Future Powertrains: Radical New End Game

By Contributed Article | June 20, 2016

In the coming decades the choice of land-vehicle powertrain will mainly be dictated by emissions conformance in addition to the best cost/performance compromise. This will result in a move to pure electric vehicles as laws tighten and technology improves.



auto-design-300x300The main powertrain options for land vehicles over the next 20 years, according to a recent IDTechEx report entitled Future Powertrains 2016 – 2036, comprise:

  • Conventional internal combustion engines (ICE) that drive the wheels through a transmission
  • Hybrid electric where an electric motor drives the wheels most or all of the time with the aid of a fueled engine and transmission
  • Pure electric, meaning there is no fueled engine on board but an electric motor uses on-board sources of electricity and minimal transmission

But there is more to it than this, as new variants become more practicable.

New Focus

In the coming decades the choice of land-vehicle powertrain will mainly be dictated by emissions conformance in addition to the best cost/performance compromise, and not by the independent factors of cost and fuel economy as in the past. This will result in a move to pure electric vehicles as laws tighten and technology improves.

Pure electric is already the norm for most small land e-vehicles such as electric bicycles, mobility for the disabled, scooters, e-tuktuks, e-rickshaws, and other microEVs, such as “quadricycle” homologation in Europe. Other examples are indoor forklifts and electric airport ground support equipment (GSE). Some are already large markets: For example, Terra Motors of Japan makes three-wheeled microEVs, and its team said Bangladesh alone is importing 500,000 of the vehicles yearly from China, and in India, the ICE three-wheeler replacement potential is more than five million. Additionally, the Philippines has 3.2 million taxi tuk-tuks that must be replaced due to extreme pollution, and the government has just announced that it will put one million EVs on its roads very soon. More than 70% of golf carts are already pure electric, the rest being internal combustion, not hybrid. Continuing this trend, many microcars are jumping directly from ICE to pure electric.

New End Game

Compared to previous understanding of the subject, significant “new” powertrain arrivals are 48V mild hybrids (MHs) – set to replace conventional ICE and non-plug-in strong hybrids – and energy-independent vehicles (EIVs). The Immortus car, which is currently fundraising for manufacture in Australia, is one example of an EIV, as is the NFH-H tourist microbus already on sale in China. Both solely rely on unusually efficient, large areas of photovoltaics for power. Indeed, the tourist bus is available without a battery in ultra-light lizard mode, waking with the daylight. Yes, the end game is even more radical than we thought, and we can glimpse it now.

EIVs may be headed to a multibillion-dollar business in 10 to 15 years, mimicking the EIV airships and planes that stay aloft for five to 10 years and are already the subject of billions of dollars of investment by NASA, Facebook, Google, etc. EIV powertrain impact will be huge, from Third World and remote communities to defense applications. EIV land vehicles could be a $250-billion business in 20 to 30 years. They will be significant long before that, however, in spawning new technologies useful in many types of vehicles (rather like Formula One today). Indeed, the world record-breaking Nuon Solar Team from the Netherlands, whose solar racers crossed Australia fastest, has already spawned five startups, and other solar racers have set records for photovoltaics and motor efficiency on land vehicles. Meanwhile, we are moving from range anxiety to range excess with PEVs as we await an “unlimited” range of EIVs. Will the Nanoflowcell pure-electric hypercar really have a 1000-plus-mile range as claimed? If not, one certainly will one day.

New Low-Cost Route to EV

The other extreme in developing ICE powertrains with three electric modes – silent take-off, creeping in traffic, and maintained-speed “active” coasting – is the 48V mild hybrid. It is the lowest-cost route to an electric vehicle at the larger C and D sizes of car and larger vehicles such as vans, trucks, and buses. Following the first series production in 2017 (and even then not yet in EV form), it is possible that 48V mild hybrids will peak at more than $250 billion in yearly sales before pure electric takes over; currently they look to be the only low-cost way that manufacturers can meet the tough 2030 emissions legislation with minimal hassle.

Common Enablers

Certain enabling technologies are common to most or all of the powertrain configurations we identify as commercially important over the coming 20 years, beyond the ubiquitous internal combustion engine. These include new reversing electric machines, power electronics, and lithium-ion batteries. However, it is misleading to say, as some have done in 2016, that this removes risk from powertrain choice. For example, a downsized, down-speeded ICE for a 48V MH manages huge load variations as primary traction, whereas one used as a range extender, by simply charging a battery when needed, may be at almost constant, gentle torque and revolutions – a completely different, far simpler design.

The same is true of a reversing electric machine (the modern equivalent of a traction motor, alternator, and starter) for a 48V mild hybrid versus one for a pure electric vehicle with much tougher traction requirements and no starter function. The one in a pure electric vehicle will increasingly get much of its charge from multiple energy harvesting and regeneration and not by the motor going backwards as with regenerative braking. Nevertheless, a trend toward multiple reversing electric machines per vehicle is seen from 48VMH right through strong hybrids to pure electric powertrains.

 Facilitating Change and Disruption

Certain approaches to powertrains, such as lightweighting, size reduction, cost reduction, and improvements in reliability, safety, life, and so on, will facilitate the above-mentioned priorities in design of the land vehicles of the future.

Much of this will be tackled disruptively, for example by structural electronics and new components such as GaAs photovoltaics or GaN power semiconductors that can remove the need for water cooling. The lithium-ion battery will be completely reinvented with new anodes, cathodes, and non-flammable electrolytes, which could remove the need for some safety sensors and electronics, possibly making them suitable for molding into load-bearing structures, to lower weight, save space, and reduce the cooling requirement. Supercapacitors, being electrostatic and not moving at all, are the first candidates for this, however. New systems will be added such as regenerative active suspension, high power charging, and inductive charging interfaces, as well as vehicle-to-grid (V2G) electronics on-board that become part of the powertrain. One worry is that that long-term testing will be useless if the original component in any of these has been withdrawn or redesigned radically on the production line while testing is carried out.


Forecasting is difficult indeed because one is estimating such things as unpredictable politicians and their subsidies and inventions yet to be made. Another factor could be cars becoming mainly rentals – throttling market growth – or mainly autonomous, making the powertrain a commodity, a view recently expressed by Porsche Engineering. IDTechEx forecasts EVs, hybrid and pure electric, in 46 categories and runs scenarios. In one, we see an eventual collapse in sales of both as mainstream pure electric vehicles become the most attractive and affordable option in the view of most mainstream buyers.

Author Dr. Peter Harrop is the chairman of IDTechEx, which provides independent research, business intelligence, and advice to companies across the value chain based on its core research activities and methodologies.

In-depth research reports from Bishop & Associates covering the automotive connector market include:

World Electric Vehicle Market

World Automotive Connector Market

Non-Automotive Transportation Market for Connectors

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