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.

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.

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

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??

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

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About the author

Greg Archer's picture

Director, Clean Vehicles