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Chris Harris on… zero emission vehicles

There is no such thing as a zero emission vehicle, so stop perpetuating the myth please, says Chris

Published: 20 Feb 2023

Big news as I write this – Toyota is backing an electric future and winding back on hydrogen. It makes sense not to be pushing for something the world’s completely ignorant politicians have decided against, but it’s sad to see an innovator like Toyota cave in. No point grousing though, the deal is done.

What did catch my eye in the news surrounding this was repeated use of a phrase that triggers me so badly I might need some more therapy: “zero emission vehicles”. No such object has ever been produced, and yet this phrase that has snuck up on us over the past decade has now taken root – it’s the Japanese knotweed of the car vocabulary. Just read those three words and tell me how any car company can, both legally and morally, make such a claim of anything it manufactures?

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I live in Bristol, a small city with a very big aversion to polluting cars. I have also recently been using a Citroen Ami, which is both ideally suited to the way I use a car in the city, but also an excellent way of deflecting the many people who grimace when they see me driving an M5. Everyone who stops for a chat about the little Citroen – and there are many of them – somehow manages to drop that bloody phrase. Normally in this context: “of course, it’s so good being zero emissions”. That’s like observing a sleeping crocodile with “of course this one never bites”. It’s a boast that makes people feel safe and cosy, like good things are happening. But it’s actually a dangerous simplification.

The Citroen Ami probably emits less than half the COand other sundry nasties when being built than a C3. And its tailpipe emissions are zero around town, but the electricity it uses has to be produced somewhere. So how this is allowed to be described as ‘zero’ in the year 2023 is quite baffling. Big polluters are now offsetting everything they do, but if we’re really expected to believe that any car company is planting enough trees to compensate for the frankly environmentally ruinous process of making a car battery, then they must think we’re a bunch of mugs. Actually, Volkswagen confirmed we are by telling us its diesels were clean despite what our eyes were telling us was the sooty truth.

The car industry has always allowed itself worrying leeway when it comes to describing its new technologies. Every little leap in safety, however profoundly positive it might have been in real life, was always supported by words that were just too boastful. I suppose so long as the legal department is happy it can defend an utterance, you can say what you want, but there is one howler repeatedly bandied about that makes me wince: “self-driving car”. Elon has long made the claim, but it’s clear to anyone with half a brain that we’re a long way from this being a commercial reality. It certainly usurps “zero emission vehicle” and the other lurking purveyor of nonsense “self-charging hybrid” as being something that doesn’t just lurk in the grey areas of interpretation, but is demonstrably untrue. Right, now that little lot is off my chest, I’m off to drive my low emission Citroen Ami.

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