View from Brussels: Killing the engine slowly

The European Union has decided to kill the internal combustion engine by signing up to new laws that spell the end for petrol and diesel vehicles. Or has it? Unsurprisingly, the story is far more complex than it first appears.

One of the more controversial parts of the EU’s Green Deal includes rules that will slash greenhouse gas emissions produced by road transport and clean up all the other pollutants that driving creates.

This means that by 2035, sales of new cars and vans will have to be zero-emission. This ostensibly opens the door for full-blown adoption of battery-electric mobility in order to stick to the new rules.

In addition to that, the European Commission laid out its plans earlier this month for a new engine standards regime, which would also govern pollutants created by braking and tyre wear.

But there are, of course, loopholes, some of which still need to be written. The Commission has to publish new methodology on how to measure the life-cycle emissions of vehicles by 2025, for example.

More importantly, there will be a review period in the middle of the decade which will essentially give the less-cooperative members of the auto industry a second chance to have a go at influencing the toughness of the targets.

In a final deal agreed by national governments and the European Parliament, there is a vague additional paragraph about allowing ‘e-fuels’ – fuels made using green electricity and waste CO2, which work in existing engines – in certain vehicles like ambulances and company cars.

Negotiators insist this was only included to placate Germany and is non-binding so does not qualify as a proper loophole. But with the review period and crafty government officials in the mix, e-fuels could yet emerge as a problematic bone of contention.

Clean mobility advocates say that e-fuels are too expensive, soak up too much renewable energy and still add CO2 into the atmosphere, albeit in net rather than absolute quantities.

One MEP that wanted less strict goals for carmakers said that the new rules will lead to a ‘Havana effect’ in Europe, as motorists hang on to vehicles for longer, put off by the supposed extra costs of electric mobility.

Consumer groups point out that total cost of ownership is in many cases cheaper for electric cars, although the recent increase in electricity prices, triggered by the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine, does complicate matters depending on where you recharge your batteries.

Internal combustion engines will, therefore, not be illegal in 2035, a simple fact that the auto industry is counting on as it plots its business strategies for the coming decade. That is a state of affairs that is not lost on the world of motorsport either.

Formula One, the world’s premier racing division, recently toyed with the idea of switching from the current hybrid powertrains to something more radical like hydrogen or even full electric power.

The existence of Formula E, an all-electric division that has been competing for a number of seasons, snuffed out the potential for F1 to ditch fuels altogether, while there is simply not enough appetite for hydrogen in the road transport sector.

Instead, the sport’s governing body decided that the cars will run on 100 per cent renewable fuels as of 2026. This has convinced auto giants Audi and Porsche, two Volkswagen subsidiaries, to join the series with full factory entries by that date.

That has already prompted industry leaders involved with the sport like Shell, Total and Petronas to ramp up their development of high-performance fuels, synthesised in a lab using carbon dioxide as a raw material.

The sport currently uses a blend of 10 per cent sustainable ethanol, similar to what is available in petrol stations across much of Europe. The idea is that these next-gen e-fuels will also be compatible with normal road cars.

In MotoGP too, the motorcycle world’s equivalent of F1, engines are not going anywhere, but are evolving. Even though not covered by the EU’s recent raft of new rules, motorbikes will still be subject to tougher regulations eventually.

Your E&T columnist made the trip to Valencia at the beginning of November to see the final round of the MotoGP championship, which was notable for two reasons: first, Ducati’s 15-year-long wait for a winner was finally broken as Italy’s Pecco Bagnaia became the new world champion, giving Ducati their first title since 2007.

Second, Spain’s Marc Marquez tested his Honda bike using a tank of renewable fuel provided by Repsol, the team’s sponsor, in what was just a taste of the sport's future.

According to MotoGP’s plans, teams will have to use a blend of 40 per cent non-fossil fuel by 2024. By 2027, the fuels will have to be completely non-fossil. At this particular test, an advanced biofuel produced from waste residues was used.

“I felt good and I didn't notice a difference when using the biofuel,” former world champion Marquez said after completing his laps, adding that one of the main factors top riders look for is smoothness under acceleration. The Repsol product reportedly delivered that.

Whether MotoGP teams will all use advanced biofuels or also go down the e-fuels route remains to be seen. The premier class of biking also intends for its experiments to help the commercial sector in any case.

Repsol aims to cater for both options in the coming years. In 2023, it will open up an advanced biofuels plant that will produce 250,000 tonnes of fuel. A year later, a synthetic fuel plant in Bilbao will begin operating in an initial demonstration phase.

The firm’s ultimate goal of producing two million tonnes of renewable fuels by 2030 could well be within reach, especially if a global motorsport watched by millions every other weekend creates the expected demand for its new products.

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