The art of cooking popcorn and the 2013 EU statistical pocketbook

Futurist Lars Thomsen gave a speech at the AVL “Engine & Environment” conference in September that has drawn quite a bit of favorable attention (like here). Thomsen has a lot of interesting things to say (some of which I disagree with), but for me one of the highlights of his talk is when he explains to the audience how to cook popcorn, using that as a metaphor for the electric vehicle market. (The video is well worth watching in its entirety—if you understand German—but this bit begins at 06:25 and runs about 3 min.) With popcorn, for a long time you know the temperature is rising but nothing visible happens. Then a kernel pops. Then another, and another. Pretty soon they’re popping all over the pan, and pretty soon after that you’ve got a bowl of popcorn. Same thing with electric vehicles, Thomsen argues. We need to be a little patient as the kernels start popping.

While this is certainly a simplification of the complex process of developing and selling vehicles, it may have a kernel of truth. In the chart below, from our new 2013 EU Vehicle Market Statistics Pocketbook, the EU vehicle market does indeed look like a bowl of (colorful) popcorn. Only a selection of vehicles is shown, but nevertheless it is clear that there are electric vehicles in every vehicle segment by now. Take the tiny Renault Twizy for example, a 13 kW, 650 kg city mobile that sells surprisingly well. Or the brand new BMW i3 (125 kW), which uses lightweight materials to keep vehicle weight at 1,270 kg despite its heavy batteries. Or the 2,000 kg Volvo V60 diesel plug-in hybrid (158 kW).

chart, fuel consumption, EU vehicle fleet

And it’s not only highly energy efficient electric vehicles popping up. At least as interesting are the “conventional” vehicles, making use of incremental improvements of the internal combustion engine to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Europe’s most popular car model, the Volkwagen Golf, in its most popular diesel version consumes only 3.7 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers, which is equivalent to 99 grams of CO2 per kilometer. The 81 kW Bluemotion version has a fuel consumption rating of 3.2 l/100km (85 g/km CO2). Looking back only seven years ago, a similar Golf consumed about 40% more fuel than its counterpart does today.

If we look forward the same seven-year span into the future, we see the 2020 target of 95 g/km ahead of us. While the debate around the details of the proposed regulation continues, more heated than ever before, the statistics show that the proposed target can be met with the technologies known today. The Golf Bluemotion is a good example, over-complying with its 2020 target already. But there are examples in other vehicle segments as well. Take the Mercedes-Benz E-class diesel-hybrid, with fuel consumption of 4.1 l/100km and CO2 emissions of 107 g/km. The EU CO2 regulation takes into account the weight of a vehicle, so heavier cars, like the E-class (1,775 kg), are given a higher emission target. This is why the diesel-hybrid E-class already meets its 2020 target, just as the Golf Bluemotion does, and many other vehicle models shown on the chart as well.

The challenge for the near future of course will be to deploy the known efficiency technologies across the whole vehicle market to decrease average fuel consumption and CO2 emission levels. As there are significant benefits for consumers (approximately 400 Euros of annual fuel cost savings per vehicle [.pdf]) and industry (improved international competitiveness of vehicle manufacturers and suppliers), there is no question that this challenge will be overcome—just as it was when the current regulation set a target of 130 g/km for 2015.

So watch out. It is likely that you will notice many ‘pops’ around you these days, with every kernel being a new fuel-efficient vehicle entering the market.

Many more statistics on the vehicle market in Europe for the years 2001–2013 can be found in the new edition of our EU Pocketbook. And we’ll soon be scheduling a webinar in which we’ll go over some of the highlights, so stay tuned for that.