April 24, 2009
The global economic crisis is taking its toll on what has been one of the leading industries of the 20th centuries: automobiles. For the first time since World War II it been gripped by a dramatic fall of production and profits, and the imminent prospect of insolvency of GM, the symbol of the global automobile industry throughout the last century.
In the coming 50 years, the industry will be faced with one overriding challenge: develop a viable substitute for the combustion engine which has enabled automobiles to dominate land transport.
The most likely contender for replacement is the electric engine.
The transition from the combustion to the electric engine will be a decade-long process.
It has started more than 10 years ago with the hybrid engine, developed in Japan. Hybrid engines achieve high fuel efficiency, thanks to the systematic recovery of kinetic energy when braking or descending. Hybrid engines presently dominate what presently is still a niche market. But “pure” electric engines operating on lithium-iodine batteries have begun replacing them, especially in the Far East.
An intensive research race for the most efficient battery technology is taking place. The fate of the “E-Vehicle” hinges on the quality of the battery: it must offer a free range of at least 150 km, be easily rechargeable and not be too heavy or too expensive. So far lithium-iodine batteries offer the best perspective, provided the battery-range can be enhanced to 300-400 km and the recharging time substantially shortened.
Electric engines are twice as efficient as combustion engines. They are therefore even attractive when using electricity from fossil sources. But considering that by 2050 electricity will come essentially from renewable sources or nuclear generation, the E-vehicle constitutes the optimal solution for zero-emission land transport.
Biofuels will remain a competitor for electric engines, especially for air and sea transport where the use of batteries seems difficult to envisage.
But as long as biofuels are based on grains, sugar and vegetable oils, they will need to be phased out in view of securing humanity’s food supply.
The speed of the transition process to the E-vehicle will depend on the evolution of oil prices and the rate of technological process.
The faster the trend towards higher oil prices the faster the transition towards smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles, whatever their engines. With an oil price of less than $ 100/b, the electric vehicle will have more trouble to dethrone the combustion engine. But the process seems ineluctable. According to the most optimistic forecasts E-vehicles, including hybrids, might account for up to 10 percent of global vehicle sales in 2020. That would appear to be reasonable guess.
Europe has been lagging behind these developments. It is the first time in the history of the automobile that Asian producers, in particular Japanese, Korean and most recently Chinese have been the global trend setters.
The main reasons for the Asian advance have been their superior performance with micro-electronics and battery technology, European engineers having been too focused on traditional engineering.
It is high time for European manufacturers to catch up. If they fail the centre of global automobile technology and production will rapidly move towards Asia.
Brussels, 23.04.09 Eberhard RheinAuthor : Eberhard Rhein