Car future

Volkswagens E-car ID.3 in the Autostadt Wolfsburg

Volkswagen’s E-car ID.3 in the auto city of wolfsburg

Photo: hauke-christian dittrich / dpa

The last hopes for the internal combustion engine rest on so-called e-fuels. Made from water, electricity and CO₂, these synthetic fuels are potentially carbon-neutral. They can also be refueled at the pump like gasoline or diesel – a dream come true for everyone in the auto industry who makes a living from pistons, spark plugs or camshafts.

But volkswagen of all companies fires sharply against this technology. "The so-called "potentials synthetic fuels are "generally massively overestimated", wolfsburgers take a stand on a planned federal law on renewable energy in transportation. Their production is "complex, cost-intensive, not very climate-efficient and with low efficiency". The authors of the VW paper consider the idea of producing fuel for cars in this way to be nonsensical. The statement is available to SPIEGEL.

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The words mark a new escalation in a dispute over direction that has divided the industry in germany for some time now. While the U.S. company tesla is setting the pace with battery cars and toyota is betting heavily on hydrogen, the industry in germany is divided over which technology will be the future – and whether a favorite can even be foreseen yet. VW is fully committed to battery-powered vehicles, while others believe e-fuels and hydrogen have a good chance in the medium to long term.

Many managers rave about e-fuels

There is only one point on which the parties involved agree in principle: CO₂ emissions from automobile traffic must be drastically reduced in the coming years, as demanded not least by the legislator. How this goal is to be achieved has been a matter of dispute for years.

Again and again, the management boards of car manufacturers and major suppliers speak out, raving about clean hydrogen from renewable energy sources and wanting to use e-fuels in internal combustion engines. This makes CO₂-neutral mobility possible, he says.

In its statement on the planned federal law, the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) writes that the use of hydrogen and synthetic fuels is "possible in all transport applications possible. In addition, the association is calling for higher targets for hydrogen and e-fuels than are currently provided for in the draft legislation. The internal documents were first reported by the "suddeutsche zeitung" reports. Similar comments have recently been heard from BMW in particular.

Experts criticize manufacturers’ dispute

VW, on the other hand, could hardly have formulated its position more undiplomatically. But group CEO herbert diess insists on his point of view. In the spring of 2019, the VW Group threatened to leave the VDA because the association lacked a clear stance on electromobility and wanted to keep all doors open in terms of future technology.

But who is right? And what does this debate actually bring to the industry??

"First of all, it is not expedient for the VDA and key representatives of the auto industry to disagree", says stefan bratzel, director of the center of automotive management in bergisch gladbach, germany. "It would make much more sense to ask what could lead to lower CO₂ emissions in car traffic in the short term. In my estimation, this will lead to electromobility", says bratzel, referring to the battery variant.

Hydrogen nevertheless remains a topic for the future, especially for heavy-duty transport. "But the issue of hydrogen cannot be limited to transport alone, and certainly not to passenger car transport, according to bratzel. "For this, the entire industry and all sectors must be taken into account."

Enormous amounts of electricity required

Battery researcher maximilian fichtner, professor at the helmholtz institute in ulm and the karlsruhe institute of technology (KIT), also seems slightly disconcerted by the debate. "I would like to see the same players who always preach openness to technology being just as committed to creating the conditions for these technologies – green electricity, for example", says fichtner, who previously worked for twelve years in fuel cell development. "However, I see a discrepancy."

fichtner also advocates a pragmatic approach, but stresses the advantages of battery technology. "With a battery-powered electric vehicle, about 70 percent of the energy used arrives at the wheel; with a fuel cell car, it’s 20 percent at most, and with an e-fuel-powered vehicle, barely ten percent.", says fichtner. "This begs the question: can we afford it??" after all, a lot of eco-electricity is needed to produce e-fuels. But synthetic fuels are likely to be in short supply in the future "because our entire industry will be converting to CO₂ neutrality in the next few years," says stefan bratzel.

The extent to which the debate is confusing the industry is evident in the VW group itself. While the company’s top management is pushing for energy to be invested in the expansion of battery-powered electromobility, there are differing opinions in the company’s own realm. Only last week, for example, porsche boss oliver blume spoke out in favor of synthetic fuels at an automotive congress. This, however, with the restriction that e-fuels are currently still too expensive and will only be cheap enough to replace gasoline and diesel in ten years’ time.

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Christina Cherry
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