The beginning of the end for the infernal combustion engine

By Greg Archer, clean vehicles director

WHAT WE LEARNED IN 2016: After many false dawns, 2016 is the year electric cars showed they are on a path to rapidly replacing the infernal combustion engine. There are now more than half a million battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on Europe’s roads, and annual sales are expected to top 1.5% of the market for the first time. While the figures are modest, Dieselgate has created an EV earthquake, shaking carmakers from their complacency.

The Paris Motor Show was a turning point. Volkswagen launched its “revolutionary” I.D concept and announced it aspired to a quarter of its sales being electric by 2025. Mercedes launched an equivalent Generation EQ concept range, announcing it was “flipping the switch”, which was backed up with an €11 billion investment. Opel confirmed the launch of the 300km range Ampera-e; Renault and BMW announced upgrades of the Zoe and i3, both with significantly longer ranges; and Renault commented: “Our vision of the electric market is that it is not a niche market.” Also, around a quarter of Mitsubishi sales can be plugged in and 7% of Porsche’s.

The U-turn in European carmakers’ attitude has resulted from a combination of market, technology and policy changes. Dieselgate has brought about much needed realism that outside Europe the tiny 5% share of new diesel cars will in the future decline, not grow. In Europe, the scandal is stiffening the resolve of regulators to effectively enforce better tests that commence in 2017. Several countries, including France, are also increasing fuel excise duties and cities are proposing to ban or charge diesels or all combustion cars. UBS shockingly forecast diesel sales will fall to just 10% of the market by 2025 from 50% today.

The astonishing fall in the price of battery packs is now creating strong competition between electric and combustion-engine vehicles that will come to market in the early 2020s. Meanwhile the remarkable 400,000 pre-sales of the new Tesla Model 3 illustrates real consumer demand. In China, now the world’s biggest electric vehicle market, a new electric vehicle mandate to start in 2018 makes it imperative for all manufacturers to be successful in this expanding and increasingly competitive market. The Commission also announced it was looking at a future electric car mandate.

The success of the Paris climate talks and Europe’s 30% non-ETS target makes a rapid tightening of car CO2 emissions limits inevitable – along with the phase-out of fossil fuels.  Even Germany, home of the big diesel engine makers, plans to cut transport emissions by 40% by 2030 and has announced a support programme for electric cars. The Commission’s excellent Low-Emission Mobility Strategy confirmed the future will be electric and there will be a new car CO2 target for the mid-2020s, which should be finalised in the third quarter of 2017. Perhaps the negotiations on the next target will prove less confrontational than the last? Or perhaps not!