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European moves to mark the end of the road for diesel and gas-powered cars are putting pressure on carmakers to not get left behind in the shift towards electric vehicles, analysts said.
In a further sign of those pressures, Toyota Motor Corp and Mazda Motor Corp on Friday announced they would join forces to develop electric vehicle technologies and build a $1.6 billion assembly plant in the U.S.
The U.S. plant will have a capacity to produce 300,000 cars a year and provide jobs for about 4,000 people, according to Reuters. It will begin operations in 2021.
But analysts told Reuters the alliance would also help Mazda keep up in the race to develop electric vehicles. "Mazda needs electrification technology. In the past they've pooh-poohed EVs, they've felt that they can make internal combustion engines more efficient, but the bottom line is that globally you need to have this technology," said Janet Lewis, head of Asia transportation research at Macquarie Securities.
Toyota has said it wants to produce all zero-emissions vehicles by 2050. Volvo, founded in Sweden but now under Chinese ownership, has said that from 2019 all new models would be equipped with an electric engine.
European governments are also promoting the shift away from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles.
The U.K. last month followed France in committing to end the sale of new gas and diesel cars from 2040.
Britain set the deadline as part of a broader plan to achieve a zero-emissions vehicle fleet by 2050. The government will spend about $3.5 billion on plug-in charging infrastructure and other clean air initiatives.
Earlier, France reported it was planning a “veritable revolution,” ending the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 and offering financial help to low-income citizens to make the transit to electric cars.
“Our [car] makers know how to nurture and bring about this promise,” Nicolas Hulot, the French ecology minister, said in a news conference.
Norway has set an even more ambitious goal of phasing out gas and diesel cars by 2025.
“There is an agreement on a target of zero new fossil-fuel cars sold as from 2025,” said Vidar Helgesen, Norway's Minister of Climate and Environment, in a tweet. “No outright ban, but strong actions required.”
Clean air advocates and analysts said the moves in Europe give a much-needed push to the global electric car industry.
“There are cleaner-car alternatives than they used to be and companies and countries are beginning to realize that hybrids and electric vehicles make a lot more sense now,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, an advocacy group that focuses on automobile fuel efficiency.
Electric carmaker Tesla claimed with the release of its Model 3 to have produced the world's first mass market electric car.
But the moves by the car industry and some European governments contrast with President Trump's policies. Trump has proposed weakening Obama-era fuel regulations, which would remove one of the incentives for electric cars.
Instead, analysts say the United States should consider taking steps toward encouraging electric vehicle usage and production, to not miss out on business opportunities on the global market.
“One relevant question is: What should the U.S. be doing so that its own homegrown companies could compete and stay at the forefront of these changing markets?” said Jessika Trancik, associate professor of energy studies at MIT. “I don't think we are capturing the opportunity right now with the uncertainty in policy on climate change and the unpredictability there.”
Trancik predicted the moves will help increase global electric car sales.
“This is going to put pressure and incentivize car manufacturers to go in that direction and once they've done that there will be more models of electric vehicles and hybrids for people to buy, so the effects can go beyond the UK and France's borders,” Trancik said.
Electric cars already account for about 29 percent of new vehicle sales in Norway, thanks in part to tax exemptions and other perks such as free parking spots.
And there is public support to accelerate the shift toward electric vehicles. Last year, Netherlands voted to end new sales of gas and diesel cars by 2035. But the proposal still has to be approved by the cabinet. Mayors of Paris, Madrid, Oslo and Athens have said they plan to ban diesel vehicles from their city centers by 2025.
Even Germany — Europe's biggest automaker — is feeling the pressure not to be left behind. The German Association of the Automotive Industry this week agreed to retrofit about 5 million cars with equipment that will emit 25 to 30 percent less nitrogen oxide.
Analysts said the accord reflects an aim to upgrade and preserve internal-combustion vehicles, rather than accelerate the transition to electric vehicle technology — and warned that could eventually hurt German automakers.
Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, an expert on the automotive industry at the University of Duisburg-Essen, said the deal reached at the automakers' summit was aimed largely at convincing cities not to adopt wholesale bans on diesel, which has powered European engines for decades. Pressure from German courts to get pollution under control has joined repeated warnings from the European Commission about unlawful levels of nitrogen oxide.
But without more far-reaching changes, Dudenhöffer warned Germany is endangering its position in a market it once dominated.
“The summit tells the public that we in Germany are at a dead end,” he said. “What we need is a U-turn to go in the exact opposite direction.”
Dudenhöffer said Tesla, the largest American manufacturer of electric vehicles, poses a formidable challenge. “To have invented the technology means you’re Apple. Everyone else catching up is Samsung,” he said.
Germany’s response cannot be to “clean up a 20th-century technology,” said Greg Archer, director of clean vehicles at the Brussels-based advocacy organization, Transport & Environment. The aim instead, he said, should be to shift to “zero-emission vehicles.”
“France and the U.K. are paving the way on that, and Germany along with its carmakers seem to be lagging behind,” Archer said. “The danger for Germany is that it continues producing cars that the rest of the world no longer wants. Just 5 percent of the new cars sold outside Europe are diesels.”
However, national pledges for a move toward all electric vehicle fleets have also met with criticism.
And Guenther Oettinger, the European Union budget commissioner, has suggested it would be “significantly premature” to set a uniform E.U. date to abandon gas and diesel cars, according to the Associated Press.
It's also unclear how countries will meet the increased demand for electricity to power the electric vehicles.
The European Environment Agency projects electric vehicles will account for 9.5 percent of electricity consumption in 2050, from 0.03 percent in 2014.
“If in some other countries they don’t have access to renewable electricity, the additional electricity might come from fossil fuel and some emissions might increase,” Alfredo Sánchez Vicente, Project Manager for Transport at the European Environment Agency, said in an interview.
Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed additional reporting from Berlin.