The auto industry is mired in a messy transition, where legal challenges, material shortages and questions about consumer demand make it difficult to plan for an emissions-free future.
“The future will be all-electric with lots of renewable energy. I’m sure of that,” Chris Atkinson, director of the Smart Mobility Initiative and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State University, told the conference. annual Automotive Futures on propulsion strategies for the 21st Century.
But no one can predict how long it will take to get to an all-electric, sustainable future, says Atkinson (photo below left)which suggests that hybrid vehicles should play a bigger role in the industry’s product plans for the next few years and that manufacturers should not give up on improving the internal combustion engine (ICE).
As automakers say they’re ready to build battery-electric vehicles, they’re using components made scarce by pandemic-disrupted supply chains for cost-effective ICE trucks and SUVs rather than zero-emissions vehicles, Atkinson says .
The just-in-time supply chain strategy was never a good idea, according to Atkinson. Automakers must now rebuild the supply chain to make it more robust as demand for critical minerals rapidly increases.
At some point in the future, the recycling industry will provide the necessary resources, thus creating a virtuous circle. But until then, the United States will have to import critical materials.
“The best use of a battery is in a hybrid,” Atkinson says, noting that hybrids reduce emissions but use smaller batteries that require smaller amounts of rare minerals.
Atkinson says a fleet of hybrid vehicles can boost fuel economy while reducing emissions, which is the critical issue in tackling climate change.
Transportation accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, but automakers are targeting a narrow slice — $50,000 and up — of the U.S. market, accounting for just 2.4 million units or 17%, Atkinson notes . By 2030, even if BEV penetration reaches 30%, including the cheapest models, the available market could be only 5.1 million out of a market of 17 million units.
If BEV’s 30% penetration forecast is even close, by 2030 there could be 40 million units of excess ICE manufacturing capacity worldwide, Atkinson adds.
Atkinson says electric vehicle charging infrastructure is fragile and the power grid will need to provide a third more power as the electric vehicle fleet expands. Even in wealthy economies, the power grid is vulnerable and not ready for widespread use of electric vehicles, he says.
Bruce Belzowski, chief executive of Automotive Futures, says manufacturers face a complicated regulatory process, which was made even more uncertain by a recent Supreme Court decision that undermined the authority of the EPA.
The Supreme Court decision doesn’t diminish the California Air Resources Board’s influence on emissions and fuel economy goals, Belzowski (photo below left) said. But he points to the shortcomings of the auto industry’s current regulatory regime and its drive for electrification.
When Administrator Obama. setting targets for reducing emissions and improving fuel economy in 2012, the assumption was that each automaker would start reducing the “footprint” — the size of the vehicles — to meet the goals, Belzowski notes. But it didn’t happen; instead, consumers continue to opt for larger vehicles, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic and changes to each company’s product lineup.
Since 2014, each automaker has grown its footprint as consumers shifted their preferences from passenger cars to trucks and utility vehicles, according to an Automotive Futures review of EPA data.
Sudhi Uppuluri, Director of Automotive and Transportation Industry, Siemens Digital Industries Software, says EV and ICE vehicle architectures are getting more and more complicated. One way to tackle complexity is to increase automation and artificial intelligence in parts of the testing process, he says.