„We Do Not Have Much Time Left in This Race“

Prof. Koch (KIT) calls for the coexistence of e-mobility and combustion technologies to defossilize mobility

Further improving the carbon footprint of combustion engines, eliminating other emissions and optimizing the overall system through simplification: Prof. Dr. Thomas Koch has made these three overarching goals the focus of his research. The head of the Institute for Piston Engines (IFKM) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) is known for taking a clear stance and not shying away from political debate. As one of the top speakers at the International Engine Congress (February 27 and 28, 2024, Baden-Baden), he will shed light on the potential of diesel technology for tomorrow's car drives, among other things. In the run-up to the congress, he answers our questions.

Prof. Koch, how do you assess the current discussion about the future of mobility?

Prof. Koch: Unfortunately, in my view, politicians are often ignoring the realities and physical facts in their discussions and actions. As far as the ban on combustion in Europe by 2035 is concerned, for example, I assume that a political correction will be unavoidable. It is clear to me that we will continue to need the combustion engine – certainly as a hybrid and powered by electric or biofuels – alongside the electrified drive to enable individual mobility. However, the problem is that the current policy in Europe is creating facts that may not be reversible later on. After the European Parliament elections in June this year, it will take at least a few months for a new political agenda to emerge. But that is time that we no longer actually have.

What do you think is so time-critical?

Prof. Koch: The development and production of combustion engines is not a disco or an amusement park that can be closed at will and simply reopened years later after a thorough cleaning. Once we give up this expertise, which makes the European automotive industry a world leader, it will be irretrievably lost. In this sense, the current policy is creating fatal facts. The crucial question is therefore: will we still be able to retain and maintain this high level of system expertise – or will we dismantle it, as has happened in the past with nuclear power, genetic engineering or turbine technology. A long-term, strategic economic policy would be particularly desirable.

If you want to preserve combustion technology, what is your idea of more climate-friendly mobility?

Prof. Koch: We don't need to abolish the combustion engine – we need to defossilize transport, i.e. achieve a sustainable reduction in CO2 emissions. This in turn requires openness to technology, competition between technological systems and a willingness to research and develop hydrogen and e-fuels more intensively. It is not the efficient energy converter combustion engine that is a discontinued model, but fossil fuels. These must disappear in the long term. That's why I don't see electric and combustion engines working against each other, but together.
However, I increasingly have the impression that the paths to defossilized mobility are being deliberately obstructed. In essence, certain interested parties seem to be more concerned with completely suppressing individual mobility. Yet mobility has a high, if not indispensable, value for our society and economies!

How do you assess the trends outside Europe? Is the combustion engine also being phased out in China, for example?

Prof. Koch: Even if this tale is told again and again, the opposite is true. It is true that China has strongly promoted electromobility over the past ten years. A key reason for this was the desire to reduce its dependence on high oil imports and instead make more intensive use of its own coal reserves – to generate electricity for e-cars, among other things. At the same time, however, Chinese politicians and the automotive industry are well aware that electrification is reaching its limits. Instead, they are now focusing on a mobility mix and are working intensively on methanol and other alternative fuels. The plan in China is clearly to further develop the combustion engine – and thus serve the global market. This was confirmed in a Chinese government position paper in December 2023.

Why is the combustion engine so essential?

Prof. Koch: E-mobility will not be competitive in the compact car segment at market-driven costs for the foreseeable future. Instead, we should use the enormous technological leap that we have made in Europe with diesel and build on it. The technology is established and appreciated by consumers and can also be produced in compact cars at competitive costs. It is also important to push ahead with CO2-neutral fuels. In many countries such as Italy, for example, the non-fossil diesel HVO100 is already available at the pump.
The most important thing, however, is that we should conduct the discussion about the future of mobility from a business and technical perspective – and not in the ideological way we are doing at the moment.

How realistic do you think it is that this wish will come true?

Prof. Koch: At least I am observing an increasing willingness in both industry and politics to face up to these questions and not put all their eggs in one basket in the form of e-mobility. In the end, no technology will prevail unless it is accepted by the market. Take a look at the fleet business, for example: Many companies have already deliberately returned to diesel for their fleets and even forbid employees from leasing an e-car – not only because of the range and infrastructure issues, but above all because of the high charging costs. In a direct comparison with a corresponding mileage of 40,000 to 50,000 kilometers, the diesel remains unbeatable. In addition, even without reFuels fuels, diesel still has a CO2 advantage in the German electricity system compared to a purely electric vehicle, as the latest VDI balance sheet analysis showed!

Overall, I am very worried about whether the race against time can still be won and whether we can maintain the future viability of the European automotive industry. With luck, we can win the race with a black eye and a few aching ribs. However, we don't have much time left! Because in just a few years, the furnace will literally be out.

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Source: Karlsruher Instititut für Technologie (KIT)

Prof. Dr. Thomas Koch, Head of the Institute for Piston Engines (IFKM) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), is one of the top speakers at the 11th International Engine Congress.