- The transportation industry is moving toward more efficiency, including battery-electric vehicles.
- But in many situations, battery-electric alone won't cut it.
- Insider spoke with experts about what could power our future long-haul trucks, aircraft, and ships.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
With major car markets like Canada, France, the UK, Spain, and the state of California committing to phase out diesel- and gas-powered passenger cars over the next two decades, combustion engines' days seem to be numbered. But in many situations, battery-electric vehicles alone won't cut it.
"Electricity is not everything," said Udo Rügheimer, the head of innovation and technology communications at Audi. "We need to use more renewable energy but we also need another form of energy that we could use instead when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing."
The years 2035 and 2040 are often magic numbers for places banning the sale of new combustion-engine passenger cars, creating the impression that we're moving toward a battery-electric transport industry. But there are still vehicles that will have to make use of alternative technologies, according to experts, industry figures, and government representatives who spoke with Insider from one of the hubs of the transportation industry, Germany.
A widely discussed alternative to batteries have been fuel cells, which use synthetic fuels such as hydrogen to store and produce electricity. Peter Mock, the European managing director for global research nonprofit the International Council on Clean Transportation, told Insider that due to the high costs of hydrogen, he thinks it only makes sense financially and environmentally in aviation.
Others, including Philipp Prein from Berlin-based think tank Agora Verkehrswende, believe synthetic fuels would be needed also in maritime transportation — a major global polluter, from product shipping to cruise ships.
"When it comes to maritime, the options are to keep using combustion engines or transition to fuel cells," said Klaus Bonhoff, the director general for policy issues at the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure.
The vehicles for which the future is yet undecided seem to be trucks. Prein said trucks have three possible options — battery-electric, hydrogen fuel cells, and overhead electrical cables — but developing them all would be too cost-intensive. Batteries are not the obvious choice in this case due to the significant amount of energy heavy vehicles consume and the long distances they need to cover in a short period of time — both exacerbating a modern drawback called "range anxiety," or the distance a vehicle can go between charges, which still plagues passenger cars and their owners.
At the same time, overhead cables, comparable to the ones used by trolleybuses, might not be such a far-fetched idea. Siemens first began testing the "eHighway" in 2016 in Sweden and in 2017 on a mile-long stretch in Carson, California. A six-mile stretch of the A5 Autobahn near Frankfurt has been adjusted to this technology and is in its second to last year of testing before the Germans decide on expanding the project.
Martin Lange, head of Pollution Abatement and Energy Saving in Transport at the German Environment Agency, noted overhead cables as a good alternative, but said they would require European states to reach a consensus and coordinate when building the necessary infrastructure.
As a result, the other alternative being considered for trucks and long-haul buses is hydrogen fuel cells.
From a macroeconomic perspective, Lange sees this as the most expensive solution. Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, founder of the Center for Automotive Research at Germany's University of Duisburg-Essen, however, thinks that when it comes to these heavy vehicles, fuel cells would "win the race" because they provide high efficiency and thus wouldn't require as much investment in refueling infrastructure.
"With trucks and buses, one would only need a few fueling stations along one highway," Dudenhöffer said, explaining that the heavy vehicles would be able to run for more than 310 miles in one fill-up. "Therefore, creating the infrastructure is feasible from an investment perspective as those fueling stations would also be generating a lot of traffic."
As more and more countries around Europe and the developed world are investing in the creation of hydrogen fueling stations, the undeniable leader in that infrastructural expansion continues to be Germany.
"The number of hydrogen refueling stations across Germany would soon grow to 100," Bonhoff said, adding that he predicts that by 2030, half of the trucks on the German roads would be making use of such stations. By then he also expects that we'll be seeing more SUV models using hydrogen. And that wouldn't be just in Germany, as in 2017, the International Council on Clean Transportation reported that nearly half of all fuel cell vehicles worldwide had actually been sold in California.
Bonhoff is one of the few experts who is optimistic about the role of synthetic fuels when it comes to passenger cars. Given the costs, both Prein and Dudenhöffer think EVs are the only green alternative that makes sense financially.
Tobias Austrup, who works on energy and transport policy at advocacy organization Greenpeace, added that the price of liquefied hydrogen needs to be halved before it makes sense for passenger cars — something that'll take a long time.
"The discussion about which technology will be successful in cars isn't decided yet but that is because there are some actors that are not interested in a decision," Austrup said, expressing his support for EVs. "I think, however, that this debate will be dead in one to two years."
Not all automobile manufacturers, however, are convinced that the future of passenger vehicles is purely electric. Audi's Rügheimer said the emissions from the whole life cycles of vehicles are important, which is why the brand cares how the energy for EVs is produced. The automaker currently uses renewable sources such as wind power during vehicles' production phase.
Nevertheless, Rügheimer said Audi's main market — China — is still encouraging of good combustion engines, so the company is still trying new spins on this seemingly old technology by investing heavily in making it greener and more efficient.
That strategy is shared by Mercedes-Benz's parent company, Daimler, which is working on a new generation of innovative, highly efficient gasoline and diesel engines. Even still, Daimler plans for more than half of its sales to consist of plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles by 2030.
"It is also clear that most markets around the world do not yet offer the prerequisites for the widespread use of purely electrically powered mobility," said Mona Moll, a spokesperson from Daimler. Audi agrees.
Dudenhöffer, however, sees investing in combustion engines as a purely risk-averse strategy for carmakers at this stage.
"If the other things really aren't successful, they'll have an alternative to be in business," Dudenhöffer said. "I don't think they'll invest a lot of money in that."
Daimler is pursuing its activities in the field of fuel-cell technology through a joint venture between Daimler Truck AG and Volvo Group. The companies hope joining forces will reduce development costs and accelerate the market launch of fuel-cell systems in products for heavy-duty transport and demanding long-haul operations.
"This does not in any way mean a general end to fuel cells in passenger cars," Moll said. "[But] the battery is currently superior to the fuel cell in terms of a large-volume market launch — not least in view of the still small number of hydrogen filling stations worldwide and the relatively high technology costs."
As most parts of the world still haven't created the right infrastructure to transition to battery-electric transportation, let alone one that runs on hydrogen fuel cells or with overhead cables, car manufacturers are still improving their combustion engines. With the amount of confusion and the varying needs of each vehicle type, it's difficult to stick to just one green technology that would suit everyone.
At this point it's a race — a race to achieve the highest mileage-to-costs ratio for each vehicle type. This race won't finish when there are no new sales of gas and diesel cars in a handful of countries, but it could be an incentive to put an end to some of the generated confusion.
"It's not a problem to find enough energy for combustion engines till 2050," Rügheimer said. "But that's 30 years from now. As an engineer, I cannot deal with a situation so far in the future. Everything is just a guess."