Engine designers navigate uncharted waters on the voyage to electric drive
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Since the Benz Patent-Motorwagen first sputtered to life in 1885, the automotive revolution has been dominated by the internal combustion engine. An assortment of alternatives have poked their heads above the parapets over the years, only to be unceremoniously shot down by the immutable dominance of fossil-fueled 'suck, squeeze, bang, blow'.
But all that is changing.
With national and regional governments around the world introducing restrictions and outright bans on 'conventional' engines, this particular corner of the automotive industry, characterised by serious-minded, pragmatic mechanical engineers, is facing an existential crisis. In recent months, two major German manufacturers, Volkswagen and Daimler, have announced plans to cease investment in the development of new internal combustion engines. Just five or ten years ago, anyone predicting such a turn of events would have been shackled into the stocks of engineering heresy and smeared with diesel particulates.
We are now witnessing engineering talent being prised away from the altar of internal combustion to focus on the development of battery-electric drive, hydrogen fuel cell technologies and other forms of 'hippy, new-age' alternative propulsion. Although many commentators complain that change is not coming fast enough and that consumers still face far too many obstacles in the transition to electric mobility, the upheaval at the roots of the powertrain engineering sector is unprecedented and has caught many ICE die-hards by surprise.
The ocean-tanker-like progress of major traditional vehicle manufacturers had been under growing pressure from young, fast-moving interlopers from the digital sector for a number of years, but resistance was strong - some might say intransigent. Then the Volkswagen diesel affair happened ... and everything changed. In a strategic act of survival, the world's biggest car manufacturer opted to act decisively and throw its full weight behind the electric revolution. The wheels of this particular decision-making process were lubricated to no small degree by the political shift towards electric mobility underway in China, by far Volkswagen's biggest market. Industry analysts LMC Automotive estimate that fossil-fuelled light vehicles will account for just 48 percent of the Chinese market by 2030. By contrast, their forecast for the US still puts fossil fuels at 69 percent of the market by the same year, and in the important emerging market of India at a whopping 97 percent. The reality is, however, that the multiple variables and interdependencies make this journey extremely difficult to chart.
I have been following these developments as a columnist and service provider for many years, and have been struck by the recent shift in momentum at the engineering level. What was very much a fringe topic tolerated as a necessity to meet fleet emissions requirements has quickly moved to occupy centre stage. Mechanical engineers and thermodynamicists who have literally spent their entire adult lives working on the minutiae of powertrain development based on burning fossil fuels now find their career paths heading directly for the abyss, with the new powertrain heroes coming from the electrical, digital and chemical fields of the engineering spectrum.
In December last year, Volkswagen announced that its last family of internal combustion engines would enter production in 2026. Then, in September this year, Daimler's head of development, Markus Schäfer, told German motoring publication auto motor und sport that, having recently refreshed its car engine range, there are currently no plans to develop another, and that investment will flow instead into electrification, electric drive and battery development.
However, the internal combustion engine will not disappear overnight. These engine families will have lengthy lifecycles with multiple evolutions based on market needs and legislative frameworks that will keep engineers busy for many years. As mentioned above, it also seems likely that adoption of electric and other alternative drive systems will vary significantly across global markets. Plus, there are other areas of mobility, such as long-distance heavy goods transportation, where internal combustion will remain the only realistic solution for some time to come.
This ongoing seismic upheaval of the powertrain sector is also having the effect of making engine congresses and symposia considerably more diverse than they have ever been. Alternative forms of propulsion and new mobility topics have moved from the side rooms of these events to top the bill in the main auditoria. One of White Pine Communications' long-standing clients, Volke Kommunikations-Design, is a communications agency based in Wolfsburg - so it's not difficult to figure out who its biggest customer is. I work with Volke on some of the technical papers and keynotes delivered by engineers and senior managers at major annual engine congresses, such as the Vienna Motor Symposium in May and the Aachen Colloquium, which has just finished.
When the diesel affair erupted in 2015, the Volkswagen work crossing my desk shifted instantaneously (and not surprisingly) away from diesel combustion to petrol and, interestingly, CNG as well as the broader notion of electrification, which extends from mild hybrids all the way to full electric drive. As this tumultuous period began to gel into a new electric reality for the company under new leadership, the message presented to the engineering community in the form of technical papers and keynotes followed suit.
This year's Vienna Symposium took place just days after VW opened pre-booking of its Golf-sized ID. 3 electric car - the first production vehicle in its MEB electric offensive. Needless to say, the focus for Vienna was firmly electric. I translated the keynote delivered by member of the management board for the Volkswagen brand responsible for technical development, Dr. Frank Welsch, entitled "ID. Volkswagen - simply electric". I did likewise for other technical papers presented at the symposium: on the MEB (modular electric toolkit), on the 48 V mild-hybrid powertrain in the Golf and on its ongoing work in the field of autonomous driving.
While I am not at liberty to share those papers and presentations, this link will take you to an article on the Volkswagen Group news page outlining its participation in the Vienna Symposium.
Above left: Dr. Frank Welsch presents the VW ID.3 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Right: The MEB underpinning the ID.3. Images courtesy of Volkswagen.
For the Aachen Colloquium, Volkswagen stepped tentatively back into the more familiar world of combustion engines, albeit with a firm focus on efficiency and electrification, presenting papers (translated by White Pine Communications) on its 3-cylinder 1.0 l TSI evo and its work on maximising the efficiency of its EA211 1.5 l TSI evo for future hybrid powertrains.
For me as a writer and translator, working in-depth on these technical papers and presentations provides a fascinating and fairly detailed insight into the work involved in facilitating the transition to electric mobility. The worlds of electric drive and internal combustion are extremely disparate, and development functions within car companies are faced with the parallel tasks of ramping up electric drive while winding down and redirecting their work on internal combustion. It also all involves a high-stakes gamble in the future that that is hugely dependent upon many other challenging factors, including charging infrastructure and a reliable supply of renewable electricity.
Meanwhile, consumers are playing a waiting game. The PR fanfare surrounding electric cars may be building, but the choice of models available right now, especially at the affordable end of the mainstream market, remains thin to say the least on most markets (with the exception of China). It is clearly in the interests of vehicle makers to build as much pent-up demand as possible to ensure that their factories are kept busy once those models do come onstream. What I would say to those consumers despairing that conventional car manufacturers are merely paying lip service to the electric vehicle movement is: Take a closer look at what engineers are discussing in places like Aachen and Vienna. Examine the billions being invested in technology development and manufacturing facilities. The huge conventional manufacturers are not nimble movers and a radical change of direction takes time and a colossal amount of sustained force. But once the manoeuvre has been completed and the massive forward momentum of one or two major players starts to build, those that have been hedging their bets will fall into line and the electric mobility movement will gain traction and speed.