His first job was as an engineer for Ford’s internal combustion engines, and he is now one of the leading experts in urban mobility and in the transformation of the automotive industry to the electric and connected model. John Moavenzadeh (Massachusetts, 54 years old), after serving 15 years as Head of Mobility at the World Economic Forum, is Executive Director of Urban Mobility at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He comes to Barcelona to give a talk at Casa Seat, just in the week in which his field of study is most current: the European Commission has approved his climate project, which among other things sets 2035 as the last year in which they will be able to sell combustion cars; and the Government has approved a plan to promote the electric car with a public investment of 4,295 million euros.
Question. Do you think that the objectives on the sale of cars with polluting emissions that are set by the States, and in this case the European Union, are realistic?
Answer. They can be achieved. There are several tipping points that allow electric cars to be much more competitive than they were a year or two ago. These are: the continuous reduction of the cost of batteries, a key element; and the further development of charging infrastructures, in Europe for example, with the Ionity Program. The recharging network has never been a major impediment for cities, where the challenge is different: recharging at home and the differences between citizens, where everyone has difficulties to park and recharge.
P. The European Commission’s plan includes a social fund to alleviate difficulties such as the rising cost of energy supply. Can this transformation of the sector be achieved without leaving anyone behind?
R. This issue of justice and equity has become very relevant in mobility circles. It has always worried more in Europe, but now it is also talked about in the United States. It all comes down to three words: safe, clean, and accessible. Regarding safety, we know that 1.3 million people die on the roads every year, but now we also have the cyber risk of attacking traffic light systems, for example. On having a clean system, we talk about the emissions of CO₂ and other gases, but also about the materials. How do we build a recyclable electric battery industry? It is not easy to extract the lithium, cobalt or nickel that is needed. And finally we have accessibility. In the automotive sector, the need to make products that are good for customers, but above all that they can be purchased, has always been taken into account.
P. Will electrification be accessible?
R. If the European Commission gives this mandate for 2035, I do not think that this will have a negative impact on access to electric cars, because, I repeat, I do believe that it is a goal that can be achieved. 14 years in the automotive industry are few, but things are changing at great speed. Just looking at this year’s numbers, sales of electric cars for domestic use in the world are 5.5% of the total, somewhat more in Europe and more in China, when very recently they were 1%. I think we are finally at the inflection point where volumes are growing, which will lower costs, which will bring more investment in charging infrastructure and people will be more inclined to buy. It is a virtuous circle. That is why I think that setting the goal in 14 years is realistic, and I do not see very important problems of access or equity only in the change from internal combustion to electric.
P. Where are there equity issues?
R. I do not believe that cars for personal use are the best solution for urban mobility, they lead to many equity problems, especially because of the cost: people constantly underestimate the real cost of owning a car of their own. At least in dense parts of cities, we will see a transition to vehicle fleets and subscription models. Every company in the world is thinking about it. There was, four or five years ago, a lot of excitement about self-driving cars. There were people who even said that public transport was dead. It is far from it, it is an essential part of urban mobility. Putting all the people who ride the London Underground on the surface each in a car that they drive alone? Can not be! And above all, there is a shift of thought towards the question of what is the purpose of the streets.
P. What role do the United States and China play in the transformation towards the electric car?
R. They will certainly make the change. In the case of China, it is an incredibly important country in the field of mobility. Before it was a country that we could describe as a copycat, but now it is completely innovative. The Chinese government made a very serious investment in electrification 10 years ago, thanks to the Minister of Science and Technology, Wan Gang, who was a former Audi engineer, and a very attentive individual. Now China leads the world and the transition to the electric car. Europe is changing very fast, and I think the United States will follow, particularly now with an Administration in Washington more in favor of it.
P. How important is it to have battery factories?
R. If you look at an internal combustion engine or an automatic transmission system, you have a very complex piece of machinery, you need a lot of engineers, technology and knowledge. Car companies had to decide whether to make them themselves, or to buy them from third parties. They all decided first. The same has to happen with the electrical system. The fact that China, Japan or South Korea are so advanced in battery technology is a huge advantage for them. You also have to ensure the supply of materials, since you have several cycles: the technology industry, the car industry, the infrastructure industry, and the mining industry. The European Commission can put a mandate, but it has to think about whether it will have the necessary supply for these materials, especially in the transition years. This will be a challenge for Europe and the United States, whereas China already has it, and it also has a mind-boggling scale.
P. Does electrification guarantee a totally clean process?
R. This is a debate that does not occur so much in Europe, but in the United States there are many who say that the electric car is not that clean because it depends on where you get the electricity or on the mining extraction of the materials. At MIT we have carried out a study that clearly says that the electric car, although its manufacture generates more environmental footprint than in the manufacture of a traditional car, in the total calculation with the use of the vehicle, in all cases it is cleaner . Even in those cases where the source of electricity is the dirtiest, such as coal.
P. How will this transformation be financed?
R. It is a fundamental question. What we see is that for a long time governments said that something had to be done about climate change, and that we had to look at the transport sector, from which 14% of the polluting gases in the world comes (in the United States it is the 28%). But only regulation does not work, they put a signal in the future, but you need to build cars that people want to buy. Now it is starting to grow because the products are better and more competitive. What you have to follow is where the money is, and now the money is there, traditional companies are putting it in large quantities. And they have put it in the worst year, that of the pandemic, because they are seeing that it is the moment, electrification is a matter that is already more mature. This is different. In matters such as the autonomous car we are still far away, let alone urban air mobility. It will change the world, yes, but there will be many disappointed investors along the way. Not all the money is there yet.
P. Will it take a lot of public investment?
R. I do, particularly on long-term things like charging infrastructure. China has done it, and the United States did it in the mid-20th century by building interstate highways. Think what it did to the car industry.