In the ever-changing transportation sector, word choice matters
Last week I received an email from a colleague: “You’d better hug this engine quick, because it may be one of the last!” Attached was an article from the popular British car magazine www.autocar.co.uk titled “Volkswagen to launch its last combustion engine in 2026”.
The article quoted Frank Welsch, Member of the Board of Management of the Volkswagen Passenger Cars brand with responsibility for Technical Development, saying “In the year 2026, the last product based on a combustion platform will be started.” Understandably, this was interpreted as the last VW with a combustion engine would be launched in 2026, and the article stated “there will be no new development of petrol or diesel engines from 2026” as a result.
In reality, this is not the case, and Dr. Welsch has quickly revised his comments – saying "It is not correct to say we will stop developing internal combustion engines from 2026[…] I can see us developing more and more efficient ICE cars long beyond the quoted 2026 date.” The original version of the article has been withdrawn as a result, and the article substantially rewritten. You can now read a modified version of the article.
This is not the first time that incidents like this have happened. In July 2017, the UK government announced “New diesel and petrol cars and vans will be banned in the UK from 2040 in a bid to tackle air pollution”. All of the media discourse in the UK, and amongst all of my friends and colleagues, was that ICEs would be banned by 2040, and that we would all be driving battery electric vehicles (BEVs) by then. When the dust had settled a bit, it was clear that this was not the case. The UK government is taking a commendably technology neutral approach, and reading the document it is clear that again, the 2040 strategy includes not only BEVs but also plugin hybrids (PHEVs) – alongside possible alternatives.
Around the same time Volvo announced “Volvo Cars to go all electric from 2019” - again this was understandably thought to mean that Volvo would only make BEVs from 2019. The BBC reported that they were “the first traditional carmaker to signal the end of the internal combustion engine.” Not the case! If you look into the details, they are clear that all of their vehicles will be fitted with an electric motor, in other words, BEVs, PHEVs and mild hybrids (MHEVs). To be fair to Volvo, this is exactly what their press release said, just not how it was reported by the media.
What these events show is that while there is a significant difference between “electric” and “electrified,” this detail is rarely understood. To be clear, an electrified powertrain would include MHEVs, PHEVs as well as BEVs. An electric powertrain is commonly understood to mean BEVs only.
Although I have only shown three examples here, a quick google search reveals a huge number of similar examples. Hybrid cars, alongside BEVs, clearly are the future. They offer a number of advantages in terms of improvements to fuel economy / CO2 emissions as well as reductions in other pollutants. They have been an important part of the development of mobility since the launch of the Toyota Prius in 1997. Hybrid buses have also been in service since 2007. Their introduction did not signal the death of the combustion engine then, and nor should it now.
At the risk of stating the obvious, a hybrid car will still have a combustion engine. Therefore, alongside a few colleagues, I have started referring to them as Hybrid Engine Vehicles (HEV), as they contain both an electric “engine” and a combustion engine.
As vehicles become more hybridised, the combustion engine is going to need to change. The engine will be part of a powertrain system that includes a significant level of electrical power too. It is worth noting that engines have always been part of systems, for example the transmission, so this is nothing new for the ICE. This means that the demands on the ICE are likely to change, for example it will not be switched on all of the time, it may not need to operate at such a large range of loads and speeds, and there will be electrical power to help with things like transients and aftertreatment heating. This may mean that future combustion engines are smaller and cheaper. The BMW i3 PHEV, for example, has a 2-cylinder, 647cc engine and comparable “B segment” vehicles might have a 1.6L 4-cylinder engine.
ICE equipped PHEVs offer a huge number of benefits in addition to the lower CO2 emissions. For example, one can imagine PHEVs which can be “geofenced” such that they operate in pure electric mode in a low emissions zone (such as a city centre – see my previous article on low emissions zones and then use the ICE outside of these zones. This would quickly improve urban air quality in a way that is clearly feasible in the near future.
It is also worth remembering that we must not remove the consumer from development. A recent study by the Miles Consultancy found that many drivers of PHEV vehicles had never unwrapped the charging cables – and hence, despite being a PHEV, these vehicles had never been plugged in! These vehicles have been bought with, at least in the UK, a £4,500 government grant, with the assumption that they would be used as PHEVs, and reduce CO2 emissions. However, in reality because of a lack of convenience or a lack of infrastructure, customers have not used them as such, and in reality these vehicles are worse for CO2 emissions than non-hybrid alternatives, as they are carrying around a redundant, heavy, battery pack. Without engaging the customer / user, and designing solutions that people actually want and use, we can make things worse rather than better. This is an outcome I fear within the current media discourse on this subject.