The Challenge of No-Carbon Mobility

Special issue : n°170 : Freedom of Movement in a Zero-Carbon World

Politique Internationale Not a day passes without the climate emergency being on the table. And with it the demand for a mobility that should be more decarbonised. How are you handling this new situation? How can an industrial group such as Groupe PSA employing more than 200,000 people and on the point of a major merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) tackle the environmental issue?

Carlos Tavares — What hat should I wear to reply to you? That of the boss of a big CAC40 company and a world automobile giant or that of a simple citizen? In my role as a boss, I am conscious that the climate emergency is threatening the durability of the operations of an industrial group like ours. If nothing is done to correct the current climate situation which is marked above all by the rise in temperatures, the environment and all its components – water, air, biodiversity – run the risk of one day being so changed that human activities will have to be stopped. The assessment is abrupt but no one should hide their head in the sand: we could cut off the automobile sector as well as other key sectors incidentally. We shall see over the coming months how the European Green Deal (Editor’s Note: the European Union’s ecological roadmap) will play out. The future of large sections of industry depends on the efficiency of its effects.

         With my citizen’s hat, I do not even venture to study these high-level judgments. I simply measure the huge difficulties that await future generations. We immediately come across ethical questions: how can we change our behaviour to continue to survive? To what point can we conduct fast-track economic development? Can all regions of the planet have access to the same standards of comfort? The answers are all the more difficult because the climate debate suffers from a great narrow-mindedness. While a vision at 360° is necessary to embrace all the environmental problematics, many observers persist in looking at the landscape from too narrow a perspective.

P. I. What do you mean by narrow-mindedness? Does this mean that the people in charge of the climate issue – and there are many of them – are mistaken about the automobile sector’s distinguishing features and stakes?

C. T. — I continue to be struck by the inaccuracy of the appraisals made about the automobile industry. To hear some people, we are responsible par excellence for global warming, the most polluting part of the economy and the one that should be taxed above all. Even if we are not the only activity targeted by these criticisms, this translates into a punitive ecology, which is often the rule applied by public authorities to attempt to respond to the environmental emergency. The automobile industry is taken hostage and subjected to measures that slow its development. To be even more explicit, how can we invest in more virtuous tools and services on the ecological level if, in advance, there are taxes to gnaw away at the necessary funds? I am not saying that the automobile industry should be absolved of all reproach: the way in which one constructor cheated with the rules of the game brought opprobrium on the whole sector (Editor’s Note: Volkswagen was found guilty of having falsified the emissions results of some of its engines).

         To come back to Groupe PSA, we are demonstrating nimbleness and anticipation so as to adapt our products, our services and processes to the new given. Today, the group offers a range of a good 10 or so electric vehicles and is a leader in vehicles’ CO2 emissions. In the meantime, the political world, in its reflection on the climate, should look at the industrial landscape as a whole and not limit its analysis of emissions to the fuel-tank, the battery or the wheel. We have enormously invested and progressed, even in our industrial processes, to reduce our emissions of CO2. Instead of taking isolated measures and leaving everyone to work alone in a corner, why not reflect on a global framework to unite competences in a 360-degree approach where each and everyone would contribute to a shared objective?

