise of the Polluter Principle?

But all this still leads to the question of how and if we should pay for all this? In this context, Siegemund highlighted the polluter principle. Those who cause the emissions should pay for it. A drastic step, but could this be the aforementioned courage that we need?

The panel on this year’s NMW has shown that there are a lot of answers and ideas to a number of questions. But despite the evolving technologies and the rising awareness that certain things need to change,  there are still a lot of open questions. We need more data and results to know exactly which powertrain is the perfect fit for which use case, and the regulatory framework needs to be set. But who will make the first step in Europe and lay the groundwork for a European solution? Questions which will be a topic at next year’s IAA when we’ll continue the conversation on alternative powertrains.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash