Season 8 - The electric car

Episode 1 - How did it conquer the world?

Una mattina, mi sono alzato… Does that mean anything to you? They’re the opening words of Bella ciao, a transalpine folklore song from the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the lyrics were written in 1944, and then the song was rediscovered by today’s viewers through the Spanish TV series Money Heist. Bella Ciao underwent hundreds of electro remixes, and as newspapers and YouTubers pointed out, contrary to popular belief, it was not a recent invention by any means. So: the electric car is a little like Bella Ciao.

The electric car comes from extremely old technology, with the first prototypes dating back to the first third of the 19th century - the oldest probably being that of the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in 1834. A few decades later, the electric car seemed to have an even brighter future. “Between 1895 and 1905, the technologies of the time – steam from the train, electricity and thermal – were in competition. It was only with the advent of the mass automobile at Ford, with its internal combustion engine, that it started becoming established properly,” says Bernard Jullien, an automobile specialist and lecturer in economics at the University of Bordeaux. Except that in a clunky heavy industry like cars, it isn’t easy to change the standards. “When a standard is imposed and becomes the reference, we no longer question this industry,” says Jullien. “This unique technology attracts all the attention and draws all the investments from the sector, and the same thing in ancillary sectors.”

As discussed in previous editions, the green hydrogen production sector will only be able to provide the necessary quantities in 2035. According to Emmanuel Bensadoun, head of the Expertise/Studies division of France Hydrogène, the hydrogen train will only constitute part of the overall decarbonisation of the network in France. This is confirmed by Charles Foncin, hydrogen engineer at SNCF. Indeed, according to “projections based on the increase in rail traffic and the performance of different decarbonisation solutions,” the historic French operator will only use 420 tonnes of hydrogen per year by 2030 and 18 kilotons per year in 2050. As for the machines using them, there should be between 200 and 300 by 2035, and 2000 by 2050. As Foncin says: “it’s not only a question of passenger trains, but also of SNCF Réseau work vehicles and goods transport vehicles.” Plus, with certain technological leaps, such as liquid hydrogen, “it could be possible to boost these figures.

Suddenly, the anti-electric car arguments, such as the lack of autonomy or the lack of charging stations, quickly disappeared. “When we look at where the thermal car was in 1905, there were the same objections,” says Jullien. “There wasn’t enough oil available, no standardisation of oil quality and no distribution of oil, as well as a whole series of bugs in internal combustion engines. These barriers had to be lifted little by little, because everyone was convinced that this would enable the automobile to develop. Even in France in the 1950s, there weren’t enough petrol stations and many people refilled their tanks with cans, from the reserves they kept. So these are legitimate questions about the electric car, which will be more easily resolved with the near consensus that the future of the car will be electric,” he explains. This consensus has spread among politicians and manufacturers, as well as motorists, since the registration for electric cars continues to increase. According to Jullien’s calculations, there are just over 800,000 electric vehicles in France, for a total fleet of around 40 million vehicles, and around 15% of new registrations. It’s only set to grow, like that banal folk tune that became a cult hit on TV and is now remixed in the biggest nightclubs in the world.

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