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Internal combustion engines will dominate sales for years to come

Electric vehicles have become headline news for the motor industry but technical experts in the sector agree the internal combustion engine will remain at the heart of motoring for decades yet.

Dealers can be assured that their workshops will be busy servicing petrol and diesel units heading towards the mid-point of this century, albeit those engines will be ultra fuel-efficient and many will be hybrids, the recent SMMT Automotive Summit was told.

Lightweight structures, energy storage systems and high efficiency technology will ensure the combustion engine will stick around, particularly given the high cost and limited range of full electric vehicle technology, said Richard Parry-Jones, co-chairman of the Automotive Council and former chief technical officer at Ford.

“We mustn’t forget that electric cars are far away in scale that most of the carbon savings we’re going to achieve will be from the internal combustion engine,” said Parry-Jones.

Although the UK is becoming a pioneer in electric vehicle production and use, volumes will remain small for many years and as such it will have limited impact on cutting CO2.

Projections from engineering R&D company Ricardo show that most cuts in the next two decades will come from internal combustion developments, efficient automated transmissions and weight savings.

The company’s research shows that development of conventional powertrains to halve their current CO2 emissions could increase their cost by almost 200%.

However, developing full petrol hybrid and diesel hybrid powertrains to achieve the same result could increase the cost by almost 400%.

Dave Greenwood, Ricardo’s advanced technology project director, said while electric and plug-in vehicles could meet the needs of 90% of UK journeys, these trips account for only 60% of CO2 production.

It is higher speed journeys of more than 25 miles that create a disproportionate level of CO2, and these will be the reserve of hybrid and conventional powertrains.

“Electric won’t be able to provide the utility of current powertrains for many years,” he added.

Ricardo believes the increasing diversity of powertrain choices will be a challenge for carmakers, leading to an increasing number of joint ventures and partnerships.

It predicts that some carmakers will specialise in a particular powertrain, but volume manufacturers may need to have products across all powertrains in order to offer a wide product range and sustain their market shares.

There must also be emphasis on educating customers. “People will have to be a lot more intelligent about the choice of powertrain they make to best serve their motoring requirements,” said Greenwood.

Miguel Fonseca, managing director of Toyota GB, said customers are already looking for more efficient vehicles.

“In the last 12 months we feel there has been a drive coming from our network which follows the interests of customers, and they expect us to come up with solutions more quickly and more cost effectively for low carbon vehicles,” Fonseca added. “There is definitely appetite.”

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