Home Society Converting fossil fuel cars into EVs: Why it’s not happening in the EU
Converting fossil fuel cars into EVs: Why it’s not happening in the EU

Converting fossil fuel cars into EVs: Why it’s not happening in the EU

by host

Turning the polluting, combustion engine car in your driveway into a clean, electric vehicle instead of buying a new one sounds like a great idea.

But it isn’t happening much in Europe — except for vintage sports cars and boats. Yes, boats.

That’s prompting growing pressure on the EU to change the rules to make it easier to certify such cars after they’ve had their engines and gas tanks switched out for batteries and motors, and to slash the cost of what’s currently a very expensive procedure.

Not only would retrofitting decrease the number of polluting cars on the road, it’s also less wasteful, as it allows consumers to keep their existing cars instead racking up the carbon footprint and financial cost of purchasing a new EV.

If done at scale, retrofitting could help the EU meet its goal to reduce the environmental footprint of the transport sector by 90 percent by 2050 and get 30 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. 

The catch? Other than the high market price of batteries, it is Europe’s patchwork of rules on vehicle safety which is blocking the sector’s development.

“Belgium lacks the legislative system to make mass retrofitting an economic reality,” said Yves Toussaint, founder and CEO of the Belgian electric mobility engineering firm Courant Alternatif Engineering, who has been developing a prototype for vintage cars.

The issue is particularly pressing as the EU prepares to ban the sale of new combustion engine cars by 2035. Even after 2035, millions of older combustion engine cars will still be legally on the road; converting them into EVs could speed the bloc’s electric transition.

Ahead of June’s European election, NGOs are urging Brussels to take this innovation seriously. The next European Commission and Parliament need to “propose new regulation for the approval of retrofit models,” said Lucien Mathieu, cars director at Transport & Environment, an NGO. “We need to streamline the process and reduce costs to scale up the practice.”

Some politicians, meanwhile, worry that the entire plan to phase out combustion cars is at risk because lawmakers in Brussels are bending to pressure to slow down on the green agenda.

At the European Greens party rally earlier this month, Terry Reintke, the party’s lead candidate, said that a post-election right-leaning European Parliament would put the 2035 plan at risk. “In Germany with the conservatives this is [already] on the table,” she said.

The blind spot

But when it comes to slashing transport emissions, Europe has a “blind spot,” said French lawmaker Bruno Millienne, who belongs to the opposition Democratic Movement party and has been calling for simplified rules to create a retrofit industry in France.

Bruno Millienne said: “We are preoccupied by the future vehicle fleet but we are forgetting the existing stock.” | Gerard Julien/AFP via Getty Images

“We are preoccupied by the future vehicle fleet but we are forgetting the existing stock,” he argued. “Europe’s transport ecosystem would benefit, if transport ministers in Brussels actually had the conversation.”

The car industry also produces a lot of waste, as roughly 6 million vehicles reach “end-of-life” status and get scrapped each year. Only 11 percent — roughly 700,000 tons — of the total mass of parts from end-of-life vehicles is reused, according to Eurostat data. The European Commission also estimates that 3.5 million vehicles disappear each year through illegal shipments or destruction.

Converting older cars into electric ones would not only help the EU ensure a majority of the millions of cars on its roads are emissions-free by 2050, it would also help reduce waste and promote the reuse of existing materials.

It’s also a commercial opportunity: The global retrofit market was valued at an estimated $66 billion in 2023, according to a report by the Global Green Growth Institute.

But Europe is lagging behind: The industry is dominated by companies in China, India, Japan and South Korea. Fewer than 40 companies offer retrofitting in the EU, according to a report by T&E.


Retrofitters say they are unable to scale up their business because of EU rules on getting vehicles approved for use on the road.

Under current EU legislation, a company can get a type of vehicle certified in one member country and sell it across the bloc without other vehicles of the same type needing to go through more testing.

The main issue, retrofitters argue, is that this type approval framework does not cover retrofitted cars.

Instead, some member countries — including Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and most recently Belgium — have created case-by-case approval frameworks. In practice, that means that every combustion engine car that gets turned into an electric vehicle has to go through further testing in those countries before getting approved.

France, meanwhile, created a type approval framework for retrofitted vehicles in 2020.

“Getting type approval takes longer but once we have it, we can retrofit thousands of vehicles by using the same retrofit kit that we used for testing,” said Victor Breban, co-founder of Noil, a French startup that retrofits motorbikes.

But that only works for clients in France. If Noil sells a retrofitting kit to someone in Belgium, for example, the owner of the motorbike would then have to get local approval. “Countries are losing out on the retrofit market opportunities because they each do something different,” he said.

Converting older cars into electric ones would help reduce waste and promote the reuse of existing materials. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Some say those additional checks are necessary, arguing that retrofitting is not as easy as it sounds.

According to Richard Schram, technical director of the European New Car Assessment Programme, “simply” taking an engine out and replacing it with a battery will impact the safety of the vehicle.

Since batteries are heavier, the conversion changes the weight of the vehicle as well as its distribution. “Batteries are usually at the back, thermal engines are at the front … you have to think about the rebalancing of the mass,” he said.

But for Toussaint from engineering firm Courant Alternatif, it’s more about the overall price, since retrofitting a car can cost as much as €15,000. “Add to that the costs of getting it certified, it just doesn’t make much sense for your average low-cost car,” he said.

A smoother set of rules on how to deal with unwanted combustion cars could boost demand for innovations like this, and lower the refit price over time.

The EU is in the process of changing its rules on managing end-of-life vehicles to improve recycling rates of materials like steel, plastic, and minerals and to connect national registration systems. 

But now that the election is around the corner, the draft law isn’t going anywhere before the next mandate. A spokesperson for the European Parliament’s transport committee told POLITICO that the file has been postponed until the next legislative term.

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