's commitment, among major automakers at least, to battery-powered zero emissions vehicles is second to none. Yes, General Motors is throttling up its EV program — it was, after all, the excuse to shut down the Oshawa Assembly Plant — and no one can fault Nissan for the money it has put behind its Leaf. But it all pales compared with the vigour, resources and engineering that the Volkswagen Group has thrown at lithium ion, the world's largest automaker recently committing no less than US$40 billion over the next five years to develop a comprehensive portfolio of electric vehicles.
Now, a cynic — Who, me? — might argue this newfound devotion is simply a knee-jerk reaction to the company's Dieselgate scandal (prior to September 2015, Volkswagen was probably the least committed of automakers to the electric revolution). Maybe it's just the communal guilt a corporation feels when it pollutes the entire world with excessive nitrogen oxides. I don't know. What is certain is that Dieselgate, more than any other recent event, is responsible for the ramp-up of EV development. And, as an entity, Volkswagen is by quite some margin the leader among major automakers in that charge.
So much so that in a recent speech in Wolfsburg, Germany, Volkswagen chief strategist Michael Jost announced the company would soon stop working on platforms that 'aren't CO2-neutral' and that it's 'gradually fading out combustion engines to the absolute minimum.'
That's powerful stuff. Game changing, even. The most prolific automaker on the planet would seem to be announcing its intent to discontinue developing internal combustion engines after 2026. And even though Jost went on to say there may be some gasoline- and diesel-powered models sold until 2050, many analysts — and certainly much of the public — nonetheless interpreted his prognostications as the (almost) immediate demise of the internal combustion engine.
Uhm, that might be jumping the gun just a tad.
First, let's look at some facts about the future of automotive propulsion. Actually, they're predictions, but they're the same predictions EV protagonists use to propose that our driving future is increasingly electrified.
We — we, as in the whole world — currently buy just over 80 million cars and light trucks annually, the vast preponderance of which are ICE-powered. By 2030, the consensus seems to be that 20 million of us will convert to pure electric vehicles, be they battery- or fuel cell-powered. So far, so good for Volkswagen's prediction of reduced reliance on infernal combustion, right?
Motor Mouth: Is Volkswagen's electric dream realistic?
by David Booth
June 24, 2016
The fly in Volkswagen's emissions-reducing ointment is that, by 2030, the world new-car market is expected to grow to about 120 million units. Now, a large number of those will be plug-in and mild hybrids, but the common denominator between all those remaining 100 million vehicles — be they pure ICE, PHEV or MEV — is that they are all powered, at least in part, by piston engines. No, you're not reading those numbers wrong: There will actually be more
new cars — roughly 100 million — with a gas/diesel engine under their hoods in 2030 as are sold today.
Now, to be sure, they will be more efficient. Depending on how and where you drive, PHEVs — which can sometimes run on pure electricity — might reduce consumption by as much as 50 per cent. Mild hybrids — which essentially use more powerful 48-volt
alternators to electrically 'supercharge' gas engines — might reduce emissions by 20 per cent, an excellent gain considering their low cost. But they are still reliant on internal combustion as their primary motivation.
Tellingly, for Volkswagen's plan to start phasing out internal combustion engines after 2026, if there are indeed 100 million ICE-affiliated cars being sold in 2030, it's unlikely the bottom will drop out of the gas-engine market immediately thereafter. And even if developed countries ban internal combustion by 2040 — which may prove grossly optimistic; cue Donald Trump populism and Macron-directed revolts in France — large swaths of Africa, South America and some parts of the Far East simply have neither the inclination nor the infrastructure to follow suit. In other words, whether we like it or not — whether Volkswagen likes it or not — internal combustion engines will be still powering a significant number of the world's new automobiles well beyond 2026.
And this is where Jost's bold prognostication starts to fall apart. As a result of the pressure of ever-tighter emissions and fuel economy regulations, ICE technology development is advancing at ever more break-neck — some might say desperate — speed. If Volkswagen was to stop developing internal combustion engines after 2026 — and that is definitely the conclusion almost everyone is inferring from Jost's statement — then at least some of its cars will have to soldier on with 20- or even 25-year-old technology before pure electrics completely take over. That would seem to contradict the intent of Jost's message — namely that Volkswagen is committed by all means to reducing CO2 emissions — since the company's then-older ICE technology would see the company's hybrids lacking the efficiency of newer designs.
It would also put Volkswagen at a distinct disadvantage in regions where gas engines still dominate. Indeed, it's hard to imagine Volkswagen continuing on as the world's most prolific automaker if it's also the first to abandon internal combustion. If it wanted, for instance, to maintain selling the same 10.4 million units it moved last year selling nothing but zero-emission electrics, it would have to capture half of the projected market for EVs by 2030. It would seem, at least to me, that Volkswagen has the choice of stopping future combustion engine development or being the world's largest automaker. But it can't do both.
Of course, Jost's pronouncement could just be the same disingenuous mischief Volvo
got caught up in when it announced in 2017 that all its cars would be electric by 2019. What it really meant to say — oops, one of the world's most sophisticated public relations machines made a totally unintentional
boo-boo — was 'electrified,' most of those supposed 'electric' cars actually just those mild hybrid thingies.
To paraphrase the old joke pundits made of George H. W. Bush's now iconic election gaffe, maybe what Volkswagen meant to say is, 'Read my lips, no gnu internal combustion engines.'