Global fleets will continue to be faced with a dizzying array of fuel choices for some time to come.
By Mark Boada, Senior Editor
Now that four countries — Norway, India, France and the U.K. – have decided to ban the sales of gasoline or diesel fueled vehicles within the next two to three decades, it might seem that electricity has already won the contest to become the vehicular fuel of the future. But even if it comes to predominate, electricity may not be the universal solution for years to come, if ever.
Instead, global fleets may be forced to depend on an ever-changing variety and mix of fuels and powertrains, depending on the countries or regions in which they operate, their mix of light, medium and heavy duty vehicles, and the nature of the trips their drivers make. The reason: each of the alternatives is still struggling to overcome limitations, which include cost, range, refueling time, refueling infrastructure, and fuel availability.
In addition, countries outside the U.S. and Western Europe may have difficulty getting off their dependence on coal for the generation of electricity, forcing them to rely on fuels that still produce greenhouse gas emissions, but at lower levels than gasoline and diesel. Here’s a rundown of the options still in the running for the global fleet of the future.
Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs): Electricity is, ultimately, the cleanest and cheapest automotive power source, and most countries have a power-grid in place that can help distribute it. What’s lacking is the recharging infrastructure, and building it out is going to cost trillions of dollars and take decades to achieve, even in the most highly-developed countries in the world. That’s one of the main reasons that the total global stock of electric vehicles stands at 2 million, or a mere 0.2 percent of 1 billion vehicles on the world’s roads. Of these, half are plug-in hybrids, which are subject to the bans.
Significantly, 95% of electric car sales are taking place in ten countries worldwide with the most recharging stations: China, the U.S., Japan, Canada, Norway, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, and even in these the growth rate of sales is slowing, as some government subsidies for purchases are being reduced. Meanwhile, the cost, re-charging times and range of all-electric vehicles, while improving, remain obstacles to wider adoption.
Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs): Cleaner-burning than gasoline or diesel, natural gas powers only some 150,000 vehicles in the United States but roughly 24.5 million vehicles worldwide, according to NGV Global, an international trade association. As with electric vehicles, the vast majority of the world’s NGVs — more than 90 percent — are in 10 countries, where natural gas is plentiful, cheap and widely distributed. Among these, the largest numbers are in China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Argentina, and Brazil. Light, medium and heavy-duty natural gas vehicles are available from original equipment manufacturers, and conversion kits are available for medium and heavy-duty vehicles from retrofitters.
Propane/LPG: Liquefied petroleum gas, also known as autogas, currently powers 26 million vehicles worldwide, making it the most common alternative fuel on the planet. Its appeal lies in price and the fact, unlike diesel, vehicles running on Autogas spew out next to no particulate matter at all.
According to gazeo.com, autogas is particularly common in the European Union (especially in Poland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Lithuania or Croatia), Turkey, Australia, South Korea, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, Serbia or Macedonia. Of these, Turkey is the country with the largest LPG-powered car ratio with 37% of all passenger cars running on the fuel. In Australia, there are 615,000 thousand autogas cars, many of them taxis. LPG-powered taxis are even more popular in Hong Kong, though – 100% of such vehicles are fueled with it.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs): If anything could replace BEVs, it might be electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells and whose emissions are water vapor and warm air. Development is still in the early stages, and sales in 2016 by the leading makers – Toyota, Honda and Hyundai – totaled just 1,000. Their advantage over BEVs is that they perform much like gasoline-powered vehicles, with long range and a refueling time of around five minutes.
What’s holding them back is a severe lack of refueling stations. While BEVs and NGVs are able to tap existing electrical grids and natural gas distribution systems, hydrogen fuel infrastructure is essentially starting from scratch. According to a study by Information Trends, there were just 285 hydrogen fueling stations worldwide, and at $1 million each, the report predicts that their number will remain relatively small over the next 15 years, reaching some 4,800 by 2032, with just 1,200 in the U.S.
Germany, the U.K., Japan, and South Korea are all making commitments to deploy hydrogen infrastructure. The most commercially viable locations for hydrogen infrastructure are in dense city centers, where vehicle owners from surrounding areas can access them without significant inconvenience.
Biofuels: Plant-based fuels have been used principally as additives in gasoline and diesel. Once a great hope to replace fossil fuels, current biofuels are now seen to have only the slightest potential as a future auto fuel. There are two reasons: producing and burning them still emit greenhouse gases, and their extensive use would crowd out land needed for food. While research on advanced biofuels continues, to date 100% pure biofuels have proven to cause more problems for engines than they have solved.
The International Energy Agency is a non-governmental organization sponsored by 29 nations, including the U.S, the U.K. Germany, France, Japan, Norway and Australia. In the 2017 edition of its annual report, Global EV Outlook, it projects that the worldwide number of electric vehicles will reach between 9 million and 20 million in three years, and between 40 million and 70 million by 2030. Those numbers would still leave more than 900 million vehicles powered by other fuels, many in countries without the infrastructure to support zero-emission automobiles.
Meanwhile, tax, fiscal and environmental policies and regulations are certain to shift, both forwards and backwards as governments try to reconcile the goal of reducing auto emissions with the reality of what they can afford. Over the next several decades, global fleet managers will be challenged as never before to find the fuel mix that optimizes their total cost of ownership.