Beginning of the end for the infernal combustion engine?

This blog post was originally published as an opinion article by Politico

After many false dawns the electric car is finally on a trajectory to replace the internal combustion engine.

A recent report by Transport & Environment shows that by the end of the year there will be more than half a million battery, electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on Europe’s roads; and sales this year should account for 1.5 percent of the market. On the surface, the figures are modest but dig deeper and the electric vehicle (EV) earthquake is finally shaking carmakers from their complacency.

The Paris Motor Show in October may well be remembered as a seminal moment.

Volkswagen launched its I.D. concept car, which is set for production in 2020 and will have an electric range of at least 400 kilometers. Herbert Diess, head of the VW brand, described the car as “revolutionary,” comparing its impact on the brand’s history to the Beetle or the Golf. This followed an earlier announcement that the VW Group aspires to get a quarter of its sales from electric by 2025 and is planning 20 models.

Mercedes launched an equivalent Generation EQ concept car that will become a new sub-brand with at least 10 plug-in models. Dieter Zetsche, its CEO, announced: “We’re now flipping the switch … ready for the launch of an electric product offensive that will cover all vehicle segments, from the compact to the luxury class.”

In other announcements, Opel unveiled the Ampera-e (a European clone of the Chevrolet Bolt); and Renault and BMW detailed upgrades of the Zoe and i3 respectively, with Renault commenting: “Our vision of the electric market is that it is not a niche market.”

So why are carmakers finally changing their attitude? Four recent developments have been particularly important in triggering action:

  • The rapid growth in EV sales in China, which is now the world’s biggest market and dominated by national manufacturers. Non-Chinese carmakers are desperate to succeed in this expanding market and terrified their Chinese competitors, like BYD, will soon be successfully exporting to Europe;
  • The astonishing fall in the price of battery packs to around $150 per kilowatt hour, a level which makes EVs competitive with conventional vehicles. Also, it is possible to produce affordable EVs with ranges of over the psychologically important 300 kilometer range;
  • The success of the Paris climate talks is driving a progressive tightening of car CO2 emissions limits around the world, inevitably leading to a gradual phase out of fossil fuels. This has been hastened by the dieselgate scandal and the realization that the rest of the world will not be tricked into using diesel as a way to artificially reduce CO2 emissions as Europe did;
  • The remarkable pre-sales of the new Tesla Model 3 — a car for which 400,000 drivers put down $1,000 each without even sitting in it. Suddenly even German premium carmakers recognized that a true market exists that they needed to supply it.

Fears that electric cars will decimate the value of the important European automotive sector also appear to be unfounded. VW has outlined plans for a €10 billion battery factory; Samsung SDI is to invest €320 million to build an electric-vehicle battery plant in Hungary; meanwhile LG Chem is reported to be planning a factory in Wrocław, Poland. Independent studies estimate that the shift will create between 500,000 and 1 million jobs by 2030.

Electric cars are not a panacea but together with e-bikes, electric scooters, trains and trams, they will provide the opportunity for a cleaner, greener mobility future that assigns dirty diesel cars and trains, which choke cities and commuters, to the scrapyard of obsolescence. It is no longer a question of whether this happens — but how quickly.

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Geoff Chown's picture


Can't happen fast enough for me. Really respect Mate Rimac the Croation engineer who has pioneered the tech and as he says, with cars being used for 5% of the time, utilitarian transport is inevitable, especially in urban areas. So if commuter and consumer traffic goes electric and self drive cars vastly reducing the need for second cars, the roads look set to clear. Can't wait. The population will become self regulating at 9bn thanks to an average of two children per couple and two thirds of the population will live in cities, so driving will become a pleasure and not threatening to our and the planets existence.

Christopher Smith's picture


It would be better if the Electric transport would be Hydrogen cars. As they only take 5 minutes to fill up and they already can range of over 400 kilometers.

Peter's picture


Hydrogen looks good on paper but is horrible in practise. Very low efficiency well to wheel with high costs to manufacture, store & transport. Batteries are far better but at the moment slower to charge about 30 minutes to 80% charge.

Christopher Smith's picture


You forget that lithium battery explode as well.
Hydrogen can be produced when the sun is shinning and the wind blowing and then either used to produce electricity or sold to run cars, trucks or trains.
Once Hydrogen stations become more common then hydrogen cars will be become as popular as hybrid cars now.
Like there is petrol and diesels cars now I can see hydrogen cars and battery cars in the future.

Otherguy's picture


Nonsense! Fuel cell vehicles will just take longer to penetrate the market. Hydrogen (and maybe oxygen) from electrolysis (solar, offshore wind, & hydro) is the best, cleanest, most efficient way to STORE power. Lithium, difficult and dangerous to process, resources might become an issue for batteries despite recent discoveries in E. Africa, but non-noble metal fuel cell electrodes will win out.
Contrary to popular mythology, hydrogen is not 'dangerous'. It was the kerosene that burnt passengers to death on the Hindenburg whilst the hydrogen burnt harmlessly half-a-mile up after the plastic skin was ignited by a lightning strike. It wasn't the fuel cell that exploded on Apollo 13 . It was the grease that a technician used on the greaseless tap in the oxygen line that caused the problem.
Hydrogen gives vehicles range and is the universal fuel.

