Op-Ed: Combustion Engines are Not Going Anywhere for Quite A While

Source: By Reg Modlin, 25x25 • Posted: Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Flags have gone up in recent days as a result of articles proclaiming the coming of the electric car and the resulting disruption in the automobile industry. Relax. There is nothing new in any of these articles.

Regulations governing greenhouse gases (GHG), fuel economy and fuel consumption in all of the major markets are on the same trend line and have been for years, despite the “news” implied in the articles.

The driving assumption is that 80-percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 is needed. With that goal observed, all new vehicles produced and sold by about 2030 would have to be full battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell powered. This is the basis for the regulatory trend lines. The big questions? Will the technology evolve to support that goal? Will the cost of technology be in line with the customer’s willingness to buy? And, most importantly, will the customer, in fact, buy the product? In the United States, in the rules adopted in 2012, these challenges were noted and the concept of a mid-term review of the proposed standards was aimed at addressing the question of consumer demand.

Electric vehicles will dominate new vehicle sales by about 2030, unless they don’t. The reasons for vast electrification to not occur are the usual hurdles of high cost and lagging consumer demand. Even if electrification does take hold, liquid-fueled internal combustion products in the legacy fleet will need fuel until well past 2050. And this only addresses light duty transportation. Yet to be considered are heavy duty vehicles, rail and air. Those are larger technology challenges.

Positions from Volvo and Daimler are particularly noteworthy.

Volvo headlines claim that they are moving out of internal combustion engines. This is not supported by the facts. They may be pursuing a marketing strategy to not deploy solely internal combustion engine equipped products. However, internal combustion engines would be included in mild-hybrid (Start/Stop), hybrid and plug-in hybrid systems. Any full electric powered products would have to be a very small percentage of their proposed fleet. The inclusion of such technologies is likely to be part of every manufacturer’s strategy. Note that Geely, a Chinese company, owns Volvo. Given that China is attempting to leap-frog to electrically powered transportation, that ownership naturally moves the premium Volvo brand into the country’s fast push toward electric powered vehicles. For Geely to set up their premium brand to represent the path toward electrification would be a natural step. This would be a strategy found in many of the world’s automobile manufacturers.

Look at Daimler. The German company announced that they were aiming at full electrification by 2030. Then, they explained how they were backing up that plan with a completely new family of internal combustion engines and applying 48-volt electrical systems to boot. Again, there is nothing new here. Germany is a strong supporter of the aforementioned goal of 80-percent reduction of GHG emissions. Daimler is on record in support of the goal. However, they are backing up their support with technology packages that will continue to improve performance of their conventional portfolio, whether or not electrification becomes successful.

Both Volvo and Daimler, among others, have gotten some attention with good headlines, even though they acknowledge they are doing what the whole industry is having to do while betting on the potential for market acceptance of electrified vehicles.

Whether electrification of light duty vehicles will dominate the market before 2050 will hold media and public interest until we see how the industry evolves. Until then, and for decades after, liquid fuel will be used in transportation throughout the world. And what automakers and policy makers must resolve is whether we will reduce carbon emissions from the fleet using more efficient internal combustion engines paired with low-carbon, high-octane fuels or will we continue to ignore the issue and continue to use current regular gasoline formulations? The challenge is to create a resounding drumbeat of “we need a better fuel for the future,” whether or not electrification becomes successful.

Reg Modlin is the former director of regulatory affairs at FCA Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, where he served for more than 43 years. He is currently a senior advisor to the Ag-Auto-Ethanol Work Group, a stakeholder effort to develop strategies that will accelerate the transition of transportation fuels to higher octane/lower carbon blends for use in the U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet.