The European Commission wants to phase out conventional engines in cities by 2050. This will require changes in building, fuelling and propelling vehicles

A great deal has changed since 1972, and not just in hair and fashion. Today we take for granted personal computers, mobile phones and instant access to entertainment. Forty years ago these things would have been hard to imagine. But one thing has changed very little – the way we get around. Items on cars such as windows, odometers and steering may have been electrified, but the engine itself has not. Despite the warning given by the oil crisis of the 1970s, our cars run in the same way as they did 40 years ago.

Yet the European Commission says that in less than 40 years cars must be revolutionised. The use of combustion engines powered by fossil fuels in cities should be halved by 2030 and eliminated by 2050, according to the Commission’s transport white paper, published last year.

Given that more than 99% of cars are still powered this way, there is a lot to do. But car-makers are optimistic. According to a 2010 report by Deloitte, a consultancy, electric and other ‘green’ cars are expected to make up a third of global sales by 2020.

Philippe Aussourd, president of AVERE, the electric vehicle association, says that although older people may find the idea of combustion-engine-free cities by 2050 incredible, the younger generation thinks differently. “Teenagers today don’t understand the automobile and transportation in the same way as their predecessors did,” he says. “In cities, a great majority – between 80% and 90% of cars – drive less than 40 kilometres a day. It is natural for people to use electric cars for this type of driving.”


Car manufacturers are examining a wide range of new technologies to achieve this aim, including battery-powered electric vehicles, hydrogen-fuelled cars and alternative fuel such as biofuel.

Electric cars are still dogged by three main problems: their expensive batteries make them much more costly than conventional cars; they require a network of points where they can be charged, which has yet to be installed; and they typically have a range of only 160km.

Consumers have been understandably hesitant to buy a car that they could use only within city limits. Most battery-powered electric vehicles on the market today are low-speed, low-range ‘neighbourhood electric vehicles’. There are only a few models capable of coping with motorways, among them the top-selling Nissan Leaf. But sales are still modest, reflecting consumer fears about running out of power – what the industry has labelled “range anxiety”.

Aussourd says this problem can be solved if countries invest in recharging points. “Many people say there are obstacles to the charging infrastructure, but is it really a problem?” he asks. “It just needs to be built. It is not a problem of the electric grid. If we have 20% of cars that are electric in 2030, we will only need to produce 1%-2% more electricity.”

But recharging an electric vehicle is not as easy as refuelling a conventional vehicle. Current models need to be recharged overnight at home or at a recharging station. New recharging technologies are being developed. ‘Fast-charging stations’ using DC electricity through industrial outlets – rather than AC through conventional outlets – can recharge a 160km battery to 80% in just 30 minutes. But DC cables are not widespread.

Another technology being developed is ‘battery-switch stations’, something akin to replacing a tired horse at the stagecoach stops of yesteryear. Vehicles installed with such technology would be able to call into a station and have their depleted battery replaced with a fully-charged one in just 60 seconds. Companies developing this technology include Better Place, which is building a network of such stations in Denmark. But the high investment costs for this technology mean that it may never be commercially feasible.

Even if the recharging infrastructure is set up, there is still the high upfront cost. Manufacturers of battery and hybrid cars usually claim that the investment is justified by savings in fuel costs. But a study published last year by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs found that, at 2010 prices in the US, the amount of money saved in fuel costs over the lifetime of an electric car did not offset the higher purchase price. This, however, takes no account of any government subsidy.

Another alternative fuel source is hydrogen. This can nowadays power vehicles in the same way as petrol powers a combustion engine, but vehicles that can convert hydrogen into electricity through fuel cells, which then power electric motors, may be more practical.

The European Commission has identified the technology as particularly promising because Europe has been leading the way in its development. In 2008, the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking was established to devise and implement a research and development programme, with a total budget of €940 million up to 2013, of which 50% is to come from the EU and the other half from the private sector. So far, the programme has funded close to 100 projects.

“With hydrogen, you get the same green advantages of a battery electric vehicle, but in addition you get the autonomy and comfort of using the former internal combustion engine vehicle,” says Pierre-Etienne Franc, chairman of the joint undertaking. “You can go 500km-600km with hydrogen, and the recharging time is the same as petrol – 3-5 minutes.”

But hydrogen is at a significant disadvantage compared with electricity: it lacks the infrastructure. “You cannot plug your hydrogen car in at home. So for deployment we need infrastructure, but for infrastructure we need vehicles on the roads. It is a chicken-and-egg situation.”

The infrastructure will not be cheap. Hydrogen must be generated, often by thermochemical methods using fossil fuel. It must then be transported to filling stations through pipelines or by lorry. The industry estimates that €1.8 billion will be needed between 2014 and 2020 to develop this infrastructure, an initial investment cost too great for the private sector to bear alone, considering the risks.

“If we do not get long-term support from public institutions and partnership between the different actors in the sector, then it won’t work,” says Franc. “Companies would let their competitor build the infrastructure at a loss, and then they would use it.”

Alternative fuels

Petrol and diesel are not the only substances that can fuel a combustion engine. Other fuels are being developed that can do so without causing the same emissions. But these have been fraught with controversy. Many of these substances – such as hydrogen, liquid nitrogen and liquefied petroleum gas – often have to be generated from fossil fuel, prompting questions about whether the reduction in emissions is any more than marginal.

Biofuel, made from agricultural crops, has also been accused of causing more emissions than it saves because of the indirect land use change (ILUC) it can cause.

Biofuel was all the rage five years ago. In 2007, the Commission set a target for 10% of transport fuel to be fuelled from renewable sources such as biofuel. Investment in biofuel was also supposed to be encouraged by the requirement in the fuel-quality directive that suppliers reduce the greenhouse-gas intensity of their fuels by 6% by 2020.

But over the past few years, studies have shown that the ILUC caused by many biofuel types – particularly biodiesel and palm oil – could actually increase emissions. The Commission has been hesitant to withdraw support for something it had previously championed.

However, biofuel does exist that has been shown to avoid significant ILUC effects – so-called ‘second-generation’ biofuel. Several types are under development, such as cellulosic ethanol, algae fuel and biomethanol.

“The new processes seek to maximise energy savings by using every bit of the plant,” says Philippe Tillous-Borde, director-general of French biofuel company Sofiproteol. “And yet hard data on the energy efficiency gains of these new generation biofuels still needs to be collected. Their production processes are still under development and these biofuels will not become an economic reality on an industrial scale before 2020-25.”

New vehicle designs

The average passenger car of the future should be lighter, smaller and fulfil a more specialised function, the Commission says in its white paper. Curbing mobility is not an option, it emphasises. But consumers should be discouraged from buying cars that are too large or too fast for their needs. In the end, the price of petrol may make that decision for them. Increased efficiency of vehicles is low-hanging fruit that manufacturers can grab in the short term, and design improvements to decrease fuel use are being developed as never before. Much of the focus has been on moving from metal to plastic.

At the International Motor Show in Frankfurt in September 2011, German car-maker Daimler and German chemical company BASF unveiled the ‘Smart Forvision’ concept vehicle.

It uses lighter-weight plastic components instead of metal, has solar-roof panels capable of complementing the vehicle’s electricity supply, and features the first-ever all-plastic wheels suitable for production.

It also has a temperature management system that reduces the need for heating and air-conditioning by using polymer films in the windows to reflect thermal radiation.

Source: European Voice


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