Beyond the electric car, the combustion engine is doomed to disappear

A pandemic, natural disasters, wars, any global event is associated with a disruption in the supply chain of industries causing a series of chain crises in all economic sectors. This reality is a real conviction for the combustion engine, regardless of the fuel it burns and whether the electrification of the car is more or less vertiginous.

If every country had a local car manufacturer, whose supply chain was isolated and only dependent on within its borders, things could be different. Interest and local laws may apply to keep businesses active. This happens in North Korea, in Iran and, perhaps, shortly in Russia. But the rest of the countries depend on external manufacturers whose headquarters are in United States, Europe, Japan, China or South Korear. They are the ones who make the decisions about the type of vehicle they will sell in most of the world.

The exception to this rule may be India. With over a billion people and their own manufacturers (Tata and Mahindra), they could decide to keep combustion engines alive in their home market and expand to countries where buyers can’t afford an electric vehicle. However, this decision depends on if developing them is economically viable and that will only happen if enough product is sold. A affordable price it is the main argument to keep combustion engines afloat, but it is not enough.

Although manufacturers are mainly located in five regions, only three of them are the ones that really decide the direction of the automotive industry: China, USA and Europe. Japan and South Korea have big automakers, some of them quite averse to electric vehicles at their current stage, but they don’t have the enough domestic demand so that their companies can remain only indoors. Most of its business is in export or local production in one of those three decisive regions.

Each Spanish city must host a low emissions zone, according to the T&E request
In some cities, even the cleanest burning engine vehicles are not allowed to circulate in some closed areas.

Although there are those who prefer to consider them as equals, the relevance between these three regions is very unbalanced. Although some people expect Chinese electric cars to invade other markets, they really don’t need it. China is the country where more vehicles are sold in the worldwith a growth rate that the other two regions cannot match.

The rest of the markets will see Chinese cars arrive, but, in general, this is not really the priority of these manufacturers because they already have most of their customers within their borders. An example of this Chinese influence is how BMW decided grow the front grill of your cars adapting to the taste of Chinese customers, while Americans and Europeans have to put up with a design that is not to their taste. This decision shows how important China is today in the automobile industry.

In short, in this scenario, what customers decide to buy in these three regions is what the rest will receive sooner or later. Since the main car manufacturers focus on selling in them, their product will be directed to what is demanded there. Bad news for combustion engines since the three regions are convinced of its disappearance and its complete replacement by electric vehicles.

These are a priority there for two reasons. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and oil scarcity. Human activity emits massive loads of carbon, methane and other gases and pollutants that increase the greenhouse effect. Most of these emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels, which have limited reserves. That’s why, before the electric revolution, the automotive industry was already looking for alternatives because oil will not last forever.

The risk that the oil fields will be depleted has been added to the concern of governments about the quality of the air in large cities, especially among those who defend and manage universal health systems. The effects of pollution on its inhabitants healthcare costs rise. Thus, China sought the solution in the vehicles it called NEVs (New Energy Vehicles) with the aim of cleaning the air in its large megalopolises and preventing respiratory problems in the population.

It is a big mistake to pretend that the demonization of combustion engines only has to do with carbon emissions, although some of its defenders want to spread this fact as an absolute truth. According to Karl Haeusgen, president of the VDMA (German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association), the problem is fossil fuels. But it’s not like that. Any engine that does not use this type of fuel will also emit nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, ozone and other pollutants because they are intrinsically related to their operation, regardless of the fuel that powers them, including hydrogen.

Inevitable disappearance internal-combustion engines2
Any engine that does not use gasoline or diesel will also emit nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, ozone and other pollutants because they are intrinsically related to its operation, regardless of the fuel that powers them, including hydrogen.

What governments needed was a viable alternative. When Tesla started selling the Roadster and Nissan brought the Leaf into production en masse it was shown that manufacturers could develop and sell battery-powered vehicles. Before, the alternative was fuel cells because it was not foreseeable that buyers would not accept low autonomies, high weights and, above all, spend a lot of time charging their cars. However, many trusted that it was the solution in the hope that technological advances will improve things, as fortunately has happened.

Concerns about global warming, the pollution risks posed by combustion engines, and protests against traditional cars led politicians to create legislation that slowly rendered the combustion engine impractical by highlighting its obsolete status. They only made sense by fulfilling increasingly difficult and eventually impossible requirements. Now, in some cities, even the cleanest burning engine vehicles are not allowed to circulate in some closed areas. You can only enter there with an electric car.

Combustion engines need a great investment for its development. That explains why some of them are already decades old. Automakers have to pay off that investment by using them for as long as possible. The emission rules make them more expensive.

Carburetors were replaced with fuel injection systems to make engines cleaner. To meet legal requirements, they needed catalysts, EGR, sensors, particulate filters and many other components. The investment is completed with processes to reduce weight and increase aerodynamics, seeking vehicle efficiency. Finally, logic makes it better to put an electric motor and power it from a battery.

While richer countries and regions will phase out the combustion engine between 2035 and 2040, their supporters hoped that developing countries would keep them alive. But this what is happening nor what will happen. Some manufacturers are closing factories in countries like India or Brazil. And those who don’t want to ditch their investments in these countries are looking for alternatives as a temporary patch by relying on alternative fuels like ethanol.

Inevitable disappearance internal-combustion engines1
Combustion engines require a large investment to develop, which explains why some of them are decades old.

All manufacturers are moving towards dedicated electrical architectures. That makes it very difficult for local chapters in emerging countries to develop new engines or convince local governments to relax the legal requirements of current ones so they can survive. Some of these countries used to have engineering centers, but most have already been closed or relocated to China, the United States or Europe. Those who remain active will have to justify their investments in markets whose size may not be worth.

To make matters worse, these local chapters can’t handle everything on their own. To keep selling motors, they need suppliers that maintain a large enough market. But those who make spark plugs, cables, pistons, valves, belts and other components they are also looking to diversify their product. They look for alternatives in the market (electric) and will stop manufacturing those products that do not have enough demand. Either that, or the price of these components will increase due to lower production, making combustion engines more expensive. And then the reason for its existence, its affordability, will be gone.

This scenario shows difficult it will be to extend the useful life of current engines anywhere in the world. The final blow is that many of the local divisions of manufacturers do not survive solely on domestic demand from emerging countries. Most are also export platforms to richer markets that no longer want combustion engines.

What engineers are doing to keep combustion engines in production can be called amazing, but there’s nothing you can do to convince customers to buy them. Furthermore, any increase in fuel prices pushes more people towards electric vehicles. This is a reality that all manufacturers must accept to be able to prepare as soon and as well as possible for the inevitable.

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