We are part of the most exciting commercial sector on earth. Yes, the automotive industry is definitely not in its first flush of youth, and yes, immense change is about to become even more immense in the coming few years.

Why? Because of politics

Commerce is frequently tied to the prevailing financial landscape, ranging from the cost of borrowing through to how individuals and companies are taxed. This in turn drives behavior.

Right now the automotive industry is in the cross hairs of the global healthcare community. That in it’s own right is worthy of consideration but not the core of policy. Yet thanks to bankrupt international political equity that is exactly what has come to pass. The last target of such a campaign was the smoking of tobacco, and with all such campaigns there has to be an element of truth to allow the ‘drama’ to be draped around it. Further, the campaign machine is so well funded and so well supported it will not give up, nor will it ever finish punishing sectors that do not fit its own values. Ever.

To compound the situation some parts of the automotive industry thought it would be smart to ensure a vehicle could detect when it was in an emission lab, and when it was in the hands of the user/owner. The result has been one of the biggest crisis yet in the history of the automotive industry, eclipsing the Takata airbag affair (the world’s biggest single corporation bankruptcy).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has the ambition to show the right way for us all to live no matter where we live. Unfortunately biology has given way to spurious politics on more than one occasion, which tends to undermine it’s own ambition. Fear not, the lazy international press continues to faithfully report every single utterance from WHO without challenge.

In the strange island located in perpetual rain and anchored just off the coast of what will be soon the Dis-United States of Europe, is the Oddly-United Kingdom.  Our residents have been exporting strangely odd antics around the world for centuries, as you can see in South Africa. Yet we do have some internationally recognised organisations such as the Royal College of Physicians.

Arise, the Doctor has spoken!

Yes, for the Right-Royal College of Physicians constructed the following argument in 2016, based on WHO guidelines:

  • College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the Royal College of Physicians joined research resources.
  • The initial report was followed up in 2017.
  • In 2016 WHO set limits for particulate matter 2.5 microns (PM2.5) at 10μg/m3, and particulate matter 10.0 microns (PM10) at 20μg/m3.
  • The second report of 2017 found that 44 of 51 UK cities exceeded the smaller particulate size limit, and 13 of 51 cities exceeded the larger particulate size limit.
  • However, the EU limits for particulate matter 2.5 microns (PM2.5) at 25μg/m3, and particulate matter 40.0 microns (PM10) at 20μg/m3. No UK cities failed those limits….
  • The Royal College of Physicians argues that the WHO limits are safer than EU limits.
  • In areas of slow moving, high traffic density particulate and NOx pollution can form pockets. The exposure to this will lead to a range of breathing related illness, which has been shown to self-correct as air quality improves. That in turn means less time lost at work, less cost for health care and so on.

Let the fantasy begin

The publication ‘Reducing air pollution in the UK: Progress report 2018’ uses the above scenario to indicate:

  • A calculated projection based on chronic respiratory health statistics indicates 40 000 people per year in the UK die prematurely due to air quality issues.
  • The UK Government should embark on a punitive taxation system to purge diesel vehicle use from all major cities.
  • The UK Government should invest in cycle lanes as well as programmes to encourage walking/cycling/personal fitness.
  • The UK Government should immediately encourage ‘zero emission’ vehicle take-up by those in the population that don’t live in the middle of a major city (or, put it another way, close to half the UK population).

Policy – it’s not made up at all

One golden rule of legislation is to encourage the end result without defining exactly how it should be done. We already have real-world examples of how not to:

  • The decision to use exhaust gas after treatment in the US instead of also tackling the overweight/over-sized vehicles in 1970s US increased refined petrol consumption. Whilst the emission or unburnt hydrocarbons reduced dramatically, the overall energy cost was not cheap.
  • Europe turned its back on the second major step of internal combustion engine emissions in the 1990s by describing emission control via use of an air/fuel ratio of unity – mostly at the behest of commercial interests. The result was several vehicle manufacturers who were developing powertrains that would rely less on after treatment in the first place to reduce tail pipe emissions… threw away more than a decade of research as well as investment. Peugeot-Citroen SA, for example, had to use engine families for nearly five years beyond their replacement time due to the mis-calculation that lean burn technology could not be banned. It was.

