Air pollution is devastating the environment, mainly in Asia, and although they're not the sole cause1, people are pointing the finger at internal combustion engine vehicles in cities all over the world. The switch to cleaner transportation is definitely under way, driven by China, the future global leader in sustainable mobility. It is time for players with a stake in the sector to anticipate and seize the many opportunities the transition is creating. Total's senior vice president, R&D strategy, shares his expert opinion.
The harm done by vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) has been well documented. Although they still provide invaluable services to their users and make a real contribution to global economic growth, their engines spew nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM10), hydrocarbons in the form of non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) and greenhouse gases such as CO2 into the air.
At the same time cities are getting denser and will only grow more so. That means the dramatic health impacts of the ensuing road congestion will keep accumulating. A report published in the medical journal The Lancet recently found that pollution was linked to one in six deaths worldwide, a toll of nine million premature deaths in 2015, with air pollution accounting for 6.5 million. Even more recently, UNICEF stressed the extreme vulnerability of children to air quality, pointing out that "almost 17 million babies under the age of one live in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits. More than three-quarters of these young children — 12 million — live in South Asia."
It would seem that the world has reached its limit. No country can afford to sit back and do nothing about the scourge of air pollution anymore. The need for action is urgent.
At the most recent TCSF in Shanghai, Total brought together all the innovative players with a stake in future transportation. In close touch with higher education
"Necessity is the mother of invention," says Vincent Saubestre, Total's senior vice president, R&D strategy. And there is no shortage of innovative ideas in the transportation field. With the harm done by ICE vehicles now an accepted fact, "The next generation of hybrid vehicles, which emit less pollution and greenhouse gas, has arrived and can't be stopped," he continues. The Total expert is convinced that, "In the future, new types of ground, air and maritime transportation running on compressed or liquefied natural gas, electric power or hydrogen will be the norm."
Yet despite the fact that such market drivers are established, technological solutions are not enough. For Vincent Saubestre: "Technology has a major role to play, but is only one piece of the puzzle." A puzzle whose parts fall into four major families.
One of them is stakeholder ecosystems working to achieve the same end. This includes technology developers, small and medium businesses, academics, cities, regions, countries and supranational organizations, standardization and regulatory agencies, financial backers and the user public. All must share the same commitment to supporting the development of cleaner transportation.
Another is a systemic approach. Besides the vehicles, for which material, powertrain and onboard information system specifications are needed, purpose-designed infrastructure has to be developed. In the case of hydrogen vehicles for example, hydrogen production, shipping and distribution and the technology to make the whole thing work safely have to be planned.
An overview of the vehicle life cycle, from start to finish of the energy value chain, is a third. For battery electric vehicles — and in light of projected growth — planners have to consider whether the raw material is available, where it's located and the associated geopolitical consequences. Issues related to collecting and recycling potentially toxic materials will then have to be grappled with. Many questions are still up in the air.
Lastly, several technological options must be pursued, because no one knows which solution — gas, hydrogen or batteries — will win out in the end. Natural selection in the marketplace will decide.
If there's any country where necessity is the mother of invention, it's China. The country's chronic air pollution has pushed its leaders into drastic measures, notably via the 13th five-year plan (2016-2020). "China's New-Energy Vehicles roadmap sets very precise quantified targets. Vehicles with internal combustion engines must lower their current consumption of 6.9 liters per 100 kilometers to 5 liters in 2020 and 4 in 2025. Electric cars must boost battery energy density from 115 Wh per kilogram to 260. China has phenomenal potential to make an impact and get everyone to fall in line with goals," asserts Vincent Saubestre.
Its domestic market is sizable enough to support large-scale development. Models comparable to those manufactured by Uber or Tesla, such as those made by BYD Auto, which produces more units than Tesla, can thrive without international markets. In fact, stakeholders all speak the same language and are working toward the same goal.
"Total has real opportunities in China. At the 8th Total China Scientific Forum (TCSF), dedicated to innovation in future transportation, we were dealing with people who, like us, think long term about common topics and interests," says the senior vice president, R&D strategy. And things are moving fast. "In our fields, the most complex phase is moving on to commercial-scale demonstrators," notes Vincent Saubestre. "In that respect the Chinese have a tremendous capacity to act. I'm thinking in particular of the Suzhou Automotive Research Institute, which studies everything transportation-related — self-driving vehicles, powertrains, connectors, behavior recognition — and is incubating start-ups." At the annual forum held in Shanghai, Total discussed the major topics related to the mobility of the future, including innovative technology, energy solutions, onboard intelligence, future batteries, and hydrogen and natural gas solutions with the scientific community, OEMs, investors, start-ups and Chinese government representatives. As Bertrand de La Noue, Total's general representative in China, pointed out: "It's crucial for Total to comprehend and incorporate the changes taking places in transportation, whether in Europe, the United States or China."
China, the future global leader in clean transportation, seems to want to set the tone for the automotive industry and its ecosystem — including fuel suppliers. So adapting and anticipating are priorities. "We know how to change fast and efficiently," says Vincent Saubestre. "If we limited ourselves to just being a fuel supplier, we'd have a few things to worry about! Let's channel our pioneer spirit to get ready for these new opportunities, through our expertise in the lubricants and special fluids that will be used in future vehicles, for example. Or, in terms of managing battery thermal characteristics and our knowledge of hydrogen vehicle materials, not to mention SAFT for batteries. "
On top of major technology shifts, habits are also going to change: fewer vehicles will be sold but more miles driven. Those are the takeaways of an IHS Markit study. "A shift from buying cars to buying 'mobility' will be a driving force of change in the automotive future. By 2040, vehicle miles traveled will have grown to an all-time high of around 11 billion miles per year (a 65 percent increase since 2017) in China, Europe, India and the United States." Will ownership give way to mobility-as-a-service? In Vincent Saubestre's opinion, what's important "is to look ahead to the low-carbon future, in other words, the direction that Total is moving and its 2035 ambition. Our role as researchers is to push the envelope, be even more ambitious and spot opportunities to invent the new fields and new businesses that will emerge after that date."
Lastly, when you ask this "professional nomad" who has spent 33 years crisscrossing the globe whether the pleasure of driving and the automotive culture might not disappear, he points out that "Horseback riding didn't stop when horses vanished from the city." And that for people who will always thrill to the "vroom of a powerful engine," there will probably always be places aficionados can distill their gasoline and burn up the track.
"But don't forget that electric motors are already beating their ICE equivalents," he concludes.
1 Air pollution includes ambient pollution, composed of particulate matter and gasses, and household pollution, produced by various forms of combustion (wood, dry animal dung or crop residues).