Johannesburg - Which will prevail: hybrid, electric or gas-powered cars? Three lower-carbon technologies and a host of also-rans are competing to replace internal combustion engine vehicles.

Jakkie Olivier, chief executive of the Retail Motor Industry Organisation (RMI), discusses the advantages and disadvantages of future-focused automotive tech.

There is a growing sense of urgency in the automotive industry that more needs to be done to reduce harmful emissions.

Car companies are channelling ever more resources into developing vehicles aimed at addressing emissions and the soaring cost of petrol and diesel.

“However, conferences on the subject reveal no consensus as to what should be done.

“RMI has undertaken to remain abreast of changes to advise members how best to adapt ahead of changes. Given that the technology can still go in any direction, we recommend consumers stick to RMI-accredited members,” says Olivier.

He adds that we are seeing more stringent regulations on emissions. As a result electric, hybrid, and fuel cell vehicles have attracted growing attention by automakers, governments, and customers.

Efforts have been focused on developing low-cost systems, and reliable hybrid electric powertrains.

According to Jeff Cobb in the article “The World Just Bought Its Two-Millionth Plug-in Car”, there were 1.4-billion motor vehicles as of 2017, excluding off-road vehicles or heavy construction equipment. About a 10th of these used some form of alternative fuel and most of these were heavy trucks.

Research by diesel specialist consultant Dave Stalker points to the key objective as being to establish a drive or fuel which will emit the lowest overall levels of emissions.

The objective is to move away from fossil fuels to resources which are emissions-free and sustainable.

Stalker notes that “the production of specific fuel results in higher levels of emissions, which negates the purpose”.

Further complications

A further complication is that energy deficits in many countries including South Africa mean that electricity used to charge electric cars may yet be produced by fossil fuels.

Currently, there are several main approaches to powering vehicles that are leading the change as an alternative to fossil fuels: electric drives (including hybrid vehicles); biofuels (such as ethanol); gas; alternative fuels such as hydrogen, or some combination of these.

Each of these fuel types are capable of reducing emissions, but have positive and negative aspects.

The question is, which solution will prevail? The current drives or fuels favoured by most OEMs are Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV), hybrids and gas (LPG/CNG).

The BEV drive is receiving the most development as it’s “emissions-free” and many governments in developed countries are offering incentives to motorists who choose this option.

“However, issues have emerged relating to how we go about generating the amounts of electricity required to power such vehicles. In a country such as South Africa, so dependent on fossil fuels in our power stations, there would perhaps be little difference between using electricity and an efficient petrol drive.

“Electric vehicles may struggle to make a real impact on emissions,” says Olivier.

The hybrid vehicle is a variant of the electric car using, usually, a small capacity internal combustion engine (mostly petrol-powered) with an electric drive motor.

It produces lower emissions, but fossil fuel remains part of the drive method.

Gas-powered drives produce considerably lower exhaust emissions.

They are primarily used for heavy vehicles, buses and taxis.

Parallel to this is the “flex-fuel” or “bi-fuel” conversions, which use diesel and gas.

Attie Serfontein, director of the REMAN cluster of the Engine Remanufacturers’ Association is of the opinion that with the different fuel technologies presenting benefits, it’s clear that no single solution will win in the medium term.

“This is why RMI is looking into maximising the benefits of a range of solutions,” he says.

Drive360