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Automakers’ commitment to zero emissions tempered by ICE-powered SUVs’ profitability.

No Straight Path to Electric Future, Auto Experts Say

Automakers say they are prepared to build battery-electric vehicles but are using currently scarce components from supply chains disrupted by the pandemic for profitable trucks and SUVs rather than zero-emission vehicles, Ohio State professor Chris Atkinson says.

The auto industry is tangled up in a messy transition, where court challenges, material shortages and questions about consumer demand are making it difficult to plan for a future of zero emissions.

“The future is going to be all-electric with plenty of renewable energy. I’m sure of that,” Chris Atkinson, director of the Smart Mobility Initiative and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at The Ohio State University, says during the Automotive Futures annual Conference on Propulsion Strategies for the 21st Century.

But no one can predict how long it will take to get to a fully electric, sustainable future, says Atkinson (pictured, below left), who suggests hybrid vehicles ought to play a larger role in the industry’s product plans for the next few years and manufacturers should not give up on improving the internal-combustion engine (ICE).

While automakers say they are prepared to build battery-electric vehicles, they are using components made scarce by supply chains disrupted by the pandemic for profitable ICE trucks and SUVs rather than zero-emission vehicles, Atkinson says.

Chris Atkinson.jpgThe just-in-time supply-chain strategy was never a good idea, according to Atkinson. Now automakers must rebuild the supply chain to make it more robust while the demand for critical minerals is rapidly increasing.

At some point in the future the recycling industry will deliver the required resources, creating a virtuous cycle. But until then, the U.S. will have to import critical materials.

“The best use of a battery is in a hybrid,” Atkinson says, noting hybrids reduce emissions but use smaller batteries requiring smaller amounts of scarce minerals.

Atkinson says a fleet of hybrid vehicles can boost fuel economy while reducing emissions, which is the critical issue for addressing climate change.

Transportation accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, but automakers are aiming at a narrow – $50,000 and up – slice of the U.S market, representing only 2.4 million units or 17%, Atkinson notes. By 2030, even if BEV penetration reaches 30% including more lower-priced models, the available market may be only 5.1 million out of a 17-million-unit market.

If the 30% BEV penetration forecast is even close, by 2030 there could be 40 million units of excess ICE manufacturing capacity globally, Atkinson adds.

Atkinson says the charging infrastructure for EVs is fragile, and the electrical grid will have to deliver one-third more power as the EV fleet grows. Even in wealthy economies, the electric grid is vulnerable and not ready for widespread EV use, he says.

Bruce Belzowski, managing director of Automotive Futures, says manufacturers face a complicated regulatory process, which was made even more uncertain by a recent Supreme Court decision that undercut the authority of the EPA.

The Supreme Court ruling does not diminish the influence of the California Air Resources Board on emission and fuel economy targets, Belzowski (pictured, below left) says. But it does point out the shortcomings of the current regulatory regime in the auto industry and its drive toward electrification.

Bruce Belzowski.jpgWhen the Obama Admin. set goals for reducing emissions and improving fuel economy in 2012, the assumption was each manufacturer would begin to reduce the “footprint” – the size of vehicles – to meet the objectives, Belzowski notes. But that has not happened; consumers instead are continuing to opt for larger vehicles, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic and changes to the product line of each company.

Since 2014, each manufacturer has increased their footprint as consumers have shifted their preferences from passenger cars to trucks and utility vehicles, according to an Automotive Futures review of EPA data.

Sudhi Uppuluri, director-automotive and transportation industry, Siemens Digital Industries Software, says both EV and ICE vehicle architectures are getting more complicated. One way to tackle complexity is to increase automation and artificial intelligence in parts of the testing process, he says.

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