P. I. From an operational viewpoint, how does Groupe PSA work to become more virtuous on the ecological level?

C. T. — First and foremost, in Groupe PSA we have a certain number of measures and instances tasked with conceiving and validating the group’s strategy in environmental matters. The decarbonised mobility roadmap is part of this framework; it is validated at the top management of the company by our CO2 committee that meets each month. I chair this committee and all the decision-makers of the group who contribute to this work of reducing our CO2 emissions are present. We are, of course, the leaders today but we have defined a trajectory and take the responsibility of pursuing the necessary decisions to achieve our goals. We have already started several activities, decided to stop the commercialisation of the “least efficient” vehicles in terms of CO2 and include the climate criterion in the programmes of future vehicles.  But our desire is also to project ourselves into the future. This is why I have asked several young executives to envisage the outlines of the group for the horizon of 2030 in the perspective of an intensified decarbonised mobility. This 2030 deadline was not chosen by chance: we know that the European Parliament has backed a massive reduction in CO2 emissions for cars and utility vehicles of less than 3.5 tons in the coming decade. This decision, even it has societal side-effects, at least allows us to work on an agenda. Between now and then, much equipment will continue to develop, with technological and ecological gains as a bonus. To start with electrified vehicles: today, such vehicles exist but at a high price. In 10 years, sales tariffs should have come down considerably.  In any case, we are working hard towards that: whether it is a matter of electric motors, batteries or gearboxes, all these products will from now on be built on a vertical integration model. Which is to say that we will control all the production line. In 2020, we created a joint venture — ACC (Automotive Cells Company) — which will produce batteries in France and Germany, thereby allowing us to relocalise 40 per cent of the value of an electric vehicle. The creation of ACC is the birth of a major actor in the production of batteries in Europe with the best level of world performance. This step, which I had advocated for a long time, constitutes a turning point in the construction of the energy transition in Europe since it is based on a dynamic encouraged by Groupe PSA and Total with the support of the French and German governments as well as of the European Union.

P. I. Groupe PSA lived for a long time without decarbonised mobility being considered an element of strategy. How do you mobilise employees to the importance of the change that is under way? Is there not a risk that some of them will be left by the side of the road?

C. T. — Groupe PSA has been committed for a long time to cut its vehicles’ CO2 emissions. Of course, the vocabulary has changed. In the past, we talked of energy efficiency, of a reduction in vehicle consumption. But Groupe PSA engineers have always been mobilised on this climate issue which our company considers to be linked to ethics. Now that climate change is widely talked about in the media and at school, a large number of our employees have to answer their children, of whom some are teens who are quick to get animated about sustainable development questions or even to reproach their parents for working for the automobile industry which is so taxed with the worst evils. I therefore encourage all the group’s employees to tell them that the shift in favour of decarbonised mobility is an important way of satisfying the issues of preservation of the planet while still maintaining freedom of movement.

I also use another argument to help everyone to understand the framework of the current revolution: as for the already mentioned punitive ecology, we know just how far fines can put the financial health of industrial groups in peril. On this point, the impact of political decisions can sometimes be counted in billions of euros. Which is better? Working ceaselessly to meet ecological norms while trying to keep prices reasonable or settling fines that can bring a company down? The employees’ response is easy to guess, even if it is not the fear of sanctions that inspires Groupe PSA to develop sustainable solutions.

Nobody can say today exactly what turn the struggle against global warming will take. On the other hand, faced with the breadth of the changes, many industrialists, of all different sectors, are going to be left by the roadside. In the automobile sector, movements towards concentration are destined to intensify even more to benefit from economies of scale. I do not know just how far Groupe PSA can resist if we opt one day for a civilisation without cars, but I am doing everything for it to be the last one shaken by this sort of tremor.

P. I. The development of urban zones has never been so much at the heart of election campaigns. We could see this this past year in France. In Paris in particular, several candidates in municipal elections worked on a city without cars. What does that inspire in you as the head of an automobile group?

C. T. — I have no problem with that. Groupe PSA is an industrial group specialised in the automobile but, if it has to devote itself to other activities, it will do so. The knowhow that the group has can perfectly well be exploited in domains different from the original. That said, you seem to be suggesting that Groupe PSA is an ardent defender of the primacy of the car in cities. That’s false: we are all the more convinced of evolution in behaviour that we sell no more than 2,000 cars a year to Parisians intra muros. In a general way, the use of the car in towns must certainly be reconsidered, but does this mean depriving ourselves of the automobile in modern civilisation? That is the implicit question. Every morning, must millions of French people – talking only of France – give up getting behind the wheel to drive their children to school, to go to work or just to carry out 1,001 gestures of daily life?  I simply put this question which is at the very source of a societal reflection: can the freedom to move around exist without the automobile? And must we look at mobility in an identical way in city centres and in the countryside? We propose an objective of 100 per cent electric mobility with the possibility of driving from the age of 14 with a monthly cost less than that of Paris’s monthly Navigo public transport pass: the Citroën Ami. The debate on mobility must also take into account the social dimension: some 14 million people work for the automobile industry in Europe; if we decide to wind down this sector, then we have to think first about the future of these employees.