Markus Doessegger's picture


Every one of us lives in a house, that has power for e.g. light, fridge, washing machines etc. I recharge my Tesla Roadster up to a range of 420 km during the night while sleeping and/or enjoying life. No time loss to exchange hydrogen containers or waiting time to recharge at a public charging station. Why invest billions in a hydrigen grid for low energy efficient hydrogen power ? Elon Musk is right, why on earth would somebody to that. The electric power grid already exisits and is relieable.

Steve's picture


All the problems of EV are quickly being solved. If Hydrogen ever took off it would mean the Oil companies would still be selling you stuff at the pumps. With electric, the sun is the biggest nuclear reactor we will ever have - all we need to do is collect it with solar panels and efficiently transfer it to cars. The process is already irreversible. The floodgates are about to open and the oil companies are going down.

David's picture


100 years ago a petrol car would have taken several days and many stops at Blacksmiths to do that journey, using small metal petrol cans.

Already a Tesla can almost do that journey in one go. In 5 years, many electric cars will be able to do this autonomously at an affordable price. The rest would just stop for a quick charge en-route.

Erv's picture


30 minutes about the time it takes to eat dinner on the road

Henry's picture


How often would you stop in a petrol car on a 400 mile journey?
Twice? or 3 times?

David Farrell's picture


I drive approximately 900 miles a week, and stopping every 200 miles or so is not an option.
There are thousands of people in the UK doing this sort of mileage, mainly due to business reasons none of which can be done via a computer, not for the foreseeable future. I also live in the country, and this is by choice, also along with millions of other people. I don't think that this has been thought through at all, fully electric vehicles that are practical are a long way off.

Cal's picture


Maybe electric is not for you but hybrid technology could be your answer currently. However not stopping after 3 hours of driving sounds pretty dangerous to me. Some people would contend you're as dangerous as someone a little bit over the drink limit due to fatigue. I very much doubt there are millions that do this, I would suspect you are in a very small minority.

On a 400 mile journey I stop twice for between 30-40 minutes for a pee and coffee on one of them have some food. I could change it to once, but I feel so much more alert and attentive for the two.

If you are doing it in one go then I really hope I'm not on the same road - and about five or six hours without a pee doesn't even sound like you're telling the truth. Also I can't believe that for a six hour journey you can't add 10% of time for a safety break.

Fully electric vehicles that are practical are here now, for most people, but you have to look beyond your own nose to see it.

Kevin Richardson's picture


Probably twice at todays rates but things are getting better. You would set off in your electric car and before it runs out you pull into a motorway services that you know has a charger. You plug in then go for your dinner. When you've done you pick your car up fully charged and carry on. Later on your journey you pull up in a services plug in a gain and have your tea simples.

Foppo Leeuwerke's picture


Let's have this technology moving quick.Our city's and towns are becoming polluting pits.Also far to many cars on the road two and three car owners is the norm.Parking wars between neighbours we need less not more.It is the end of Diesel cars on our roads soon they will be outpriced.

lester viner's picture


Its a no brainer.... Hydrogen is a bad idea.... to costly to produce in any meaningful quantity,
highly explosive, has to be stored at high pressure to be fluid.. etc,etc.
The sun Will save us all..... Ahimsa

Keith Lawes's picture


At the moment with our largely fossil fuelled grid supply, electric vehicles are transferred emissions rather than zero emissions. Does anyone have a figure for the kWhrs of fuel burnt per kWhr in the car's battery?
Obviously concentrates any emissions in a few places (i.e. the power stations) which means they can be dealt with. Also if renewables become a greater percentage and/or fusion becomes a reality then a true zero emissions vehicle is then possible. But at the moment do they really let out less CO2 in total per km travelled??

Joe Atiyah's picture


Yes, recent studies how that electric vehicles currently are responsible for much less CO2 than ICVs. And people like myself will use solar panels on their house to charge EVs. And solar and wind are rapidly replacing coal.

Adrian Hook's picture


It's funny my trusty 16 yr old diesel has passed every M.O.T. every year without a mention of any problems with emissions. It;s going for an M.O.T. at the end of this month and it will pass again. And next year it will pass again. So hang on, i'm supposed to get rid of it and put myself in debt to buy an electric thing and then have to spend x amount on battery rental which works out more expensive than filling my tank every month. Not to mention the inevitable price hikes on electricity. Plus i live in a terrace house so where would i plug a car in ? out through the living room window across the pavement perhaps. No thanks i will just stick to my perfectly legal and economical normal car. And if i am banned from London? oh well it's just another reason not to go to London.