There’s more. To this day vehicle emissions are defined by what comes out of the exhaust pipe. Thus, an electric vehicle is ‘zero emission’ because it does not have an exhaust pipe. The environmental impact of producing any sort of energy to power a vehicle, build it or make parts is not counted. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a farce.

Back to our Right-Royal College of Physicians

This was useful information to allow the politicians to meddle some more with vehicle strategy policy. It allowed for instance a complete U-turn on the promotion of diesel powered vehicles and provided the required scape-goat for simplistic justification of such a move. Conveniently the fact that many of the same politicians pushed diesel in the first place (to reduce EU state level tax penalties based on vehicle parc CO2 emissions) is completely erased.

Can an internal combustion engine reduce emissions in the real world? Emphatically yes. Can it be reduced to zero? Well, yes, but the solution is not very efficient.

Something for nothing

Engineering solutions for powertrains which don’t include imagining using finite resources to power more devices that it can support (Cobalt, copper, Lithium and more) include:

  • Compressed air. Skip that it costs to compress air to several hundred atmospheres, or that the resulting energy source makes lead acid batteries look super effective in terms of stored energy density. This idea is revived periodically before fading away.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell. Skip that it costs to extract pure hydrogen, this could allow a smaller electric vehicle powertrain to offer bigger range thanks to on-board power generation. However, this is no longer in automotive fashion, so the cost of the fuel cell system remains high (circa £15 000+, still falling) and pure hydrogen production/distribution remains small scale. It’s the way the fuel is delivered to the end user that is the primary road block to the progress of this technology.
  • Pure electric vehicle. This is a transient situation – big batteries are definitely based on carrying fuel around with the vehicle, just as we do with petrol or diesel. Not only is battery chemistry improving year on year to more energy storage per litre of battery volume, but costs are also falling too. Further, the way power is transmitted to the vehicle is also about to be changed dramatically. So this is the future, right? Nope. Not for all. The costs are falling but we can still see a pure electric vehicle costs around twice that of a ‘conventionally powered’ vehicle – and the recharging infrastructure is neither stable nor plentiful enough to support mass market use, yet.
  • Plug-in hybrid drive vehicles. These are likely to take over for many pure EV applications since they offer the owner/user the flexibility of operating without an internal combustion engine for short journeys but be capable of longer trips. More than a decade of car clubs has shown that not many users like the idea of swapping a vehicle for the occasional long trip.
  • 48V hybrid drive petrol or diesel? This is the next step for the decade ahead, offering real-world emission reduction since most of the offending particulate matter as well as NOx is generated during acceleration. That’s where use of fuel ‘free’ from tail pipe emission impact can deliver real world results.
  • Cleaning up diesel and petrol engines. Apart from the Volkswagen Group (and there are other manufacturers, too) the core internal combustion engine research shows there is still potential. However, the policy makers decision to dictate the how as well as the why means this vital work is being scrapped. The bottom line – internal combustion engines will power the majority of the vehicle population for some decades to come, even if it is in the process of being banned in the same way as smoking.

What’s all the fuss about?

Europe has taken the WHO line and been blessed with professional medical opinion to allow it to get out of a dubious choice to actively promote diesel internal combustion engines over petrol. The result is a potentially better situation for individual health, but the commercial cost will not be insignificant.

Unfortunately the automotive companies who chose to be ‘smart’ with vehicle emissions might well have signed their own death warrant. Quite a few Governments lost all of the little trust they had with automotive companies as the scandal hit, and few are prepared to agree with engineering proposals. Instead we face an age based on rumour and oblique facts, where engineering progress will be limited by the need to remain on the right side of the political story.

Fear not – our sector will do well out of this. As the medics and political types flounder with grand ambition, the age of personal transport is not about to come to a close any time soon. The variety of engineering solutions offered to the new vehicle market is set to explode, and that means significant increases in cost for service and collision repair. That of course, also means opportunity.

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