Fossil-fuelled spark ignition and diesel engines will continue to dominate the automotive market through 2020, despite public and private efforts to develop new sources of automotive power, according to a study jointly carried out by consultants DRI-WEFA and Arthur D. Little.

The forecast for the continued reliance on fossil-fuel power for automobiles takes into account advances in fuel cell research such as the Bush administratiocn’s announcement earlier this month supporting the development of fuel cells through its “Freedom Car” initiative.

“Last week’s announcement by the Bush administration will accelerate commercialization of automotive fuel cells,” said J. R. Linna, an automotive expert in the Energy & Transportation Technology group at Arthur D. Little. “In the interim, however, gasoline prices will likely remain stable and affordable. Advances in gasoline and diesel engine technology will increase fuel efficiency and keep these powertrains competitive for twenty years or more.”

The study, entitled “Future Powertrain Technologies: 2008 to 2020” developed three plausible scenarios of emissions regulations, fuel efficiency, carbon dioxide requirements, crude oil price and economic outlook. For each scenario, the mix of powertrain (engine, transmission and fuel system) technologies in each geographic region was forecast. The technical barriers to the commercialisation of advanced spark ignition, diesel engines, hybrid and fuel cell vehicles, as well as the various forms of advanced transmissions and exhaust cleanup, were identified and assessed.

Despite the continued trend to use traditional fuel sources, the authors of the study foresee greatly improved engine, transmission and fuel system technologies compared with what is now on the market. Improvements will include “mechatronics,” or the integration of electronic controls with engine function, the use of advanced lubricants, and improved manufacturing techniques and materials. As a result of these refinements, the study anticipates substantial improvements in engine emissions and fuel efficiency.

“For the first time in 100 years, we are seeing a new powertrain successfully penetrating the market,” said Phil Gott, director of automotive consulting at DRI-WEFA and program manager of the study. “Over the next two decades, hybrids and other improvements in the powertrain and vehicle will mean Americans will be able to continue their love affair with the SUV, even if we see stricter regulations imposed for fuel efficiency.”

“In Europe, the diesel engine will continue its climb to become the technology of choice for most automotive applications. Currently, roughly 40% of all cars in Europe operate with diesel engines, known for providing dramatic fuel efficiency as a tradeoff for expelling more particulates into the atmosphere,” said Nick Russ, a European automotive expert at Arthur D. Little’s Paris office.

The study anticipates that diesel will be outlawed in some areas of the world – but not Europe – due to the potential health effects of particulates.