TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- This isn't a great time to be an engine designer. There may be an end date for that automotive career: 2040.
Last fall, Germany's federal council passed a resolution that calls for banning the internal combustion engine in 2030. Last month, France and then Britain moved to ban sales of internal combustion engines in automobiles after 2040.
Yes, that's a long way off and a lot can happen before then. But trends have to start somewhere and it looks like we have a major one here.
You'd better believe car companies are paying attention. A lot is at stake, far more than just replacing a gasoline or diesel engine with an electric motor or a fuel cell powertrain.
Last year 3.3 million new vehicles were sold in Germany. France and Britain accounted for another 4.8 million. Even if no other countries join the ban, that would reduce global engine production by around 8 million a year.
Those engines would have to be replaced by something, probably electric motors. That means automakers will have to make billion-dollar investments in plants, technology, engineers, etc. The suppliers that make exhaust systems, radiators, pistons, engine blocks and turbochargers will have to invest in making components for whatever new powertrain replaces the engine. Now that is truly disruptive.
And because automakers' engines are mostly based on global architectures, lower production would drive up costs for engines sold elsewhere in the world.
I don't know if it is good or bad that countries are putting an end date on internal combustion engines in automobiles. It could very well be that by 2040, the electric motor will have taken over anyway.
This week here at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars, automakers and suppliers are discussing this and other issues related to the future of the automobile. While it may look like the industry has reached a tipping point and is headed to mass electrification of powertrains, some executives are not convinced.
Tom Watson, vice president of powertrain and vehicle systems for Johnson Controls, is not yet ready to say the internal combustion engine will be replaced by the electric motor. "There is nothing like the threat of extinction to force innovation," Watson says. "That really causes a lot of other opportunities to pop up and create alternatives."