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With tighter norms for engines kicking in, those running on diesel and even petrol will be phased out and replaced with electric or hybrid engines, leading to a new world order

By Murad Ali Baig

Diesel cars seem to be doomed. Engine makers have made numerous improvements in diesel engine technology to meet global concerns about environment pollution, but most carmakers are now resigned to abandoning the sinking ship.

Nitin Gadkari, minister for road transport, recently announced that India would skip Bharat Stage (BS) V and jump from the existing BS IV to BS VI norms from April 1, 2020. This has shaken up all automakers because the estimated cost of engine upgradation required to meet these norms would make them unacceptably expensive. The price of a petrol model of a typical car like Maruti Swift is Rs 5.70 lakh today and Rs 6.90 lakh for a comparable diesel model. But this will go up by at least Rs 1 lakh if it has to meet the new BS VI norms. Thus, a roughly Rs 2 lakh difference in the cost of a typical petrol and diesel model would make the latter unattractive. This cost differential will be huge for small cars.

As it is, high compression diesel engines cost more to make than their lighter petrol counterparts and even this cost went up 15 years ago when the common rail fuel injection systems were introduced to increase engine efficiency and reduce pollution. Now turbochargers, particulate filters, catalytic converters, NOX traps and several other engine modifications will become necessary. As some 40 percent of new cars in India are powered by diesel engines, this is a huge blow. Not surprisingly, Maruti Suzuki has announced that it plans to discontinue the production of diesel engines from April 1, 2020. It is probable that all other carmakers will for the same reason follow suit. Most of the cars made by Mahindra & Mahindra are diesel and they will probably feel the impact more.

The huge cost differential between diesel and petrol engines has been the main reason for the popularity of the former. But the price gap has been dwindling rapidly over the past few years and is now only Rs 6 to Rs 9 per litre. This is likely to narrow even further as the cost of low sulphur diesel now makes diesel more costly than petrol. If there is no cost benefit in the price of fuel, there will be no reason to buy a more expensive diesel car. Diesel will, however, continue to be needed in India for trucks, tractors, pumpsets and cars.

Europe, the world’s largest diesel car market, has also been feeling the pinch. Diesel cars accounted for 42 percent of car sales in 2017 despite the cost of this fuel usually being higher than petrol. But because diesel was about 20 percent more efficient, these cars gave more kilometres per litre. However, due to strong sentiments concerning pollution, their numbers were reduced to 36 percent a year later. The widely publicised scandal of Volkswagen’s “cheat device”, which claimed better emission levels, also made Europeans more pollution-conscious.

Many auto companies have already announced that they will drop diesel engines from their offerings. While Volvo has completely stopped diesel car sales, Toyota stopped these sales in Europe last year. Porsche said that it will concentrate on petrol, electric and hybrid engines. Renault, Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat Chrysler, Cadillac, Suzuki, Kia, Mitsubishi and Bentley have all switched to petrol. Car buyers are almost all switching to petrol.

All the carmakers can see the writing on the wall and are focusing their energies on electric cars or hybrid engines where the combine power from an electric motor to a small fuel-efficient petrol engine provides the traction. An electric motor also has three times the torque of a petrol engine, so a small motor can give good pulling power from zero to maximum speed. Automakers are also working on CNG or LPG. Though these are less polluting than petrol or diesel, they are still fossil fuels that leave a carbon footprint. Several automakers are also advocating hydrogen cars where a small but very strong hydrogen tank can take a car several thousand kilometres. But these also need a network of fuelling stations. Though hydrogen cars’ exhaust produce nothing except oxygen and water, the power plants producing hydrogen cause pollution.

The problem with electric or hybrid cars is their high cost, so several countries like China and Sweden and many states in the US, such as California, have tried to bridge this gap with price subsidies, tax reductions and other incentives. However, the impact has not been very impressive because electric or hybrid vehicles are still very expensive and can usually go only about 100 km on a full battery charge.

Electric car owners also need to find a charging point at the end of a run and they don’t want to wait for hours to get a decent charge.

Things are, however, slowly changing and the expensive and heavy lithium ion battery packs are getting cheaper. They are now also offering longer range and shorter charging time but they still have a long way to go. Several electric two and three-wheelers have been very successful, but many buyers are still not comfortable with the concept even though simple e-rickshaws are rapidly gaining popularity.

Some cities like London have been successful in encouraging e-vehicles by offering free charging points at parking lots and car owners leave their cars there for a few hours. These cars are also exempted from congestion charge and are, therefore, the only cars to freely roam through central London. China is reported to be setting up a large network of charging stations in its major cities and highways.

Cars are not the only polluters. Buses with big engines usually work for more hours a day than cars and consume 10 times as much fuel per kilometre as a car. But many buses travel from one end of a city to another and their batteries can be quickly changed at a swapping station at the end of the run with a fresh set of batteries. The huge fleet of school buses are usually idle for several hours and can be provided with quick charging points at every school. A number of smaller swapping stations can also be located in existing petrol pumps so that the battery packs of ordinary electric cars can be conveniently changed.

Almost all car companies are, therefore, investing heavily in electric car technologies. As compared to about 20,000 parts in an internal combustion engine, the motor of an electric car has just 20 parts and are much smaller, lighter and cheaper to make. The disappearance of huge auto factories, auto dealers and mechanics will result in the loss of millions of jobs. People fear change, but forget how swiftly their forefathers had shifted from horse-drawn carriages to cars when they saw the benefits of speed and convenience.

Most cars, bikes, buses and trucks will probably be electric in another decade. When that happens, there will be no need for auto workshops. Instead, there will be small shops where a mechanic will simply take out a faulty motor and replace it with another in a few minutes. Needless to say, there will also be no petrol or diesel pumps because these will all be replaced by a large number of metered charging points in parking lots and residential parking areas where the batteries will be charged as their owners are at work or fast asleep. A month’s supply of electricity will also cost far less than petrol, diesel or LPG because electric motors are about 70 percent more energy efficient. They will also be more reliable.

But this change will not be abrupt because the many millions of vehicles already plying on the roads will not be immediately phased out. But as long as they are there, they will continue to pollute the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Every government, therefore, needs to give incentives to phase out the existing vehicles.

There will also be huge economic and political ramifications. Giant oil companies and their refineries will have to shut down and huge sums will no longer be needed to import oil and petroleum products. This could lead to the collapse of OPEC and economic decline of all oil producing nations.

The days of fossil fuel automobiles, especially diesel ones, are clearly numbered and the world needs to brace itself for a brave new era.

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