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Global awakening to hazards of madman’s vehicle design

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Undoubtedly Nissan Leaf is the most favourite BEV in Sri Lanka. If its availability and its peripherals could be improved, we could sell much more of it in Sri Lanka. But it’s ironic that in this small country of 400km by 250km, we have more Toyota Prados and Land Rovers than Nissan Leafs. We are in the top 20 GHG emitters in the world (when calculated as kg/km2) and our road density – which still keep on increasing – and latitude all contribute to our being the second most vulnerable country in the world 

By. K.C. Somaratna

When my eldest son, Arjuna, brought me a copy of Brian Dumain’s ‘Plot to Save the Planet,’ it sparked off a keen interest in me to see what we, in Sri Lanka, could do to support the plot.

His chapter 5 titled ‘The car you are driving was designed by a madman’ intrigued me as to how a large percentage of mankind consisting of best of brains have taken it for granted that they would be happy to move in a vehicle which wastes 80% of energy purchased at gas station.

Imagine it being in a world where Jack Welch would have spoken about Six Sigma implying there will be only 3.4 defects in a million defect opportunities. Imagine it being in a world where investors of calibre of Warren Buffett would ensure that they would get maximum from every dollar spent in stock market. Imagine it being in a world where Toyota preaches ‘Eliminating Waste’ to be at the heart of Toyota production system and rolls out millions of Toyotas designed and manufactured to use less than20% of the scarcest resource in the world and destroy global environment with that other 80% of the energy. Can there be a greater surprise? 

But last two months made me see some signs of an awakening to the issue arising from a joint declaration on Electromobility by Richard Harrington, British Minister, and Michal Kurtyka, President of COP24, and in my own excitement about this announcement I sent mails to both of them describing our own initiatives in this respect in January 2010. I, of course do not expect a reply to my notes. And in Sri Lanka, Professor Rohan Samarajiva, Chairman of ICTA, spoke about topics for serious researching in Sri Lanka to a young researcher community at Sabaragamuwa University on 19-12-2018 and this address appeared in Daily FT and here again vehicular transportation with fossil fuel was at the centre of the discussion. So all this implies that there is some awakening to hazards of ICE powered vehicles we are moving around in.

What we want to emphasise in this article is that the madman’s design has been wasting customers’ funds so far and customers had been thinking that value was worth the ride; but environment as noticed by its temporary custodians in Poland had indicated that environmental cost of ride was too much and something needs to be done and a research strategist here has indicated that economic cost is not worth the energy and country can’t bear the cost. So, shouldn’t I be happy that this new year season, I have global as well as local strategists being concerned about the lunacy we have been exhibiting so far to the peril of global environment and local economy.


Carlos Ghosn saved $ 252 m before “robbing” $ 80 m

It is against this background I see how much Carlos Ghosn has done for humanity. He is one of the pioneers – if not the foremost pioneer – who rectified the madman’s vehicle design and actually eliminated waste associated with that design from highways. When people say that he has “robbed” about $ 80 million from whomsoever – from Japanese government, from Nissan shareholders, from Japanese citizenry – my mind automatically goes to compute how much he has saved.

If we take that Ghosn has sold 300,000 Nissan Leafs during last five years and this 300,000 vehicles had been there for 2.5 years and if each of them had done 15,000km/year and if these had not been there and alternative vehicles would have done 10km per litre of gasoline and gasoline had been $ 50 per barrel, 300,000 Leafs would have saved $ 252 million for the Japanese Government or vehicle users or the citizenry.

Furthermore, we live in an age where responsibility towards customers involve educating them on the performance of products they purchase. It is for this reason that (i) food items on sale do have their calorific values and constituents marked on the pack and (ii) packets of cigarettes do have warning advertisements.

It is my strong belief that all these entities like UNFCCC, IPCC, etc. interested in reducing GHGs in the world should demand that all automobile manufacturers specify the Environmental Impacts corresponding to vehicles they promote or advertise in all advertisements they publish. The three key characteristics they should publicise are (a) amount of energy used per 100km, (b) amount of energy that would be wasted per 100km and (c) amount of Greenhouse Gases emitted per 100km under normal travel conditions. This should be made a global requirement. If the global community is truly interested in addressing this issue of greenhouse gas related climate change, is it not the most logical thing to do?

It is when you think along these lines that one would see the tremendous benefit Carlos Ghosn has brought to the global community and specifically to Japan.


Japan can’t afford to ignore this

One may think that Japan can ignore this global upheaval on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and keep on promoting their Toyotas, etc. powered by internal combustion engines. But, Japan will be unable to do it due to its vulnerability to climate risk which it has escaped purely due to its geographic location beyond 300N latitude. Our reasoning goes as follows.

