Interview: Prof. Dr. C. A. Kloeckner, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Christian A. Klöckner
Christian A. Klöckner

The second of our interviews with experts in the field of electric vehicles is with Prof. Dr. Christian A. Kloeckner from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Many people see the Norwegian electric vehicle market as the perfect blueprint for the future bringing together an array of practical and financial aspects to encourage the use of alternative energy sources. It is always interesting to hear the views and opinions of those involved in this field and we are sure you will find this interview extremely informative:

Question: How long have you been involved in the electric vehicle market?

Prof Kloeckner: Well, I am not really involved in the market; I am a researcher studying consumer behavior, among other things with electric cars. We started the first study on electric car purchase and use some years ago when a PhD student of mine was looking for a topic. Since car traffic is such a relevant contributor to CO2 emissions, was purchase of cars the behavior we wanted to study from a psychological perspective and we realized soon that the Norwegian market for electric cars was developing quickly at that time. That was still when the big car companies were not in the market and the Nissan Leaf was dominating (even some Thinks were still around). Since then I have been following the development from a pioneer product to a mass market product in Norway.

Question: Do you think that electric vehicles will outnumber their gasoline/petrol counterparts in the next 20 years?

Prof Kloeckner: There is a possibility for that, but that depends a lot on structural conditions. In Norway we can observe, that strong incentive structures can push the market considerably, so that now more than 20% of new cars bought are electric cars (hybrids not included). However, even in a market under almost perfect conditions like the Norwegian (strong financial and psychological incentives, high level of income, etc.), the rate of adoption seems to slow down at the moment. There are some preconditions that I see for a more sustainable success of electric mobility: (1) powerful incentive structures in a startup phase (which might last quite a long time); (2) development of the vehicles towards longer ranges or faster recharging so that longer distances can be covered; (3) good access to charging infrastructure; (4) transition of the energy production so that electric mobility actually has an environmental benefit; (5) psychological incentives alongside financial (do not underestimate for example the psychological effect of not having to pay toll on roads – it is not just the financial effect).

Under 2015 conditions I doubt the electric cars will outnumber gasoline cars in 2035, also because the car fleets’ renewal rates are often quite low. It will take decades to get old gasoline cars out of the system (if subsidies are not coupled to this). Buying new electric cars pushes more gasoline cars into the used car market, especially if seen in a global perspective.

Question: Are governments doing enough to support the electric vehicle market?

Prof Kloeckner: Some do a lot, others do not. The question seems to be more what the right incentives are. What we see in Norway at the moment is, that powerful incentive packages like reduced one-time tax, reduced annual tax, exemption from road toll, free parking, use of bus lanes, even free electricity in many (slow) charging stations creates a high demand for electric cars. However, what we also see is that the subsidy structure seems to promote car use over other modes like biking or public transportation, because the subsidies make electric mobility virtually costless after the initial investment. For future incentive schemes it should be taken into account how to counteract such rebound effects of producing more car traffic in cities. REDUCED parking fees and road tolls instead of ZERO fees could be a way to go, or including public transportation tickets or an (electric) bike in the car price, or coupling subsidies to actually substituting a gasoline car (not extending your own car fleet). If the effect of electric car stimulation is more car traffic, even though with cleaner cars, then the development goes in the wrong direction.

Question: Why has the electric vehicle sector seemingly failed so often in the past?

Prof Kloeckner: That is an interesting question. Gasoline has been cheap, gasoline cars have been comfortable to drive also long distances. Big car producers have ignored alternative drive engines. Cars have also a symbolic function and the engine burning gasoline with a loud noise was a long time culturally defined as a sign of power (probably still is: how many electric cars do you see in action movies? I saw my first one in a TV series lately – a Nissan Leaf – but the guy driving it was not the masculine hero, to put it that way). Car ownership is much more integrated in self-image than other products.

Question: Is battery charging technology the final piece of the jigsaw?

Prof Kloeckner: Ways to make sure to have enough electricity in the battery are at least important for people. However, to be honest, for most of the trips people do in everyday life recharging is not a big issue. Modern electric cars have long enough range to cover what you need. What could be more important than battery charging are flexible solutions for the few cases where the range is not enough. A pool of rental gasoline cars available for electric car owners, an included train discount could be options (some producers actually give you a free rental car for a number of days a year, would be interesting to see how many people actually use that offer). I think the range/recharging discussion is rather an objectivation of a more fundamental feeling of not buying a “real car” for some people.

And from a technical side; if fancy charging infrastructure uses so much energy that the environmental benefit of electric cars is eaten up, then again this is a wrong development. I rather see the development of the batteries to improve both their environmental balance, lifetime and range as more important than the charging technology. If the electric car takes you 300 km without problems, you mostly will not care if you can recharge from the road while you are driving.

Question: What other general comments would you like to make about the electric vehicle market?

Prof Kloeckner: The restructuring of the car market is interesting and it is interesting to see that the big brands finally hopped on the train they have almost missed. That opens options for reaching the more brand loyal among the car buyers who usually are connected to the larger brands. Other countries should look to Norway and carefully analyse what works well and what side effects are produced by incentive structures to counteract rebound effects. Electric cars can also have other functions in modern smart grids, namely being a high tech battery for electricity that is more likely produced decentralized in the future.

And finally, on a personal note: It is just great fun to drive an electric car I have to say as an owner of one.

Best regards,

Christian