“Now electric-only” is no longer an empty phrase. A large number of car manufacturers are changing over their production operations, and realigning their development budgets. A change in mindset is becoming apparent. But not everyone sees the electric motor as the only alternative. For many of them, a combustion engine running on synthetic fuels is equally a viable future technology. Here is an overview of the ambitious plans of the key manufacturers.
The route to mass production of the electric car is not a linear success story. At the end of the 19th century, combustion engines, electric motors and steam-power went head-to-head in a race for the crown of mass viability, and at times there were even more e-cars than petrol-driven ones around. But that advantage did not last for long: From 1908, Ford sold his famous Model T as a combustion engine-powered vehicle, thereby sealing the demise of the mass-produced electric car. From then on, the electric car was a niche product for over 100 years, a position from which it has only emerged again and picked up impetus over the past ten years or so. But its more recent history is similarly characterized by trials and reversals. For example, Daimler halted production of the E-Smart in 2015 – due to a lack of demand. And even earlier, Opel withdrew the Ampera in 2012 on account of low sales figures.
Electric cars have put that faltering ascent behind them. Now, suddenly – seemingly overnight – the fundamental conditions have changed in Germany. Tesla has demonstrated that cars can be fun even when not petrol- or diesel-powered, and that companies can be commercially successful with e-cars. And state subsidies in Germany and in other countries, such as Norway, are also strengthening many car manufacturers in their rethink. The charging infrastructure in Germany is not at the same level as in other countries, but a huge effort is currently going into expanding it. All that, combined with greater environmental awareness, has led to several manufacturers announcing a consistent turning-away from the combustion engine.
As early as mid-2017, the Swedish car manufacturer announced that its future belongs to the electric powertrain. Since then, its range of combustion engines has been gradually scaled down and its e-powered offering ramped up. From 2030 Volvo (which is owned by the Chinese company Geely) will only be offering electric vehicles, and by 2025 half of all the cars it sells are set to be purely electric. With that goal in mind, the sister brand Polestar is only offering hybrid and electric vehicles for sale. Volvo’s Chief Technology Officer Henrik Green says: “There is no long-term future any more for cars with a combustion engine.” A turning-away could hardly be more consistent.
Admittedly, it is easier for Volvo, with just on 700,000 cars per year, to switch its production over than it is for the Wolfsburg-based group with its many brands. Despite that, Volkswagen is pressing ahead at full speed and is driving a radical change towards e-mobility. Group subsidiary Audi launched the fully-electric e-tron SUV in 2019, followed at the end of 2020 by the first completely newly-developed e-car, using a technical platform specifically developed for it at Volkswagen: The ID.3 is being viewed as the new Beetle, and on price/performance it comes out better than the competition. In future, the Volkswagen brand is not looking to bring out a “completely new family of engines” based on the combustion principle, but will only be further developing its existing engines. Audi is pursuing the same strategy. VW’s UK-based luxury car subsidiary, Bentley, is similar to Volvo in looking to only produce e-cars from 2030, and VW subsidiaries Skoda and Seat are similarly planning new electric models, set to launch this year in some cases as part of a major sales offensive. Group CEO Herbert Diess spelled out as much: “The more stringent CO2 limits are necessarily leading to the end for the combustion engine.”
The US car group is similarly looking to switch over fully to e-vehicles by 2030. To that end, Ford has entered into a co-operation with Volkswagen and is using the ID.3 platform for its e-cars. It already offers numerous plug-in hybrids, and the legendary Mustang will in future be supplemented by the Mach-E SUV.
The troubled traditional British brand, which since 2008 has been under the umbrella of the Indian Tata Group, is tackling the issue head-on. In February this year, Jaguar-Land Rover boss Thierry Bolloré announced that from 2030 it would only be building electric cars. Even now, its offering includes the pure electric I-Pace SUV. Moving forward, the product range will be slimmed down, but also consistently electric-powered.
In 2010, the electric revolution started with a bang. With the hybrid i8 and the pure electric i3, the Munich-based group was offering creative design solutions for the future of driving. But the cars largely remained niche products. Back then, the company was battling against the low range, the very high prices, and the lack of a charging infrastructure. The BMW i sub-brand has been gaining traction since 2020, for example with the iX3 SUV. Further models, such as the i4 and iX, are set to follow. And even the BMW brand Mini is forging ahead with an e-powertrain. From 2030, Mini will be fully electric.
The Daimler group has a high-quality in-house flagship for electric mobility, in the Mercedes-Benz EQ Series, and amongst others even the luxury S-Class is set to get an electric twin. However, the Stuttgart-based company is not foregoing the combustion engine entirely. Its Smart models are the only ones to be exclusively e-powered, since 2020.
The French car group was an early entrant into the electric market, with its e-powered Zoe supermini. By 2025, Renault is looking to launch 14 new cars – of which at least seven are set to be pure electric, with the others being at least a hybrid. Hydrogen powertrains are also being planned for light commercial vehicles. And its subsidiary Dacia now has a budget e-car in its range, the Spring.
Toyota was long seen as a pioneer for hybrid cars, and exiting from combustion engines is not planned for the foreseeable future. Its first e-cars are already on the market, and additionally Toyota is one of only a few manufacturers to be developing cars with a fuel cell powertrain. Toyota Germany President Alain Uyttenhoven commented: “We think a binary either-or view is wrong. Toyota doesn’t say that any one technology is the only solution.”
The South Korean companies recently developed their own platform for e-vehicles, and are currently launching their first models – but are also offering hybrid cars and fuel cell vehicles. However, they have not announced a definitive move out of combustion engines.
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