Gasoline engines poised to gain share in Europe
New emissions rules expected to hit diesels
Despite all the hoopla over electric cars and fuel cells, gasoline-powered vehicles will be the key powertrain for automakers that must meet the European Union's tough emission standards.
That's because a lack of government support for crucial infrastructure – such as roadside charging stations – is hampering automakers' efforts to market electric cars. Likewise, fuel cell vehicles can't play much of a role since the region lacks hydrogen refueling stations.
Diesel? Right now it's Europe's dominant powertrain, accounting for 60 percent of light-vehicle sales last year. But diesels will be tightly regulated by new Euro 6 emissions standards, which will start to take effect in September 2014.
No EV infrastructure
Automakers selling in the European Union have to average 130g/km of CO2 for all new vehicles they sell in 2015.
Regulators are considering further cuts to 95g/km by 2020.
With such tough standards looming, automakers want to introduce electric cars and vehicles powered by fuel cells. But government investment in EV charging stations and hydrogen fuel pumps is lagging.
"The infrastructure rollout has been slower than we hoped," Colin Dodge, Nissan's top executive in Europe, told Automotive News Europe. "Government support is waning because of the [poor] economy everywhere [therefore] they find it a little more difficult to justify."
Dodge attributed disappointing sales of the Nissan Leaf EV to potential customers who were concerned by the scarcity of recharging stations. "Most of it is because they hesitate on infrastructure," Dodge said.
Vehicles powered by fuel cells will suffer a similar lack of refueling stations, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche told journalists in September. He said Mercedes-Benz would launch a production fuel cell vehicle in 2014, a year earlier than originally planned. "The technology is ready," Zetsche said. "The issue is infrastructure."
The problem is that oil companies are not in a hurry to install hydrogen tanks and fuel pumps in their fuel stations.
That's one reason why electric cars and fuel cell vehicles won't have much impact on the internal combustion engine, according to the European suppliers association, CLEPA.
Europe's most popular auto fuel – diesel – could be threatened by looming regulations that will tightly limit emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, a key ingredient of smog.
Diesels accounted for 60 percent of Europe's passenger vehicle sales last year, up from 20 percent in 1990. But their cost will rise as automakers are forced to reduce NOx emissions to 80 milligrams per kilometer from 180mg/km.
"If you look at the cost of diesel after-treatment, you're seeing a more severe penalty as the emissions legislation gets tighter," said Tim Winstanley, powertrain manager at Ford of Europe.
Automakers can choose among a number of technologies – all relatively expensive – to reduce NOx levels.
"The long-term fate of diesel engines in Europe depends on where those emissions standards settle in," said Michael Ableson, head of engineering at General Motors subsidiary Opel/Vauxhall. "That will affect the material cost of the powertrain."
That's why diesels are expected to lose market share from 2015 to 2020, according to IHS Automotive.
"Overall, we're looking at a 4 to 5 percent reduction in diesel" compared with gasoline engines," said IHS senior powertrain analyst Marc Rinkel.
Automakers will produce more gasoline engines because the emissions technology will cost less. Ford's Winstanley said gasoline is "quite a lot easier to get through Euro 6."
A key result of Renault’s efforts to downsize its engines is the new three-cylinder, 12-valve Energy TCe 90 that uses just 4.3 liter of gasoline per 100km and emits 99g/km of CO2.
Small is beautiful
To make gasoline engines more efficient without sacrificing performance, automakers are designing smaller engines equipped with turbochargers and direct injection.
"There are clear incentives for automakers to push direct-injection turbos because they are more profitable, they cost less and offer closer and closer CO2 performance [to diesel]," Rinkel said.
Ford followed this strategy with its EcoBoost engines. The automaker says its new three-cylinder 1.0-liter turbocharged gasoline direct-injection engine accounted for 30 percent of Focus sales this year.
Ford also will use the engine in its B-Max and larger C-Max minivans.
