The decarbonized highway is above all an intelligent highway

February 23, 2023 Transport

As the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in France, transportation will have to reinvent itself over the next 10 years. Marc Ivaldi, a specialist in industrial organization economics and professor of economics at TSE and at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), sheds light on the challenges public authorities and private sector will have to meet in this "race against time".

Decarbonization is one of the biggest challenges facing the transportation sector. How do you see the highway serving as a pillar for decarbonizing long-distance transportation?

It is quite true that many efforts have been made to decarbonize highways. I am thinking of a solution proposed by Vinci, which is also seen in the United States, such as lanes dedicated to public transport as well as to vehicules that do not pollute or dedicated to carpooling vehicules: these are effective practices for decarbonizing road use.

In general, the biggest part of road-related pollution remains CO2 and NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions. Let’s not beat around the bush: to achieve the goal of a decarbonized road, the only solution will be the development of clean vehicules, running on electricity or hydrogen.

But in France, it is not only about highways: a large part of the trips in the suburbs and in large suburbs, but also in rural areas, still require a car because users do not have alternatives. They could use an electric bicycle, but it is still very difficult.

Low carbon highway is based on two ideas: both uses, as you mentioned, but also infrastructures, with the recycling of asphalt mixes for example. Where are we on the infrastructure front?

There are tremendous efforts being made in this area, which are also in the interest of the freeway concession companies. On asphalt, recycling reduces noise problems and facilitates water runoff. The new asphalt mixes also limit the friction of cars on the pavement and thus reduce a pollution that is not often mentioned, the one due to tire wear.
Regarding infrastructure, there is other progress to be made, for example in traffic fluidity, and the technical means to do so exist. We can take example of Sanef’s “free flow” tolls on the Normandy freeway. The question is: why was this not done earlier?

In addition, more dedicated bus lanes should be put in place, as well as specific access for these buses or for low-carbon cars, as well as dedicated carpooling parking lots. I don't know if we should generalize this type of solution; that requires studies, territory by territory. But it is clear that, for the moment, the efforts made are not enough. I have spoken with Vinci managers, for example, and there is a real desire on their part to move towards these solutions. But this will may come up against problems of governance at the level of political decision-making.

Apart from these developments, how can traffic management on the freeways be improved?

Today, all users rush to the highway at the same time. There could be better management of the highway network, especially in terms of time slots. There should be incentives for users to use the freeway in the time slots when it is less used. This is obviously not the sole responsibility of the freeway concession companies, but they could introduce a modulation of prices, in the morning, at midday or in the evening. This could encourage companies that want their employees to arrive at a specific time to make an organizational effort. In addition, this better time management could have a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions, especially on the access roads to major cities, such as in the Paris region.

In fact, the decarbonized highway is above all an intelligent highway. So, before having a decarbonized car fleet, we need to put in place better practices in the use of the road. There are very significant environmental gains to be made by moving in this direction.

You were mentioning “governance issues”. What solutions do you suggest to improve it?

We need to know who makes the decisions. Better governance will necessarily require a redefinition of the relationships between the State, local authorities and freeway concession companies. Currently, there are far too many layers in the decision-making process.

France has an independent Transport Regulatory Authority (ART) at the national level, which covers all modes of transport, which is excellent. But we should also have ARTs at the regional level, to coordinate the decisions of various local authorities, between regions, departments, and smaller levels of local authorities (métropoles and communautés d’agglomération). Unfortunately, we do not have this decentralized and coordinated governance today. There are too many decision-making levels, each one has to make its own decisions, these processes take too much time and, depending on opposition, projects are not carried out. We see this on the small train lines, where the regions do not have the full decision-making role, they should have in relation to the SNCF. We can compare what is not done in France with what is done in Germany, at the Länder level.


It's a matter of rethinking public policy on transportation then?

The problem in France is that the decision-making process is too complex. It is not about removing the State from this process, but I believe the idea of an independent regional transport regulatory authority would be a good solution to fill the gaps in the regions and to give territorial coherence to public policy. There is a lot of work to be done in this area.

