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VDI life cycle assessment study: When will driving an electric car become green?

Die Transformation der Automobilwirtschaft in Deutschland zu mehr Nachhaltigkeit und Klimaschutz ist in vollem Gange. Das interdisziplinäre Expertengremium Antriebe der VDI-Gesellschaft Fahrzeug- und Verkehrstechnik hat in einer umfangreichen Studie die Ökobilanz von E-Autos, Plug-in-Hybriden (Benzin/Diesel) sowie konventionell angetriebenen Autos (Diesel/Benzin) verglichen. Die VDI-Ökobilanzstudie hat dabei den Umwelteinfluss verschiedener Pkw-Antriebskonzepte von Kompaktklassefahrzeugen (z. B. VW ID.3, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla Hybrid, VW Golf) untersucht. Kernergebnis: E-Autos dieser Fahrzeugklasse sind ab einer Laufleistung von 90.000 Kilometern klimafreundlicher als solche mit konventionellen Antrieben.

The transformation of the automotive industry in Germany towards greater sustainability and climate protection is in full swing. In a comprehensive study, the interdisciplinary expert committee on drive systems of the VDI Society for Automotive and Transport Engineering compared the life cycle assessment of electric cars, plug-in hybrids (petrol/diesel) and conventionally powered cars (diesel/petrol). The VDI life cycle assessment study examined the environmental impact of various car drive concepts of compact class vehicles (e.g. VW ID.3, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla Hybrid, VW Golf). The core result: e-cars in this vehicle class are more climate-friendly than those with conventional drive systems from a mileage of 90,000 kilometers.

Despite an ecological rucksack: e-cars and plug-in hybrids perform best in long-term operation

In the engineers’ life cycle assessment comparison, electric cars perform best based on an assumed mileage of 200,000 kilometers that the vehicle travels on the road. They cause 24.2 tons of CO2 in the overall period under consideration – from vehicle and drive production to the end of the kilometers driven. In second place are plug-in hybrids (like the Toyota Corolla Hybrid) with slightly more CO2 emissions of 24.8 tons. Diesel and gasoline vehicles in the compact class (such as the Ford Focus, VW Golf) follow a long way behind in places 3 and 4 and, when operated with 100% fossil fuels, produce greenhouse gas emissions of 33 tons of CO2 (diesel) and 37 tons of CO2, respectively responsible.

In the comprehensive life cycle assessment study, the VDI examined various electricity usage scenarios. With a mileage of more than 90,000 kilometers, compact class electric cars (such as the VW ID.3) in Germany are more climate-friendly than cars with conventional fuels. If in the future – as planned by the federal government – electricity from renewable energies were used exclusively to drive vehicles in Germany, electric cars with today’s standards would be more climate-friendly than diesel or gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 after just 60,000 kilometers driven. If an electric car is powered by fossil-generated electricity, the value shifts to 160,000 kilometers driven. “When it comes to the ecological balance, we have to look at the greenhouse gas emissions from production, running time and disposal. Only the green produced battery and its raw materials make e-mobility climate-friendly. In the future, the industry will have great leverage for more climate-friendly mobility, which unfortunately is not yet being used today. We therefore need more battery production Made in Germany, better battery recycling and the rapid expansion of renewable energies – both in the form of green electricity and green fuels. The life cycle assessment study shows that it is too short-sighted to just talk about the vehicles’ consumption,” says VDI vehicle expert Joachim Damasky.

About the study design: VDI life cycle assessment study 2023

The life cycle assessment analysis analyzes the environmental impact of various car drive concepts using the application of compact class vehicles produced in 2021 (e.g. VW ID.3, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla Hybrid, VW Golf). The greenhouse gas emissions were analyzed when the car drives in Germany. The assumed mileage per vehicle is 200,000 kilometers using the average value approach (average electricity mix) and the WLTP test procedure (“Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicles Test Procedure”).

The VDI study was carried out by the interdisciplinary drive expert group of the VDI Automotive Technology Department in the VDI Society for Vehicle and Traffic Technology and supported by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The methodology and results were subjected to a review process by the independent Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI).

Germany, a country of mobility: VDI recommendations for action for a climate-friendly future

“The results show that we have a significant need for action in many areas. From a climate perspective, the need to use green energy sources for the production and operation of motor vehicles is underlined. In addition, in global comparison, we need to invest more in value creation in Germany and Europe, especially in the area of battery and cell production,” said VDI President Prof. Dr.-Ing. Lutz Eckstein. In order to ensure climate-friendly mobility in the future, the VDI has formulated seven central recommendations for action for a climate-friendly future of mobility based on the life cycle assessment study.

The recommendations for action at a glance:
Without green electricity, there is no green e-mobility

For more climate-friendly mobility in Germany, we need the expansion of renewable energies. Simply switching to electric cars and hybrid vehicles will not be enough if the electricity is produced “dirty”. The expansion of photovoltaics and wind power is important and will noticeably improve the carbon footprint of electric cars during their use phase.

Only green batteries make green e-mobility possible

Battery production for electric cars must be carried out using renewable electrical energy in order to keep greenhouse gas emissions during production low. The study shows that the emissions from battery-electric vehicles are largely determined by the production of the batteries. The respective production location plays a central role here.

Strengthen location D: Batteries must be produced sustainably in Germany and Europe using renewable electricity

Battery production in Germany and European countries with a high proportion of renewable energy ensures, in addition to European added value, a better CO2 balance of the cars. The study shows that batteries from China in particular are exposed to high greenhouse gas emissions during production. But production sites in Europe with a high proportion of fossil-based electricity generation also cause significant CO2 pollution for the battery.

E-fuels are an important technology component

We live in a time of transformation. In this regard, e-fuels are an important technology component for climate-neutral mobility of the future. In order to achieve the German and European climate goals in the transport sector, the use of climate-neutral fuels for the existing fleet is essential. For this purpose, the regulatory framework must be created immediately so that the industry invests in scaling up sustainable fuel production.

Plug-in hybrids make a positive contribution when there is a high proportion of electric driving

In order to drive with as few emissions as possible, drivers must ensure that plug-in hybrids are operated as intended. This means that they must charge their plug-in hybrids electrically as a priority and regularly in order to achieve a high proportion of electric driving.

A new, lighter vehicle class M0 offers additional potential for urban areas

A newly created small electric vehicle class M0 for urban areas with correspondingly small batteries, low weight and small footprint, but no compromises in safety, can meet many mobility needs.

R&D in battery recycling must be further promoted and promoted in a targeted manner

In order to strengthen the science and business location, more production and recycling must be carried out in Germany. In addition to the regulatory requirements that have already been implemented, the study sees a greater need for action with regard to the recycling of traction batteries in electric cars, particularly in research and development and scaling up to an industrial scale. With regard to material requirements and availability, the topic of recycling will play an increasingly important role in the future.

Read more articles, studies and interviews on the topic of electromobility & autonomous driving in the current issue of eMove360° magazine in german language. Print edition – also as an annual subscription – can be ordered in the eMove360° shop.

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25.03.2024   |  

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