For Greener Cars, Don't Count The Gasoline Engine Out Yet

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VW logo and sign at opening of Volkswagen engine plant in Silao, Mexico

VW logo and sign at opening of Volkswagen engine plant in Silao, Mexico

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Plug-in electric cars get a lot of press, perhaps more than their current sales might warrant.

It's clear to industry analysts that the proportion of plug-ins among new cars produced will grow, slowly, over the coming years and decades.

But don't count the gasoline engine out just yet.

The rate of electric cars migrating into the fleet--not to mention projections for diesel adoption into the U.S.--are the topic of much debate.

But for the next decade or more, the vast majority of the world's auto production will continue to have gasoline engines.

In Europe, roughly half of all new passenger cars are sold with diesel engines--but it's the only major market in the world where that's the case.

Natural gas may represent 1 or 2 percent of total production as well, but heavily concentrated in a few countries--of which India is by far the most populous.

Hybrids + electrics: 15 percent or less in 2025?

Estimates of plug-in share range from 1 percent to 3 percent of a total global production of perhaps 100 million vehicles by 2020.

Even adding in hybrids, electrified vehicles of all sorts are likely to make up only 15 percent of global production by 2025, according to a recent survey of auto-industry executives.

U.S. auditing firm KPMG released its 14th annual survey of global auto executives last Friday, covering 200 C-level executives in automakers around the world. Of those, 22 were from North American companies.

U.S. executives were the most optimistic about electrified vehicles; almost half (45 percent) said hybrids and plug-ins together would make up more than 16 percent of sales by 2025.

Engines offer most opportunity

Of all respondents, 71 percent believe the optimization of combustion engines will offer more efficiency and reduction in carbon emissions than any electrification technology.

"Today's combustion engines can continue to offer consumers the fuel efficiency and performance they desire," summarized KPMG auto industry leader Gary Silberg, "and what's clear is that the internal combustion engine is not going anywhere anytime soon."

Cars 10 years hence will be lighter, more aerodynamic, use far smaller and vastly more efficient engines, and likely incorporate a variety of efficiency technologies: active grille shutters, fuel shutoff, start-stop systems, and more.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco Quick Drive and Live Photos

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco Quick Drive and Live Photos

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Note the kicker, though: That 71-percent response applies only to cars of the next six to ten years.

That's a short time for an industry that renews each of its underlying vehicle architectures--costing perhaps $1 billion each--only every seven years.

Silberg adds that car companies "will also intensify investment in electric technology, fully appreciating what is at stake in a very competitive industry."

Placing different bets

Over the next five years, said survey respondents, hybrid systems will get more investment than plug-in electric cars.

Asked which alternative technology would get the biggest investment, 26 percent said their companies would prioritize plug-in hybrid systems; 17 percent say it's pure hybrids; 13 percent say range-extended electric cars like the Chevy Volt; a surprising 11 percent said hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles; and only 8 percent tapped battery electric vehicles.

In other words, "automakers are placing bets across the board, and large bets at that, especially hybrids," added Silberg. Natural-gas vehicles were not included on the survey.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

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Our own bet

In coverage of Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sales, the author of this piece noted that he placed his own bet on the future mix of vehicle technologies.

Electric-car advocate Peder Norby contends that by 2020, conventional gasoline-engined vehicles will be less than half of total U.S. sales.

He believes battery electrics, range-extended electric cars, plug-in hybrids, regular hybrids, diesels, and natural-gas vehicles together will exceed 50 percent of the U.S. market.

This author disagrees; there's a dinner riding on the outcome.

What do you think? Who'll win the bet? And are the auto-industry executives right that gasoline engines will predominate over the next 10 years?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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Comments (16)
  1. I think there really isn't as much scope for greening up the old gassers as the industry would have us believe.

    After a century of development the ICE is well in the territory of diminishing returns for improving efficiency. As a result carmakers have resorted to optimizing the engines to ace government test cycles, generating results that increasingly deviate from real world MPG/emissions while sticking the consumer with extra cost and a compromised ride. Already there is the occasional outcry of disappointed consumers and people will increasingly wise up to this strategy and once governments do, carmakers may find meeting increasingly stringent emission targets very hard. I think those investing in plug-ins are investing wisely.

  2. IMHO - the greatest improvement pontential for ICE is to have them run under amost steady state conditions letting an electric motor handle the variable load. In this scenario the battery acts like a giant flywheel for the system allowing the ICE to be highly optimised for some steady state condition.

  3. Sounds like a "series-hybrid" to me... :)

  4. "Electric-car advocate Peder Norby contends that by 2020, conventional gasoline-engined vehicles will be less than half of total U.S. sales.