P. I.At this stage, all the issues are as political as they are economic or ecological. How are the contacts between the leaders of the industrial world and other actors?

C. T. — An example that sums up the situation well: for two years, I was president of the European Automobile Manufacturers Association and I was not able to have a meeting with the European Union to bring it up to date on the substance of these issues. The decision for a massive reduction in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 was taken unilaterally. The automobile professionals that we are have nothing against big environmental orientations. On the contrary. On the other hand, we deserve to be heard. The swing to the electric car cannot be achieved with a snap of the fingers. This is a deep transformation that must be accompanied by largescale industrial programmes, with assurances of a massive and synchronised deployment of charging terminals. Our industry has already been fragilised sufficiently by grand statements of principle and does not need to be put in more danger.

From a societal point of view, this year of sanitary crisis has shown the harshness of being confined to home for those who found themselves under lockdown. And that was only for a limited time! We measure well the growing value that citizens from now on accord to their liberty of movement. Imagine what life without cars would be for inhabitants of rural or suburban territories: it would be house arrest for life and the inability to work. Before taking public decisions on mobility, you have to first know why people move, with whom and how often and propose solutions that guarantee at one and the same time security, flexibility and acceptable costs.

P. I. A more personal question. We know you are a fan of motor sports. What do you reply to those who say there are more ecological activities?  

C. T. — I could reply that motor sports, on the scale of emissions of greenhouse gases for the planet, have only the most infinitesimal impact. But that is not the point: I prefer to tell you that I don’t want to die of boredom! Or that I am suspicious of the prevailing conformism which often leads to a superficial analysis of things. To a personal question, a personal answer: when I take part in a historical automobile rally, I am always very happy with the atmosphere of conviviality that results. This discipline, like many other activities, creates a link between people and we would be wrong to do without it. The enemy is fragmentation. What nonsense to want to pit running fans against motor racing enthusiasts. Are we going to ask the first group what the ecological footprint of their running shoes, made on the other side of the world, are? Or how much energy was expended by the bulldozer that built the track or the stadium where they are exercising? In the same vein, I try to avoid all fragmentation inside the company. If colleagues start by defending their sense of belonging to a brand, to a line of products or a geographic area, then the joint project is torpedoed from the start. By fragmenting, the risks of sterile conflicts are multiplied. This is highly damaging for the atmosphere at work.

In addition, motor racing, like all competitions, is a powerful federator of energy in the company. We push the limits of our capacity to innovate to find the most efficient solution in the shortest possible time. The engineers who work on racing vehicles will later work on production vehicles. The progress benefits everybody. I see competition as a laboratory to incubate ideas. Our premium DS brand won the Formula-e World Championship (100 per cent electric) twice in a row and we set as a condition for Peugeot’s return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans that this competition should allow the participation of hybrid motorisations. I myself was able to test a competition vehicle that was powered solely by hydrogen. Motor sports and the environment are not contradictory.

P. I. — The merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is a major operation for Groupe PSA. To what extent are the ecological questions that we have discussed taken into account in this merger project? Are they effaced behind questions of governance, the alliance of the brands or the synergy of sites?

C. T. — Yes, the merger between Groupe PSA and FCA is a wonderfully formative operation. But behind the brands, the figures or the factories, we must never forget that there are first men and women. And all have the idea of transmission, in the sense that generations follow each other and we pass on the baton. Diving into an economic dossier as big as the creation of Stellantis does not prevent us keeping in mind the environmental concerns with the pooling of our knowhow. Thanks to the addition of our strengths, we are going to increase the surface of this innovative brick. In passing, an industrial effort such as that illustrated by the development of electric cars represents a financial risk. That is why it is essential that this technological movement must be better accompanied by the public authorities. In France, we are firmly encouraged to invest in the electric pool. But there are cruelly few recharging points. We are all ready to play our industrial role in the service of the great objectives of COP21 and Stellantis will continue on this road. But on condition that there is no gap between the complete break that we propose and the way it is relayed on the ground.

This interview was conducted on 22 October 2020.