It is worth remembering that everything depends on public money. The regions do not raise taxes and are heavily dependent on state subsidies. For major infrastructures, the State has a preponderant role to play through the AFIT (transport infrastructure financing agency) and its national committee for the country’s infrastructure. However, it must be emphasized that the tools put in place over the last decade have made it possible to strengthen public policies. State-region contracts are very important for the implementation of infrastructure policies at the road level.

In the automotive field, the big issue is the electrification of vehicles. The Castex government’s 100,000 charging stations plan has not achieved its goals. How can we accelerate the development of charging stations in France?

This is currently down to investment, mostly private. There will be no development of the use of electric vehicles without charging stations, and we are far from it.

Currently, the research available to us to imagine the “electric vehicle business model” is still very partial, even though there is a growing body of work on the subject in the economics community. The magnitude of the problem of the electrification of the vehicle fleet is beginning to be measured.

We need to start by understanding the criteria by which users choose between different types of vehicles: why do some people buy a plug-in hybrid or a 100% electric car? How does the charging time impact the choice of buyers? All this is not yet fully analyzed, understood and measured. To consider the issue of electrification and to understand what is going to happen, we must not remain at a macro level but develop analyses at the micro level.

Of course, we can install more charging stations. But if the entire car fleet were electric, we would need hundreds of thousands of charging stations. A physics professor at the Collège de France has studied the issue, using the example of the big vacation weekend of August 1. According to him, for 10,000 vehicles per hour - equipped with an average of 60KWh batteries that provide a range of 250km - we would need charging stations every 50km. And, with 120KWh charging stations offering a 30-minute recharge, we would need 2,000 charging stations per station. This would mean that a nuclear reactor would be needed to power 200km of roads. That's the whole point: for the moment, 100,000 charging stations is "cat's-paw" if you'll pardon the expression. So much so that, at the moment, I don't have the impression that the authorities know where they are going.

So the electrification of the road network is an unattainable goal?

With the figures we have now, I don't see how we will reach the goal of going without combustion vehicles in 2035. Perhaps we will get there faster than we are today, thanks to innovations that have yet to be developed. So, the main thing right now is to build more nuclear power plants. Before we can install thousands of charging stations, we need to have the electricity to power them. That's the first challenge.

Then, we will have to install many charging stations. On the freeways, but also wherever we can do it: in parking lots, in city parking areas... Then there is the question of incentives. In addition to the infrastructure aspect, we need to consider the incentive aspect. Some specialists suggest that electricity for mobility - given the impact of thermal cars on the climate - should be free so that users can plug in everywhere, without thinking about it. I'm not generally in favor of free utilities, but these are issues to be studied. Currently, electricity on the highway is more expensive than diesel, because there is the electricity to pay for, but also the cost of installing the charging stations. The cost of locating these charging stations is not negligible.

You seem skeptical about the development of electric mobility. Doesn't France have any assets in this area?

Yes, of course. Compared to Germany, for example, we already have a nuclear power plant. The problem with electric cars is that you can't run them on electricity from coal-fired power plants. That would only displace the problem. From this point of view, France is well placed because our electricity is essentially nuclear. But we have let ourselves be put to sleep, from a political point of view, because the environmentalists have exerted very strong pressure over the last thirty years. So, we have reduced our nuclear ambitions, when we should have been ahead of the game. We have to realize that building a new nuclear power plant is not something that can be done overnight.

Today, the European Union has set a deadline of 2035 for the electrification of the car fleet, i.e. in a little over 10 years. This is the time needed to set up a nuclear power plant. Ultimately, we are in a race against time: there will only be electric mobility in 2035 if we take up the challenge of setting up new power plants. The bulk of the investment for electric cars is therefore in electricity production, and therefore in nuclear power plants. We are talking about hundreds of billions of euros. Of course, charging stations will be needed, but they won't cost much compared to the power plants.

Today's reality is not tomorrow's. Perhaps there will be innovations that will change the game...