    He believes battery electrics, range-extended electric cars, plug-in hybrids, regular hybrids, diesels, and natural-gas vehicles together will exceed 50 percent of the U.S. market.

    I am willing to bet that he is wrong.

    Can I get on that dinner bet too?

    Currently, hybrids and plugins account for less than 5% of the market in the US.

    In 7 years, there is no way that gas cars will be less than 50%.

  5. I think you'll be getting a free meal. There's not enough time for the development of the fleets your friend hopes for - hell, that I hope for. The discovery of oil in the Great Plains also works against his wishes.

    bon appetit

  6. I may have to write my own post to counter :)

    To be clear to those taking sides, I think John Voelcker is one the hardest working most talented writers covering the green car scene. John challenged me to a bet and I accepted. In truth I'd be happy to buy him dinner as a thank you for all his efforts, I'm even throwing a bottle of 2007 Napa Silver Oak as my compliment ....but i digress from my competitiveness.
    John is a writer, a thoughtful reporter crunching stats and comments from auto execs. I am a dreamer and ride with the entrepreneurs of the world and disruptive technology. It's worked well for me :)

    As John pointed out in Europe already 50% of the vehicles sold are diesels. MY side it's hybrids, diesels, CNG, plug-ins and such

  7. That is a great "dream". But you only got 7 years left.

    In order for us to achieve that, automakers would have to bring enough choices for buyers to even have that 50% possibilities. So far, there aren't enough choices for those categories that you listed above, not to mention "cost". That is why Gas engines will continue to be popular b/c of the choices and it is still the cheapest to make.

  8. 2007 Napa Silver Oak ?

    That is $100 Cab. :)

  9. Only the best wine with dinner :)

  10. @ Peder Norby,

    I certainly believe it's useful to try to think a bit past what auto execs and assorted related pundits will have us believe about future developments. I often feel predictions are based on how certain interests want future developments to be but they don't necessarily always get what they wish for. Like you mentioned there is such a thing as entrepreneurs trying to bring disruptive technology to the market and if they make it through the the difficult start up phase and all the flak that is thrown at them developments can get a new turn that's rather different than just extrapolating from past developments. That's not just dreaming, it's also to do with vision.

  11. Chris O.

    Well said, and thanks.

  12. In any hybrid, the ICE efficiency will be the FE determinant. However, unlike ICE-only vehicles, hybrids have several additional opportunities for improvement of their efficiency.
    1. Regenerative braking - Although certain ICE-only vehicles have attempted to do this via alternator strategies, super-capacitors and the like, recovering the energy previously purchased is critical in stop-and-go drive cycles.
    2. Co-generation - hybrids don't much care how additional electricity gets generated - giving considerable opportunity for efficiency improvement via waste-heat generation. Recovering a fair percentage of the energy currently being released into the environment via hot exhaust or cooling systems would dramatically improve FE.

  13. It occurs to me that both electric and gas engines have a big future. The new offerings from Tesla Motors look very promising: relatively simple, great performance, reasonable cost of ownership and potentially clean, depending on how the electrical charge is generated. Biggest issue I see is that of the charging infrastructure. Simultaneously, the work of Air Fuel Synthesis looks promising, albeit in the very early stages. But the ability to make gas from literally thin air, using admittedly large amounts of electrical power is none the less compelling, given that the existing gas infrastructure is so large.

    Good sources of the electrical power can be from solar, wind or the like. Using fossil fuel would be counterproductive.

  14. I have a question for anybody who downplays the future of electric cars: Have you driven an electric car? If not, you have no idea of the fun, the luxury, the reliability, the quiet and non-stinky driving experience that electric car drivers experience every day. My Nissan Leaf has more than 22k miles and it's as good as new. Other than a seriously flat tire once (and no spare tire) it's never stranded anyone. I think the biggest barriers to electric-car adoption are production, negative stereotypes, and misinformed trolls with an economic interest in keeping us all dependent on fossil fuels.

  15. I support Electric cars and I drive a Volt. But I think BEV is still very limited today.

    Just about every Leaf drivers I see are driving "conservatively" on the hwy and usually leave heat off to maximize the range. The range reduction due to heat and speed are real and signficant.

    Until we can get $35k EVs that can go 200 miles, it will always worry buyers to some extent....

  16. Based on climate science, we really have no choice in the matter...

    The auto manufacturing industry, NGOs and governments alike, as well as media, must get better at educating the customers to the merits of going electric. By ending public funding through subsidies to the fossil fuel producers and shifting that funding to incentives and R&D to the production of BEV and PHEVs would make a substantial difference to advancing the shift in demand. This would alleviate stress on climate change, improve air quality, reduce our reliance to dirty fossil fuels and ultimately improve our quality of life for now and future generations without transforming our car-based lifestyles.

    I say kill the ICEs -- sooner the better!

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