The automotive industry is reacting to environmental demands rather than being proactive in shaping its own future. That was one of the conclusions of the JD Power powertrain forecasting seminar held in London last week.

Ian Kershaw, head of Ricardo Strategic Consulting, set out a roadmap for powertrain technologies to 2025. The roadmap detailed a number of interim technology steps, including downsizing, improvements in powertrain efficiency, adoption of micro and mild hybrid technology, and the uptake of biofuels that will allow the industry to meet 2020 requirements of 95g/km average CO2 emissions.

Through the staged development and addition of a variety of technologies, car prices will increase but at a rate that would be acceptable to the consumer.

Nevertheless a long-term vision for the industry is not clear-cut. Certainly, it should not be assumed that hydrogen is the answer.

Kershaw said that hydrogen is an energy vector, rather than a fuel, as it has to be tranformed from something else. This is an inefficient use of energy, even if the hydrogen is sourced from a renewable source such as hydropower. “Renewable energy sources are best used to supply electricity directly, not via hydrogen, unless there is a genuine surplus of renewables, such as off-peak wind generation,” said Kershaw.

Kershaw’s view suggests that it may be better to use the electricity generated to power plug-in vehicles, although there are still some doubts about the battery technology, and in particular the environmental benefits of batteries over the vehicle lifecycle, because of the energy needed to produce and dispose of them.

Kershaw’s road map was clear on the fact that within the next five years new cars will not run at stop. By the 2020s he expects to see the vehicle power unit operating only as an auxiliary unit, not providing energy directly to the wheels.

By 2030 Kershaw says that fuel cell hybrids running on hydrogen are a realistic prospect, at which stage vehicles will be costing around 30% more than they do today and emitting 50-60% less CO2.

“We do see hydrogen in the future but a long way off. Advanced hybrids with fuel cells are better positioned than pure fuel cells,” he said.

When questioned whether the industry should be striving for a hydrogen future, or seeking an alternative such as plug-ins, Kershaw said the industry is currently reacting to demands, and that hydrogen might not be the ideal solution, but at the moment it is likely to be the only solution that the industry can offer.

Sue Brown