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The Jevons’ Paradox Applied to Electromobility

01.26.23 | Blog | By:

Way back in the 19th century, William Stanley Jevons, a Scottish economist, theorized the rebound effect. He was then warning that improving efficiency begat increasing demand, not the reverse, based on his observations of the coal production and use in Scotland between 1830 and 1863. More recently, in Germany, the Jevons’ Paradox was observed in housing. During the 1980s, serious efforts in insulating buildings eventually led to an increase in heating demand, as the initial gains in heating efficiency were followed after just a few years by a relaxation of savings and a search for more comfort.

Electromobility could well be the next textbook case for the Jevons’ Paradox. Sure, the first economic hurdle is to purchase an electric vehicle (EV), today, and likely tomorrow, a much larger expense that its equivalent internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) model. But, once you are the proud owner of an EV, showing off your moral higher ground and your amazing acceleration to the gawking bystanders and other deplorable motorists, you are prone to suffer from an inconvenient consequence of the lower cost of fuel.  Of course, this is true assuming the price of electricity does not skyrocket due to overpromised demand and underdelivered production and the state appetite for taxes on motorists. This consequence is increasing your mileage.

As the investment side of owning an EV is high, you have to drive more to break even, all studies comparing the Total Cost of Operation of EVs and ICEVs point out to this. As a tank load is cheap (er), you should not notice you increase your driving. One may wonder if the average motorist thinks as an investor, but this observation has been historically made when France massively switched to diesel-powered cars, notoriously more efficient at the time, the 1980s, than the gasoline-powered vehicles they replaced. Does that mean that every motorist is a closet capitalist? There may be more prosaic explanations:

  • Like a reduced travel cost helping the whole family to get away from the city for the weekend more often, and even for holidays, rather than use the more expensive rail or air alternatives.
  • Like more easily deciding to live further out of the metropolis. The investment in housing reduces quickly and dramatically once you reach the one-hour or so drive magic barrier and does not have to be so much balanced with the extra fuel cost to commute. On top of this, most of the traffic congestion takes place when you reach the metropolis’ limits, an extra 20 or 30 kilometers in rural areas will not add that much to commuting time.
  • Like more using your EV for short distances that could be covered on foot or by bike, electric or not. The Mobility Observatory in France has recently published a summary of our habits, likely typical of any advanced country where mobility is car-centric (the average distance covered every day has not significantly changed during the last centuries, in terms of time, but has been multiplied in distance by a large factor, 5 between 1950 and 2019, thanks mostly to the democratization of cars after WW II).

74% of the commuting between home and work is done by car. Not really surprising, a combination of under-maintained, under-funded public transport and the lack thereof in rural areas, where 90% of the locals have to use their car. And traveling in a modern car can be pleasant, comfortable at least, when commuting takes on average more than one hour.

More surprising: 56% of the commuting of less than 2 kilometers, equivalent to 20 minutes’ walking or 5 minutes’ cycling, is done by car, we are talking of 2 million people here, and 33% of the 25 million commuters cover every day less than 5 kilometers, in majority by car, as can be seen in the graph below, where cars are in red, 2-wheelers in orange, public transport in blue, cycling in yellow and walking in green. Outside of dense urban and rural areas, meaning in suburbia and exurbia, where the presence of public transport starts to wither but distances remain modest, the Mobility Observatory models that 9% of car use could be switched to walking and 43% to cycling.

Sources: Le Monde (2023), citing data from Insee and SDES (2019)

In a more and more individualistic society, ever looking for more comfort, what has been observed in Germany regarding house heating could well apply to electromobility, as driving a car is certainly more comfortable than walking or cycling in the rain, and safer on congested roads full of hazards. And if it is cheap… If not automated…

Between this hedonistic behavior and the business model of carmakers angling toward profitable, but XXL, heavy, electric SUVs and pick-up trucks, the overpromised renewable electricity production could well prove the real hurdle to the switch to electromobility, and a threat to the overpromised cheap price as well.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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