It's true, there are still a lot of innovations to be implemented for the electric vehicles themselves. For example, I am not convinced by the rechargeable electric vehicle. It is only good in one case: when you live in town, and not too far from your work. Moreover, the 100% electric car requires organizational efforts: if you forgot to recharge your car, you are stuck. In the same situation, if you have a hybrid vehicle, you still have the possibility to go to work, but thanks to its combustion engine. And since these vehicles are heavier - being mostly favored by large SUVs - you use more fuel. This is economic nonsense. I'd like to hear some arguments.

For 100% electric vehicles, the range is still very limited and there are still not enough charging stations. Big efforts have to be made. As for hydrogen vehicles, I think that there is practically no chance that this technology will be applied to individual cars. Maybe for transport trucks, maybe for buses, maybe for trains, boats and planes. But there are always specific problems. A locomotive can run on hydrogen, but manufacturers usually provide an alternative engine to diesel. These locomotives therefore cost almost twice as much. As for hydrogen buses, several cities have stopped using them because their operating costs are twice those of thermal buses. This is the case, for example, of the city of Montpellier, which has stopped buying them and using those it has.

Despite this, I have confidence in research and in the ability of researchers to find solutions for electricity, particularly for batteries, such as LFPs, for which a French industry is being set up. But there is still a lot to be done in this field. And we must not forget to take into account the fact that electricity requires considerable use of resources that European countries like France do not have. In particular, rare metals. This will pose a new challenge for our economic independence. We have seen it with gas with Russia: being dependent on other countries for these resources will pose the same type of problems.

The electrification of the car fleet therefore meets two challenges. We will only be able to get out of this if we develop nuclear power, because we have a good knowledge of this technology. But for the production of cars and batteries, we will become dependent on distant countries that may have their own strategy. And, at the level of the buyer - and I'm speaking as an economist here - the problem of cost is essential. Currently, Chinese electric vehicles are 10,000 euros cheaper than their European equivalents. To catch up with these 10,000 euros, the European industry will have to make considerable efforts.

Earlier you mentioned electric bicycles. Regarding investments related to medium distance mobility, what effective policies should be put in place?

I will start with a concrete case: I live in a rural area, in a small village in the Pyrenees. All my neighbors don't go one kilometer without taking their car. This is a reality. They must think I'm crazy because I do everything by electric bike, even if I notice that more and more people are starting to use it.

The problem is that there is not a single infrastructure dedicated to cycling outside the big cities. If there is one effort that the State must make, it is to multiply by 4 or 5 the investments in this field: it is necessary to put the package on the electric bicycle. Everywhere! Absolutely everywhere! When a road is rebuilt, a bicycle path must be provided. It is obvious, knowing that 60% of the trips in France are made within 3km. And this reality will not change.

During the Covid-19 crisis, when we could not use public transport, people massively switched to electric bikes, using them for longer and longer distances, and therefore for longer and longer periods. This is an important lever for the decarbonization of transport. The State, the regions and the departments must therefore make considerable efforts in this area.

And what place should be given to the revival of small railroad lines?

I don't like to make generalizations, you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis, depending on the territory. But I have some doubts. In one of the Pyrenean valleys near my home, the example of the Montréjeau-Luchon line is significant. At the beginning of the 20th century, Parisians used to come to Luchon by train. This service stopped 30 or 40 years ago. A few years ago, there was a very strong demand from the population to reactivate this train line. The president of the Occitanie region, Carole Delga, is from this area and has committed to reactivate it, with decarbonated energies.

The problem then was the staggering cost of the operation. The region therefore paid for the development of a twin-engine hydrogen-diesel locomotive, the cost of which is exorbitant. And in the end, there won't be many people on the trains.

Shouldn't we have thought more about public transport solutions, with electric buses for example? Especially since the hydrogen powering this locomotive is produced... from coal. I don't really see the point.

From this point of view, the regions cannot implement the right solutions in terms of minimum costs, facing only one operator like the SNCF, which decides everything. The revival of small lines can only be done under two conditions: by setting up transport regulatory authorities at the regional level to allow for coherent political decision-making, and by opening up these networks to competition, which would bring us closer to what we see in Germany.


Published in the "Journal de l'Economie" (in French), December 22nd, 2022.


Photo: Nagy Szabi / Unsplash