Imperial College London

Car manufacturers make their own green technology choices regardless of policy


BNW low emission vehicle

BMW low emission vehicle

Policies did not determine the types of low emission technology choices made by some of Germany's leading automotive manufacturers.

Over the last few decades the automotive industry has experienced a number of challenges including fluctuating oil prices, air quality issues and the effects of vehicle emissions on global warming. Previous studies have emphasised the strong role that global policy plays in influencing manufacturers to develop low emission technologies such as vehicles powered by batteries and fuel cells. However, there has been no definitive research to determine the impact of these Government policies.

Vehicles are a major contributor to global warming, so it is crucial that policymakers find the right incentives to get industry to develop low emission technologies.

– Dr Christoph Mazur

Department of Chemical Engineering

Now, researchers from Imperial have analysed the factors that trigger car manufacturers to focus on developing low emission vehicles. They studied three main German car manufacturers – Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen (VW). Their analysis suggests that policymakers in Germany and further afield in countries such as the USA have had only limited influence on the low emission technologies chosen by these manufacturers.

In the study, the team found that demand from consumers and the success of competitors in rolling out specific low emission technologies, not policy, prompted all three companies to embark on a path towards their own low emission vehicles. Particular events such as such as the introduction of a new CEO or collaborations with external companies were also other factors that spurred them on to develop low emission vehicles.

The researchers acknowledged that emission regulations also had an effect on all three companies, encouraging them to embark on developing low emission technologies. However, these activities only led to incremental developments, where they further developed low emission solutions that were already being worked on in-house by each company. The researchers speculate that the reason that change only happened incrementally was because of the in-house expertise of each company, where the engineers were experienced only in fossil fuel based engine technologies, which influenced the pace and direction of developments.

The team say that although the observations made in the study are general in nature and the sample on which they are based is relatively limited, the results still provide valuable insight into the lack of impact that global policies have had on the automotive industry and what limitations exist.

The researchers suggest that policy making is still useful in terms of helping to guide the automotive industry. However, rather than trying to force companies to choose specific low emission technologies, governments should provide the regulatory landscape that enables automotive manufacturers to adopt low emission systems best suited to their business. They believe this would make policy changes less disruptive and more of a welcome enabler for the industry.

The study is published in the July edition of the journal Environmental Innovation and Social Transitions.

Dr Christoph Mazur, co-author of the study from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial, said: “Vehicles are a major contributor to global warming, so it is crucial that policymakers find the right incentives to get industry to develop low emission technologies. However our study shows that Government policies that have the sole purpose of shoehorning an entire industry into a certain technology over others, don’t work. What is needed is a framework, rather than specific policies, which broadly support research and development in the low emission solutions the industry choses itself.“


Looking at Daimler; the company developed a range of low emission prototypes, powered by fuel cells or batteries. This meant it was perceived by its peers as a trailblazer in the field. However, the team found that the company mostly focussed on incremental improvements based on past work when it came to the introduction of vehicles to the mass market. Daimler only embarked on developing vehicles that went beyond the prototype status and into markets, when it was approached by external collaborators, such as the watch-making company Swatch or the specialist automotive company Zytek. The company decided to establish of a car sharing scheme called Car2Go. The team say this move was largely prompted by pressures from competitors such as Tesla or Toyota, which both introduced low emission vehicles in the market.


In the case of BMW, external pressures were driving some developments in low emission technologies, such as the development of electric vehicles around the world. The company had worked on hydrogen powered cars, mainly in response to Daimler’s release of prototype low emission vehicles. However, BMW’s vehicles were based on internal combustion engine designs, where the hydrogen was burned, instead of being converted by fuel cells into electricity. Furthermore, there was no actual move to bring them to the mass market. However, this changed in 2006 with the introduction of a new CEO who launched project “I”, which was a major review of future vehicle development program. This brought about change where the company abandoned the hydrogen combustion technology and decided to focus on developing lightweight electric vehicles.


VW chose to make their diesel engine technology more efficient. They also focussed on developing synthetic fuels to satisfy regulatory pressures. Therefore in contrast to other manufacturers the researchers found it difficult to identify a significant move towards the development of low emission technology.

The team carried out their analysis by bringing together all the previous academic research on the subject. They also reviewed each company’s business models, studied annual reports and hundreds of journal articles from major publishers including industry magazines. Using this information they created a timeline that illustrated the activities of all three manufacturers. The team also developed a timeline of policy developments by German, US and EU Governments, as well as the Californian Government, which is a leader in low emission regulations. They compared the two timelines to identify the triggers that prompted the manufacturers to develop low emission technologies.


Colin Smith

Colin Smith
Communications and Public Affairs

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