1. According to data put out by MunichRe – German Reinsurer who provides data for Climate Risk Index ratings – between 1997 and 2016, Japan with an area of only 316,000km2 has lost an equivalent of $2.5 trillion due to climate related disasters.

2. Japan’s annual GHG emission per unit area at 3717t/km2 is lower than only those of Taiwan at 8166t/km2 (the seventh most vulnerable country in 2018 ratings) and South Korea at 7010t/km2.

3. Both these countries do have lesser road densities than Japan which has the highest amount of highways per unit area – at 316kmper 100km2 – in the world.

In this league of countries with high road densities and high GHG emissions per unit area, apart from USA and China with high GHG emissions and low road densities, Japan, Germany, UK, Italy and France are the major ones. But the key issue is that out of these Japan has the highest road density, highest GHG emission rate and it is the country closest to the equator.

Hence Japan’s vulnerability to GHG driven climate risk incidents is much higher than those of other countries in the same league and it would be good for Japan to double, treble their efforts in reducing GHG emissions from transportation – the sector which makes the predominant contribution to GHG emissions. With an average vulnerability of about $125 billion per annum to climate risk, Japan should make every effort in this direction and it is our opinion that Japan can’t be doing anything which might give the impression that they don’t promote GHG free transportation.


In fact, Japan needs more than one Carlos Ghosn

Japan is the world’s third largest manufacturer of automobiles and Japan’s Toyota apparently occupies the largest automobile manufacturer slot. As such Japan should be really setting the pace in automobile manufacture in the world and so in respect of electrification of vehicles as well. If what we have said earlier is right, Japan with its very high road density, GHG emissions had escaped severe punishment due to its 350N latitude value.

It can’t reduce its road density overnight and as global climate vulnerabilities increase wholesale, Japan would be in the forefront of those countries most vulnerable to disasters. So, with its average loss of $125 billion due to disasters per annum, Japan needs to do whatever it could do to reduce its vulnerability. So, it needs to double, triple, quadruple its efforts at reducing its GHG emissions. So, it can’t afford to downplay the significance of Carlos Ghosn’s contribution to Japan’s long-term survival by putting him in a miniature cell to sleep on a thin mattress reading spiritual literature.

$ 80 million “played out” by Carlos Ghosn is negligible in comparison to this $125 billion a year loss. With three of the ten largest automobile manufacturers in the world, Japan should have at least two more Carlos Ghosns to steer the movement away from GHG emitting automobile manufacture, if and only if they don’t want to be at the top of the countries vulnerable to climate risk. 

One may even wonder whether this action against Carlos Ghosn is merely to show the world that Japan can escape climate change risk without the support of people like Carlos Ghosn. In fact, Japan may have been angry that Japan has not been able to put out even one other worthwhile BEV to talk about in the last few years.Toyota Mirai, their Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle has not made much progress.


Carlos Ghosn’s relevance to Sri Lanka

Undoubtedly Nissan Leaf is the most favourite BEV in Sri Lanka. If its availability and its peripherals could be improved, we could sell much more of it in Sri Lanka. But it’s ironic that in this small country of 400km by 250km, we have more Toyota Prados and Land Rovers than Nissan Leafs. We are in the top 20 GHG emitters in the world (when calculated as kg/km2) and our road density – which still keep on increasing – and latitude all contribute to our being the second most vulnerable country in the world.

Tesla’s Elon Musk, one may consider as a more charismatic promoter of Battery Electric Vehicles and all peripherals associated with same. But having the huge American market demanding powerful engines to cover nine million square kilometer US territory he would not be interested in catering to us in Sri Lanka. That is where Nissan Leaf comes in handy. On the other hand, other Japanese automakers who have had very popular brands in the ICE vehicle sector in Sri Lanka like Toyota, Mitsubishi, Honda have not been able to provide us with a suitable competitive BEV.

Has ‘Toyota Way’ lost its way in the most important endeavour in eliminating the most significant component of waste associated with road transportation? At our current status vis-à-vis climate risk vulnerability, this is the key aspect we need to look at. Even after reading the statements in that PhD Thesis at MIT “On the road in 2035” – published in 2008 – specifically mentioning that Toyota Camry wastes 2.31 MJ for every kilometre, Toyota has not put out any BEVs into the market. Their attempt at putting out a RAV4 version didn’t take the market place too far.

All these strange circumstances create a doubt in the minds of global automobile enthusiasts as to why this non-arrival of more Japanese BEVs in global market place. It is in this vacuum that Carlos Ghosn performed and put out a Japanese BEV for people to talk about. Even in 2018, Nissan Leaf was the front runner in respect of BEV global sales.


Our own issues at home

We were studying global set up to understand our own set up and identify suitable solutions for ourselves. Our own set up has following characteristics.

