News & Events

Malta News - 03/10/2019

A paradigm shift in zero emission cars

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today 3rd October 2019

It seems as if out of a fantasy movie where autonomous cars, won’t need drivers, and could theoretically come to your door. In fact, some predict that Europeans will only buy autonomous, electrical powered cars by 2035 and that this in time, turns the stature of fossil fuelled vehicles as dinosaurs.

With this encouraging scenario which promises clean air and blue skies, it will warm our hearts and make us hope for a better island to live on. Notice how, airport authorities in Amsterdam have recently decreed that emissions from conventional engines are far too high and only electric cars will be permitted at the taxi stand.

This is not surprising since, new restrictions will come to force shortly in Frankfurt demanding that petrol or diesel engine cars will not be permitted to enter the city. Such is the awareness about the health hazards of nitrogen oxides emitted from diesel engines that drivers in Germany will soon have to change their engines or buy new electric cars in order to comply. Needless to say, electric vehicles have an instrumental role in driving the transition to a low carbon economy and European cities look forward to a future dominated by them. This will certainly make it easier to live and breathe in the major cities, especially so in Malta where emissions are high.

One waits for the announcement by government about the future ban on importation of diesel/petrol cars. The question is raised – can we afford to plan for an all-electric transition given the thousands of aging oil burners roaming the streets. Having registered a surplus of GDP increase in the second quarter this year, this helps us afford the extra millions needed to plan the transition.

The other cherry on the cake is the good news about reduction of government debt. Thus, domestic consumption is projected to remain the main driver of growth, while capital investment is to increase mainly on the back of the frenetic growth in construction. Notice how net exports are expected to contribute only modestly to GDP growth, as domestic demand fuels more imports.

Apart from the worries about car emissions, there are other headaches arising out of our race for economic growth. One hopes next budget will mitigate the problems employers face due to lack of trained staff, whereas rent regulation is the next battle cry.

In recent years cheap borrowing, low unemployment, an influx of foreign investment and population growth have helped to push up demand for houses in Malta. Anger about gentrification and “over-tourism” may also have played a part in the drive to fight escalation in rentals. Yes, in truth practices we have allowed certain rents in the Sliema/St Julians area to rise much faster than wage growth, pricing a lot of people out of the market.

Back to the emissions saga, there is rapid growth in private cars which as stated above is partly the result of affluence and the unpopularity of public transport. Close to 380,000 ageing vehicles (almost one for each resident – mostly imported second-hand) clog the narrow streets – this is making commuting a daily nightmare.

It takes me 45 minutes daily to drive eight kilometres from Mosta to my office in B’Kara. The solution to traffic congestion is not an easy one. Needless to say, car emissions are exacerbated by an increase in tourist arrivals (now planned to reach 3 million, apart from 900,000 from Cruise liners passengers) which creates an invisible bionetwork of a carcinogenesis cloud. Malta’s air quality is slowly deteriorating to reach Beijing’s standard.

Noble efforts have been made to remove registration tax on electric cars (not hybrid) but they are still expensive and the island has limited number of charging bays. As stated earlier car ownership is endemic.

The good news is that we read about the future use in Europe of self-drive cars and the prediction that if this is successful in Malta, then it will make car ownership less popular. Driverless cars are the future and firms like Tesla in Silicon Valley are investing heavily in such technology.

Still there is no denying that conventional car manufacturers, like Mercedes, GM, Ford, Nissan, Volkswagen, BMW and Toyota are keen to join the gravy train. They aggressively invest in auto tech which they hope will enable them to be among the first to produce autonomous cars. By 2025, one anticipates that Europe will witness a number of fully tried and tested autonomous vehicles.

The question is – are we ready in Malta to face this transformation. Will our town planners embrace the challenge of fewer cars on the roads and switch their design allowing for new flyovers and super highways to meet future demand?

Globally, there is a massive interest towards autonomous vehicles which has slowed the design of conventional vehicles running internal combustion engines. It is a race to the bottom. Europeans want to replicate the Tesla’s success with a dream to develop its own technology and software that leads to the manufacture of safe and efficient electric cars. Tesla are experimenting with autonomously driven vehicles – all fearlessly relying on use of multiple sensors and advanced computers to transport passengers from A to B in comfort. All this at one third of the cost of traditional car ownership.

Many now see technology firms as being better placed than carmakers to develop and profit from the software that will underpin automated driving (The Economist, 2016). Is this the death knell for future car ownership in big cities? It goes without saying, that autos of a bygone age such as the legendary Ford “T’ cars, once a superlative feat of mechanics, have gracefully given way to electronic marvels on wheels.

Armed with sensors like Mobileye they now have the capability of parallel parking, seeing and heeding oncoming traffic, predicting merge time and gauging accurate speed. Readers may ask – is this fantasy land or a true prediction of what may hit our roads in the medium term.

Think of how transport technology based on A.I, will permit commuters to use cars with the cost charged to their smart phones and drop them off where they want. In the not so distant future, car ownership will gradually become merely a status symbol for enthusiasts/collectors but the general public will gradually endear itself to cheap rides on shared cars. Imagine a future scene when robotaxis become mainstream, then there will be a drastic drop in the number of cars on roads.

It is a joy not having to waste 45 minutes daily driving to work.

George Mangion

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today 3rd October 2019
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