The end or at least the future ban on the internal combustion engine seems to be the sine qua non for climate-neutral transport. This is what is rumored at least in parts of politics and the press. The seemingly simple solution and the associated prioritization of battery-electric drives negates weighty problems – a plea for more technology openness.

In the GRÜNEN’s party program it says literally: “From 2030 we only want to allow emission-free new cars.” The SPD assumes that the future belongs to electric drives, without giving a specific date. For the LINKE there is no alternative in terms of climate policy to phase out the combustion engine by 2030 at the latest. It also calls for an export ban on cars with internal combustion engines.

Large parts of the press are also assuming the imminent end of the internal combustion engine. Gerald Traufetter announced in SPIEGEL on June 5th, 2021 the year 2045 as the definitive end of the “era of combustion engines” – the year in which Germany should be climate-neutral.

Even some manufacturers have said goodbye to the combustion engine. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, said that her company only wanted to sell locally emission-free cars from 2035. Ford struck in the same direction with the announcement that by the end of the decade the vehicle range would be completely converted to electric drives. Jaguar aims to achieve this goal as early as 2025. Volvo Cars plans to only roll off the production line with all-electric vehicles from 2030 and even wants to do without hybrid vehicles. The VW Group also relies fully on battery-electric drives, but without mentioning a specific phase-out date for combustion technology.

Some states are much more specific in this regard. Norway is making the most rigorous progress with a combustion ban from 2025. Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Sweden are not planning quite as ambitiously with the year 2030. Spain and France want to give themselves until 2040.

In view of these scenarios, one could actually get the impression that the time of the internal combustion engine has definitely expired. However, if you take a closer look at the statements, weighty questions remain unanswered.

For example, the consequences of an end to the internal combustion engine, politically wanted by some parties, in terms of employment policy are not discussed openly and seriously enough. Due to the transformation to electric drive, at least 178,000 employees nationwide by 2025 and around 215,000 jobs by 2030 in the mostly medium-sized supplier industry, which cannot be substituted within this industrial sector. Even IG Metall predicts that more than 250 suppliers are about to go bankrupt.

The industrial policy dimension of these exit scenarios also does not seem to have been thoroughly thought out. A quick exit from combustion technology would mean giving up a globally unique technological top position. No other industrial nation would be able to achieve such a technological level in drive technology in a shorter period of time. This shows the current competitive situation for vehicles with electric drives. Tesla – a no-name supplier for a long time – managed to become the market leader for battery-electric vehicles in record time. The situation on the Chinese market is similar. Manufacturers that have hardly appeared so far produce electric vehicles at a remarkable technological level. In the area of ​​combustion technology, they had not succeeded in doing this for years. Even if German, European and American OEMs are working flat out on the development of electrically powered vehicles and have achieved considerable success with new models, the top position has been lost in some areas of technology. Companies from China, Japan and South Korea are ahead of the pack when it comes to battery technology, which is essential for electric drives.

There are still a number of unanswered questions, especially in battery technology, and particularly when it comes to recycling batteries that are no longer suitable for vehicle propulsion. There is still a lack of suitable framework conditions for the further use of used batteries outside the vehicle. The recovery of valuable raw materials such as lithium, manganese, cobalt or nickel is possible according to the current state of technology, but with the current processes it is still too energy-consuming and too expensive. In the absence of adequate disposal volumes, it has not yet been possible to develop a really viable recycling business model.

In every scenario of phasing out combustion technology, the fate of around 1.2 billion existing vehicles worldwide remains open. Will the ban on new registrations be followed by a driving ban for vehicles with internal combustion engines? Threatened and partially implemented diesel driving bans in major German cities give a foretaste of conceivable developments. And the age of existing vehicles – at least in Germany – is getting higher and higher. The cars registered in Germany are on average 9.8 years old. Last but not least, this phenomenon is also an expression of reluctance to buy in view of unclear future regulations on the motor vehicle market and an insufficiently available infrastructure for electric drives in large parts of Germany.

In order to solve the problem of the environmentally harmful existing vehicles, the development and widespread introduction of synthetic fuels – so-called e-fuels – is almost necessary. If it is possible – and the chances are good – to produce sufficient amounts of synthetic fuels in an economically justifiable and climate-neutral way, a large part of the stock of vehicles could continue to be used with little retrofitting. The production of electric vehicles with environmentally harmful battery technology could at least partially be replaced by the production of vehicles with environmentally friendly, CO2-neutral combustion technology. This would also secure the high technological level of the internal combustion engine, which is important for competition, for our industry.

The infrastructure problem would also appear in a completely different light. The existing filling station network would be available for synthetic fuels and the costly expansion of charging stations for electric vehicles, especially in rural regions, could at least partially be dispensed with.

The realization that the nationwide expansion of an electric charging infrastructure can only be achieved in the long term and also at immense costs seems to be gaining ground in China, the world’s largest car market. How else can it be explained that Daimler, together with its Chinese shareholder and partner Geely, decided to develop new three- and four-cylinder hybrid engines in the future and produce them in China.

A ban on the combustion engine for the commercial vehicle sector would be fatal and its consequences cannot be foreseen. The realization that the battery-electric drive variant is not an alternative – at least in long-distance transport – is increasingly gaining ground. Too long charging times and excessive weight of the battery unit prevent economical driving. Well-known manufacturers are relying on the hydrogen combustion engine and fuel cell technology, which is already well advanced in development.

Last but not least, this is also a clear sign that the ban on the internal combustion engine cannot be the solution to all environmental problems in the transport sector. Rather, the demand for a ban on the internal combustion engine misses the mark. The fact is that fossil fuels such as gasoline and diesel are harmful to the climate and the environment. Keeping them up is not really an option. Banning these fuels does not automatically mean banning the internal combustion engine. If climate-neutral fuels are available, nothing speaks against the use of combustion technology. Hildegard Müller, President of the VDA, put it in a nutshell in an interview with the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” with the statement: “The problem is not the engine, but the fossil fuel.”

Unfortunately, politicians have not yet recognized this to the extent necessary. The national implementation of the EU Renewable Energy Sources Directive (REDII) still lacks a minimum quota for hydrogen and electricity-based fuels. It would be desirable if not only the federal government but also the EU administration corrected this promptly.

Exiting combustion technology would not only be a mistake for reasons of employment and competition. It would also make it much more difficult to achieve the ambitious climate targets with regard to decarbonising the transport sector.

Author: Armin Gehl, Geschäftsführer autoregion e.V.