The 1.0-liter turbo will replace Ford's 1.6-liter naturally aspirated engine in the seven-seat Grand C-Max. With it, the Grand C-Max will generate 119g/km of carbon dioxide.
Other automakers are following the same strategy. Opel has announced a family of turbocharged gasoline engines starting with a three-cylinder 1.0-liter unit due in 2014.
Renault has introduced a three-cylinder 900cc turbocharged gasoline engine in the Clio, and Fiat commercialized a two-cylinder turbo in its TwinAir versions of the 500 and Panda minicars.
In fact, 20 of the top 25 automakers selling in Europe have decreased their average engine displacement since 2006, according to JATO Dynamics. Only Mini, Dacia, Chevrolet, Citroen and Mitsubishi have bucked the downsizing trend.
EVs and hybrids
The rising cost of oil could tip the economic balance in favor of hybrid-powered vehicles, says Ford's Winstanley.
"If your diesel costs are getting higher and higher, then the way to achieve the lowest fuel economy is to electrify the gasoline engines," he said.
But so-called "full" hybrids, which can run a short distance on electric power only, have been slow to catch on in Europe.
Last year, Toyota sold just 24,750 Prius gasoline-electric hybrids, according to JATO Dynamics. And in the first eight months of 2012, sales are down 8.9 percent.
However, Toyota expects that sales of its new Auris compact will be split evenly between gasoline, diesel and hybrid power-trains, and the company has launched a new plug-in Prius hybrid to exploit an emerging market for so-called PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles).
Ford will introduce a plug-in C-Max next year, while Mitsubishi will roll out a plug-in Outlander compact crossover in Europe in summer 2013. Already on sale are the Opel/Vauxhall Ampera and Chevrolet Volt.
With their limited battery range bolstered by a backup gasoline or diesel engine, plug-ins could generate global sales of 4.7 million units by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency.
The agency estimates that plug-ins would outsell pure EVs, which would generate global sales of 2.5 million units by 2020. Manufacturers would have extra incentive to promote plug-ins and EVs if European regulators approve a proposal in the 2020 legislation to offer automakers "super-credits" for selling cars that emit less than 35g/km of CO2.
For the first three years, each of the first 20,000 ultra-low emission cars sold by any automaker would count as 1.3 vehicles. That would make it considerably easier for automakers to meet their CO2 targets.
But EVs are still costly, and the lack of consumer demand makes them a risky bet for automakers.
To ease the high cost of electric cars, Renault will lease the battery pack for the Zoe subcompact EV, which debuts late this year.
"That's when we will know if battery leasing will work," said Paul Willcox, head of European sales and marketing for Nissan, Renault's alliance partner. "The biggest challenge is explaining the concept. It's a big communication job because you don't own the batteries."
Fuel cells are still in their infancy, but several European governments have committed to building a network of hydrogen fueling stations. Earlier this year, Germany announced it would build 50 stations by 2015 with the help of Daimler and other partners.
That might give a boost to fuel cells, which are getting cheaper as automakers refine the technology. The cost of fuel cells is expected fall 90 percent by 2020, according to a report published by McKinsey last year. By 2025, the total cost of ownership for a fuel cell vehicle is projected to match that of a car with a combustion engine.
During the Paris auto show, Daimler's Zetsche confirmed that fuel cells are getting cheaper. By mid-decade, fuel cells will cost about as much as diesel hybrids, he said.
At that price, fuel cells would be a niche market. By comparison, the Peugeot 508 diesel hybrid costs 39,200 euros in France ($51,400).
Other companies are developing fuel cells, too. At the Pariss show Nissan unveiled the Terra fuel cell crossover concept.
Nissan said the Terra "signals that Nissan is ready to mass-produce fuel cell electric vehicles whenever hydrogen becomes widely available."
The bottom line? There is no "silver bullet" technology that can single-handedly meet future emission standards. Automakers expect to use a variety of technologies, and they will see how the market develops.
You can reach Nick Gibbs at email@example.com.