Ever since the world saw the introduction of a mechanical engine that replaced the horse-to-power transportation, one aspect that has been witnessing continuous development is the power source
The engine or powertrain has been undergoing development over the past 200 years for various reasons – improvement in power, efficiency, comfort or emissions. The energy source for engines has also transitioned across various forms, from steam to different fossil fuels as well as solar and electric energy. However, the fossil fuels of petrol and diesel have emerged as the largest sources of energy for the entire mobility sector.
Fossil fuels have been the predominant propulsion source for vehicles across all segments. However, over the past few years there has been a concerted effort across the globe to make vehicles cleaner and more efficient, since the mobility sector happens to be one of the most easily identifiable sources of pollution. Regulatory bodies across markets have begun cracking the whip on the automotive industry to drastically cut down on tailpipe emissions.
The development of electric vehicles (EV) or hybrid powertrains as well as engines powered by alternate sources of energy has been transpiring over a number of years, but the need for more efficient forms of mobility has led to a strong focus on alternative energy vehicles in recent times. While numerous sources of energy for mobility have been in development, the more promising among them are electric and hydrogen and their various iterations. There are also strong reasons to suggest that internal combustion engines (ICE) cannot be written-off just yet, since it has been at play for a majority of the mobility industry’s life and will continue to evolve with changing conditions and situations.
TRENDS & DEVELOPMENT
The biggest trend witnessed in the automotive industry is in further improving the performance parameters of existing ICEs that can meet emissions and fuel regulations that are getting stringent across the globe. Within ICEs, diesels are getting frowned upon for their bigger carbon footprint, and are witnessing a complete removal from some advanced markets in Europe. In addition, a number of car manufacturers have made announcements about discontinuing production of diesel vehicles from its product line-up. Meanwhile, some OEMs, especially those manufacturing trucks and buses, are developing diesel vehicles that run on cleaner versions of diesel or biofuels.
The fact of the matter is that IC engines will continue to form a major part of the powertrain mix in the overall vehicle pool for a long time to come. This is due to the fact that ICEs have received the maximum R&D investments over the history of the automobile, when compared to all other sources of energy. The enforcement of stricter emission norms for vehicles across regions has led to advanced research into more efficient engines, which use various technologies such as electronic fuel injection, forced air induction, exhaust gas treatment and powertrain hybridisation.
Powertrain electrification is another area that is witnessing significant amount of traction in the automotive industry. EVs are being developed and utilised across geographies, and one common factor being observed is that while electric mobility may be the future of the industry, it still continues to have a lower level of penetration globally. Even advanced nations have EV adoption levels of under 10 %, even though the year-on-year rate continues to increase. There have been significant developments in the field of powertrain electrification, with a focus not only on electric motors, but also on transmissions. Fostering development in the overall electric mobility ecosystem enables improved economics that lead to lower costs for end-customers as well as better performance, and hence improved EV range. It should be noted that full-electrification will be a viable option for two- and three-wheelers and passenger vehicles, especially in urban geographies.
Other alternative forms of energy include hydrogen fuel-cell, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and biofuels. Hydrogen is a form of energy source that has its own set of specific requirements that lead to cost addition, and therefore could be a viable option for the passenger vehicle segment alone. CNG and LPG offer similar results, in terms of benefits of fuel cost, operation costs and CO2 emissions savings, but have a negative feature of affecting the vehicle’s performance. These two technologies are consequently more suitable for light commercial vehicle operations. Large commercial vehicles can leverage biofuels, which can easily be combined with diesel engines. However, the infrastructure to supply biofuels is low across most markets, leading to an adoption gap of this type of fuel.
Hybridisation is a solution that the mobility industry could look to, for optimum results of being environmentally-friendly and also cost-effective. These largely include hybrid electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, while other forms of hybridisation could include IC engines combined with additional motors powered by hydrogen fuel-cells, or with dual systems of a traditional engine along with additional CNG or LPG fuel source. Such hybrid powertrains offer the best characteristics of each type of powertrain technology employed and results in the highest levels of performance and efficiency, claim experts.
There is no single direction that every single segment of the global automotive industry is going to take as far as the future powertrain strategy is concerned. Each segment has its specific requirements and customers to cater to, as is the case with differentiation with regards to various types of markets. A country like India that is the biggest two-wheeler market and that too in the commuter or mass segment, needs to find cost-efficient solutions. Therefore, simple electronic fuel injection systems that can replace engine carburation could be the ideal direction to take so as to adhere to upcoming emissions standards and regulations.
From the macro perspective of the global mobility industry, powertrain hybridisation will most likely be the route taken to address future norms of performance and emissions. There will be a need for an integration of conventional and new-generation powertrain systems that can be merged, in order to bring out their benefits as well as address industry and customer demands of the future. In fact, such developments are already taking place, and this is leading to collaborations across the industry to strengthen the mobility ecosystem.
TEXT: Naveen Arul