24 oct 22

25 years: from combustion chambers to cells and beyond

As the combustion engine left engineers with a vast horizon for improvement, the technology behind the efficient electric car plays by its own rules. So is the future for fleet vehicles about maintaining a status quo once the electric adoption is completed?   

Back in 1997, when Fleet Europe published its first issue, an expert claiming that electric drivelines would become the next big thing surely would have been wiggled away as a derailed illusionist. Back then, the only fleet of electric cars you would find was a handful of Peugeot 106 Electric models used as service vehicles in the Chunnel connecting England and France.

Probably because the electric transition isn’t a deliberate choice from the automotive manufacturers, it represents the most profound change the industry has ever faced. And by the time Fleet Europe celebrates its 50th anniversary, the combustion engine will be nothing more than a vague souvenir. The stuff you’ll witness in a museum on Sundays. Or isn’t it?

Breakthrough chemistries

From a technological point of view, the future evolution of the electric driveline is relatively easy to oversee. Already excelling in efficiency, compactness and simplicity, there are no quantum leaps scheduled for the electric motor except for stretching the bandwidth of its power delivery. In contrast, battery technology is the area where major improvements are bound to happen. The battery cell is the combustion chamber of the future.

There are countless promising breakthrough chemistries in the pipeline for battery technology. Still, as the sector always suffered from over-promising and underperforming, it is safest to assume that most of the tangible advancements for the near future concern the lithium-ion family. We mustn't forget that what happens in battery labs has a not-so-weak tendency to fail during reality checks.  

As for the near future, further improving the energy density of the lithium-ion family is capital while simultaneously lowering the price point to 100 euros per kWh, the threshold for BEVs to achieve competitiveness with internal combustion engines. Some of the more recent battery packs from leading Chinese manufacturers, like CATL and BYD, have reached that point.

Solid-state batteries

A paradigm shift is expected with the arrival of solid-state technology, which - this can’t be stressed enough - in the long run, might lower the price point to 50 euros per kWh (but will start off 15 times higher as it needs scaling first). Because of their solid electrolytes, these battery packs are half the size and much more stable when it comes to thermal and pressure management, making BEVs less prone to fire accidents.

They also do away with the many costly cooling components that current battery packs need. And they charge faster compared to snail-paced lithium-ions. Pilots between car manufacturers and developers, like Volkswagen and QuantumScape or BMW and SolidPower, speak of encouraging test results. Carmakers are beginning to picture actualisation by the end of the decade.

Another advantage of solid-state packs is that they can use widely available sodium as a chemical, steering away from the troublesome mining, refining, and supply of lithium. Estimates on how much the decarbonisation of our mobility demands of the latter vary, with the sector predicting anything from a shortage of 13% to a surplus of 17% by 2025. It depends on who you ask. There’s enough lithium but not enough investment to get it out of the ground. As EV adoption will boom, chances of a bottleneck seem granted, with subsequent pricing negatively impacting the affordability of battery-powered cars.

Hydrogen and e-fuels

But as with many technologies, innovation - or disruption in this case - isn’t necessarily about substitution rather than repartitioning. So while battery-powered vehicles catch a lot of tailwinds because they are so widely supported, the uptake or possibly low flight of hydrogen, and e-fuels in its slipstream, is just as fascinating. What size of the share will they grab?

We wouldn’t bet on H2 becoming a dominant energy carrier for fleets in Europe, but since it has such a strong resemblance to what the oil sector put in place for over a century, the appeal is palpable. It’s not a question of whether heavy-duty fleets will adopt H2 as a zero-emission solution, but rather if passenger vehicle fleets can make it work.

Outside of the museum

Odds aren’t great since green hydrogen is so inefficient in production, while R&D in faster-charging batteries is closing the gap on its main advantage: speedy refills. Mind that hydrogen cars, dispensing charging, are very suitable in urban areas, but cities are showing cars the way out, preferring a modal shift that still has to make its appointment with history.        

There is a slight chance that you will be able to witness a combustion engine in 2047 outside of a museum. It will be running on hydrogen-derived electric fuel. It will belong to a fleet of ambulances, fire engines, or other priority vehicles. Or it might be a Porsche 911 from 2022 lapping some nostalgic rounds during a track day. Because certain urgencies will continue to demand a combustion engine. After all, it’s served us well for the past 25 years.

Image Source: BMW

Authored by: Piet Andries