Michael Green's picture


Quite right, not all diesel are a problem, EURO 5 and EURO 6, diesel are ok, and if properly maintained, will always be OK, Electric cars still have a long way to go before they become viable for all

Dr. Jonathan Crinion's picture


Electric cars are simply moving the environmental problem elsewhere. The increase in electrical consumption will require a proportionally massive increase of electrical production. Shall we cover Earth with solar panels, build hundreds of nuclear power stations, coal burning stations, hydro dams etc... Then we have the battery disposal problem - imagine hundreds of millions of batteries... Where will all the copper come from for the motors, shall we invade more countries to now steal their copper. The real issue is an urban planning one, we need to live closer to where we work so we can walk or ride a bike, it's a design issue as we can now ship computer files rather than products and make things locally. and if we really still need transportation we can use compressed air engines that simply use 'air'. Cars are a thing of the past and as Deleuze suggests we need to lose sight of form as an intent and focus instead on the milieu.

John Hedderly's picture


1. Don't 'dispose' of batteries. Recycle them.
2. Aluminium is increasingly being used as an electrical conductor.
2. Where does the energy needed to compress the air come from?

Henry's picture


1. Until EV's come down to an affordable price people will not change for economic reasons.
2, All Diesel and petrol engines pollute the environment.
This particularly effects young children, and in big cities it is a big problem.
3. The Electricity controllers say that charging your cares in the future will have little affect on the grid.
Particularly as most people will charge at home, at night.
nearly 50% of our electric supply is provided by Non-coal stations.
This will increase rapidly as Solar farms and wind power increase - which it is doing.
4. It will be another 5 to 10 years before EV's are attractive, price wise.
In the meantime, people will drive what they have, which is only fair.
5. We are all in this together and don't need to defend our position.
Things are improving all the time!

David's picture


I am all in favour of more EV's and public EV charge points, including EV car clubs, but I do not want a land scape covered in wind turbines. I think our government in the UK and especially in Scotland are driving an unsustainable increase in wind farms as the chosen alternative environmental acceptable policy. Is there not a way that promoting EV ownership can be linked to subsidies for solar panels. They are far less environmentally obtrusive. Then the EV driver can charge up, mostly from 100% clean power that they produce at home themselves and go for a drive in a landscape that is not full of whirling turbines.

Mark Wilson's picture


I chose my car carefully, I live in a rural area do quite high mileage and when I have to drive into London or a busy town, I use my well loved petrol Renault Clio. Euro 6 diesels are very clean and I could drive my 2 litre twin turbo BMW X125 top of the range Sport, bet you're all jealous, into London without penalty but would never do so. City driving is not good for diesel engines as it clogs up the Diesel Particulate Filter.

New diesels are naturally low in Co2 emissions and many are lower on NOx than petrol cars. Euro 6 specifies 80 mgs (down from 180 mgs) of nox per km for Diesel and 60mgs for Petrol. My Diesel is 50mgs. Also, it has a Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) which burns the soot/particulate matter into a fine ash that doesn't enter the atmosphere. I also get up to 45 miles to the gallon not bad for a high performance car!

I have driven several Electric Cars and think they are great, instant reponse and unbelievably quiet. However, they do not have the range of my Diesel and the infrastructure, i.e. charging stations at every garage and service station, is a long way off. Electric Cars are presently very expensive and new batteries when they go, after about 5 or 6 years apparently, cost an arm and a leg. Also, of course, electricity comes from Power Stations 70% of which operate on fossil fuel, coal and gas. So, if every car in the UK became electric tomorrow, there would be a greenhouse catastrophe!

Don't tar all diesels with the same brush and, make no mistake, the old polluting ones should be taken off the roads. Get rid of your polluting petrol car and go with a Euro 6 Diesel until such time a manufacturer comes up with an affordable electric car that can give distance driving and performance to match mine. I will buy it!

Martin's picture


I notice that the game changing 'Graphene's impact on the electric car - and battery power in general - market is being ignored. take a cool look at the future when Graphene is on the market.

John Osborn's picture


I did a calculation. If every car in this country was electric and they were all on charge. It would take the entire consumption of the American power output that is about four times our output. I will admit I could be out on the calculation.
It is another con. I would also like to know where all the scrap batteries are going to go. As too emissions about 34 per cent of power stations are still coal fired. It's a bigger con than diesel. I drive a diesel and will continue to do so. Most of my journeys are fairly long distances. I think Hydrogen or clockwork is the answer.

Cal's picture


The average number of miles a day that motorist do is about 30 miles - so that's how much you need to charge on average per day. Say that takes one hour at 7kW.

Now if the vast majority of cars have a timer that charges them at a random time between 12am and 7am (with Economy 7 tariff reintroduced) , each car will need an average of 1kW per hour over that period.

Say there are 21m electic cars, that would be like 21m households putting on a microwave, OR a kettle, OR a washing machine, etc, at the one time, at a time when most people are asleep.

I think the grid will be able cope especially as they have quite a while to adapt to this level.

Of course with solar panels becoming much cheaper and more attractive, that will have a positive impact too.


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About the author

Greg Archer's picture

Director, UK