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Sustainable Motoring And Renewable Fuels: the role of the automotive industry

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  • Full or part time
    Prof Ackrill
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round

Project Description

Since the early 2000s, biofuels have been promoted aggressively worldwide as a means of responding to multiple policy concerns: climate change mitigation, energy security, and rural development. This has usually involved policymakers putting in place blending mandates, percentage targets specified for biofuels in transport fuel. A range of policy mechanisms have then been put in place to try to ensure both the delivery to the fuel market of these biofuels, and their subsequent incorporation into transport fuel. There has, however, been very little policy attention paid to the roles of certain actors in this chain, despite their critical roles. The purpose of this project is to focus on one major set of actors: the automotive industry.

The link between biofuels and climate change arises primarily because emissions from road transport are forecast to be the principal driver of greenhouse gas emissions increases over the coming decades. The actual involvement of the automotive industry in this process has, thus far, been seen primarily in two ways. First, carmakers have needed to put a warranty on their cars that covers the use of fuels with lower-percentage blends of biofuels (depending on the jurisdiction, this is typically in the range 10%-25%). Second, there is the development of engines that can run on higher blends (essentially 85%-100% - so called flex-fuel vehicles).

Biofuels are attracting a huge amount of research interest, especially around environmental concerns (their potentially negative, rather than positive, effects on greenhouse gas emissions), and social issues (in particular issues around land acquisition and land use, especially in developing countries). This project focuses on a relatively overlooked issue; overlooked in two senses – an apparent lack of prominence in the policy domain, and as a focus of academic attention. Previous research undertaken by the Director of Studies for this project suggests that the automotive industry has had a very limited role in the development of both biofuels policy and the growing biofuels market. Rather, it appears that policy makers put measures in place to promote the development of biofuels markets, and just assumed that the relevant industry actors would engage with them.

Currently, despite the biofuels mandates in place, the expansion of biofuels markets has slowed considerably. If the longer-term biofuels mandates are to be delivered on, a range of technological challenges must be faced, notably the development of engines that can run on higher biofuels blends. This means that these mandates are dependent on the automotive industry for their delivery. Yet there is seemingly little evidence that the automotive industry is working on this in as committed a manner as it is on, hybrid and electric technologies. Is this an indication that the automotive industry has never been particularly engaged in the biofuels agenda; or that its interest is waning; or that it sees these other technologies as having a better economic and technological future? The purpose of this project, simply put, is to interrogate these questions.

Whilst there is scope for the project to develop an inter-continental approach, the initial focus of attention will be the EU market. The EU represents one of the three principal players in the biofuels market, with its extensive use of policy instruments to promote biofuels production and use. Because of the use of Directives in the legislative approach of the EU, there is extensive cross-country variation in specific policy instruments used. Moreover, there are several major carmakers based in the EU. Thus this one case offers a strong basis for comparative analysis.

This project is conceived of as being multi-disciplinary, involving inputs from institutional economics, policy science and management science. It is anticipated that the research will involve extensive use of fieldwork interviews with policy-makers and representatives of the automotive and fuel industries. An in-depth case study approach will provide a rich dataset of interview materials which, supplemented with secondary materials, will allow for the utilisation of causal process tracing to explore the concept of co-evolution, and the nature of the links between the automotive industry and the biofuels industry, policymakers and EU biofuels policy.

For informal enquiries about this project, please contact: Professor Rob Ackrill: [email protected]


Ackrill, R. and A. Kay. (2014) The Growth of Biofuels in the 21st Century: Policy Drivers and Market Challenges. London: Palgrave.
Åhman, M and Nilsson, L. J. (2008) Path Dependency and the Future of Advanced Vehicles and Biofuels. Utilities Policy, 16, 80-89.
Dosi, G. (1982) Technological Paradigms and Technological Trajectories. Research Policy, 11, 147-162.
Linares, P. and Pérez-Arriaga, I. (2009) Promoting Investment in Low-Carbon Energy Technologies. European Review of Energy Markets, 3, 23pp.

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