First the constant features: 

1. We are at 70N and 800E

2. We have a very high road density at 168km/100km2.

Secondly on an on-going basis, annually we (i) generate about 13,400 GWhrs of electricity &18,200 GWhrs of waste energy in the process; (ii) use about 8,000 GWhrs of tractive power in vehicles and emit 32,000 GWhrs of waste energy and (iii) emit about 19,000 kt of CO2in these processes

And as a result of these, we are the second most vulnerable country to climate risk in the world. These aspects demonstrate our craving for energy and what we do to environment in satisfying that craving. When it comes to the economy in fulfilling this craving for energy, last year we doled out about $ 2,300 million to buy our oil and signs are that it will only increase in the future.

Overall outcome of all this is that we will be enhancing probability of our annihilation as a result of this craving for energy. This urgent need for changing over from fossil fuel powered transportation to another mode is recognised by personnel at UNFCCC as well as Prof. Samarajiva and both have hinted that electric powering may be the way to go.

Then Prof. Samarajiva raises the issue that even if we convert from oil powered transportation to vehicle electrification, we would still need fossil fuel to generate electricity. There are two aspects to this. One is that while current tractive power for vehicles come mainly from oil, electricity for the grid in Sri Lanka comes from many sources and a significant part comes from renewables like hydro. Even then, one could argue that any additional energy required for transport need to come from fossil fuel and so it would be the same.

But, what one needs to remember is that generally thermal power stations generate electricity at about 37-40% efficiency, while the internal combustion engines of automobiles are only 18-21% efficient and hence there would be a significant drop in oil consumed, GHGs and waste heat generated. 

It is in this framework we offer highway solarisation – defined as “a dedicated infrastructure to generate electricity for powering battery electric vehicles or the grid using solar energy collected by PV solar panels installed along and above highways as a solution for climate change” – to be the best solution for providing energy either for battery electric vehicles or national grid. And this would be energy devoid of any greenhouse gases or waste energy.


What it will do to the environment

It would imply supply of energy not at a cost to the environment like energy from fossil fuels; but energy in a fashion beneficial to the environment. In the process, obviously we will be eliminating a significant portion of greenhouse gases being emitted to-day by energy and transport sectors. Unlike energy cost which will be borne by respective consumer to-day and economic cost born by the citizenry in near future, environmental cost of energy will have to be borne by all living beings on earth for many, many more years in to the future. So that is why mankind need to be concerned about the environmental cost than about other costs.

Vehicle electrification cannot be reversed as could be seen from the number of players already in the field. Almost all automobile manufacturers are investing significant resources on electric vehicle development and any new comers – some of them from entirely different fields of businesses – are also entering the fray.

The irony is that the leading automobile manufacturers today, excepting Nissan and Renault, have not been able to enter the top ten, although once in a way they publicise some exemplary features their own BEVs do possess and it is yet to be seen whether they would be still enjoying the glory they possess today in about another 15 years or so.

So, there is only one solution which could fulfil the expectations of British Minister Richard Harrington, Michal Kurtyaka from Poland and UNFCCC COP 24 and our own Prof. Rohan Samarajiva and that solution encompasses vehicle electrification and highway solarisation.

This integrated solution will eliminate greenhouse gases from vehicles and electricity generation to feed BEVs and additionally prevent solar radiation impacting the highways by intercepting the radiation with a photovoltaic solar panel which will convert 17% of solar radiation (it might become 20% very soon and even above 30% subsequently) and reflect about 10% – the same percentage as the bare road.

The immediacy of the need for action could be further gauged by American Environmentalist – Politician Alexandria Ocasio Cortez submitting a new resolution called the Green New Deal to address climate change on a priority basis. USA was the 10th most vulnerable country in the 2018 Climate Risk Index listing, but escaped from been in the 2019 list, while we were fourth most vulnerable country in the 2018 list, becoming the second most vulnerable country in 2019 list. 

The USA has more than nine million square kilometres to play about with, in case of an unwelcome event even with their 330 million people while we have only 65,000 square km for our21 million people. Shouldn’t we start working on our own Green New Deal soon and move away from the top of the climate risk index rating lists.



This is the challenge facing us today; and to our knowledge the only solution is vehicle electrification supported by highway solarisation. As Prof. Samarajiva has quite rightly and emphatically mentioned we cannot afford to be burning so much imported oil for transportation within the framework of a fragile economy.

If USA with so much of area and been beyond 230N with their own oil need to do it fast, we in this small island at 70N need to bring about this conversion much, much faster. I wish we have an Ocasia Cortez in our own political establishment at least to understand the issue and propose a way forward rather than to be chanting sustainable development from every rooftop.

(The writer is Managing Director of Somaratna Consultants Ltd.)

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