The transport sector plays a major role in the current debate on climate and energy policy. At present, the dependency of road transport on fossil energy carriers exceeds 90%, and road transport is responsible for about 20% of the total CO² emission in Germany. Electric vehicles distinctly expand the overall spectrum of energy carriers utilized in road transport and allow the direct utilization of renewable energies in transport. Moreover, electric vehicles are free of exhaust emissions, and the associated noise pollution is distinctly lower in comparison with internal combustion engines, particularly for passenger cars at low speed up to 25 km/h. Thus, electric vehicles may make a substantial contribution to improvements in air quality and general quality of live in metropolitan areas. The German Federal Government is committed to the introduction of 1 million electric vehicles to German roads by the year 2020. In the process, a number of vehicles concepts are developed: Dedicated battery-electric vehicles as well as mixed approaches with conventional combustion engines in combination with electric propulsion. The latter can potentially replace conventional vehicles without any major changes in user behaviour.
For a conclusive assessment of electric vehicles, an analysis of the entire life cycle is required with a particular focus on resource input. Thus, in addition to an environmental analysis of emissions, a separate resource analysis is performed.
The assessment of environmental impacts associated with the different vehicle concepts requires analyses that model the entire life cycle of the vehicle. Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) as an instrument of environmental analysis have been well-established since the 1980s. The key strength of an LCA lies in the fact that all stages of the product life cycle are taken into consideration. If the analysis focused on a single process stage or a subsection of the product life cycle (e.g. only the use phase of the vehicle), grave misinterpretations of environmental impacts, e.g. from the supply of mobility as a service, may be the consequence.
The present study chose a compact class passenger car with a number of electric drive concepts as a proxy representing the diversity of vehicle models currently available on the market. Over the course of the project, methodology, input data and results were discussed and aligned in two project workshops and several bilateral consultations with experts in the field.
Results tend to be similar across the individual life cycle stages:
- Advantages of electric vehicles potentially arise in the use phase due to the high-energy efficiency of the drive train and particularly due to future growth of the share of renewable energies in electricity supply. Carbon footprint and cumulative energy demand are predominantly defined by the use phase. Thus, the overall assessment reveals advantages for electric vehicles.
- Disadvantages of electric vehicles primarily arise during vehicle manufacture. The cumulative raw material input, water consumption, acidification and human health hazards are predominantly associated with vehicle manufacturing processes. Thus, they feature as disadvantages of electric vehicles in the overall assessment.
The analysis shows that the benefits of electric vehicles will continue to increase during the next years, mainly due to a growing percentage of renewable energy in the electricity system. Moreover, since the battery technology will improve and battery recycling will be enhanced, today`s disadvantages of electric cars will decrease considerably. However, the prerequisite for this development is a consequent transformation of the electricity system and a priority for resource-efficient product design and recycling.
Findings of the study are published in detail by a final report (German only) which is available online via the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety:
The authors of the study identify the following specific political fields of action:
- Improved energy efficiency of the vehicles
- Energy and resource efficient product design
- Circular economy
- Certification for environmentally-friendly material mining
- Reorganization of the energy economy