COMMENT: The gasoline engine market is downsizing, but hybrids offer hope

Though consumers support low emissions vehicles in theory, they are reluctant to let go of the powertrains they know and trust. By Betti Hunter

The gasoline engine is not going anywhere—for the foreseeable future at least. Though new alternative powertrain developments are rewriting the rulebook for automakers around the world, internal combustion engines (ICEs) will almost certainly remain the bedrock of vehicle sales throughout the next decade and beyond, and with the demise of diesel, gasoline is now by far the ICE’s primary fuel.

That is not to say, however, that alternative powertrains will not break through to the mainstream. From fuel cell vehicles to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and even the dark horse, biofuels, the automotive industry as a whole is shifting its focus to future technology.

Much of this industry evolution is in response to increasingly stringent emissions standards from city authorities and national governments. A barrage of new studies reveals that both climate change and pollution are much larger problems than even the most liberal previous estimates had expected.

As more money is thrown at the complex process of decarbonising engine technology, there will be a concurrent move away from focusing on further gasoline engine progression

According to the World Health Organization, the transportation sector is the fastest growing contributor to climate emissions. The organisation also estimates that approximately 3.7 million deaths are caused each year as a result of outdoor air pollution, with road transportation estimated to be responsible for up to 50% of particulate emissions (PM) depending on the region under scrutiny. Global regulators are under pressure to act fast, and to force the industry to respond in kind.

Public demand for cleaner vehicles is also steering the automotive industry’s new course. The Greta Thunberg effect has only intensified growing calls for automakers to take the reins and drive the industry towards mass production of low and zero emissions models. As a fossil fuel, gasoline—like its under-fire cousin diesel—is falling from grace in the eyes of lawmakers and consumers alike.

However, despite proclaiming support for new, less polluting powertrains vocally and on paper, registration data underlines the fact that the majority of consumers remain wary of switching away from ICEs. Though EV sales are rising rapidly, the global market share is still less than 3%. According to the International Energy Agency, 125 million electric vehicles will be on the roads by 2030, encompassing BEVs, hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electrics (PHEVs) and fuel cell models.

Despite proclaiming support for new, less polluting powertrains vocally and on paper, registration data underlines the fact that the majority of consumers remain wary of switching away from ICEs

This number is a drop in the ocean, though, compared with research house Bernstein’s predictions that the global volume of vehicles will double by 2040 to 2 billion. At present, automakers are rushing to develop alternative powertrains to comply with regulators, investing billions in the process. The customer base, however, does not match the rising supply. Many are unwilling to make the considerable upfront investment in vehicle technology they are unfamiliar with, and which does not guarantee the same range as a vehicle with an ICE. The industry’s payback for its investments is unlikely to be returned any time soon.

This duality is likely to force players across the board into a variety of partnerships. As more money is thrown at the complex process of decarbonising engine technology, there will be a concurrent move away from focusing on further gasoline engine progression. By necessity, the number of powertrain developments will be reduced to a few platforms. As outlined in ‘Is this the end of the gasoline engine?’, a special report published by Automotive World, the gasoline engine—which, remember, features in most hybrid powertrain configurations—is not yet at risk of extinction, but future options are starting to look limited.

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