Volkswagen’s e-car ID.3 in the auto city of Wolfsburg
Photo: Hauke-Christian Dittrich / dpa
The last hopes for the internal combustion engine rest on so-called e-fuels. Made from water, electricity and CO₂, these synthetic fuels are potentially carbon neutral. What’s more, they can be refueled at the pump like gasoline or diesel – a dream come true for everyone in the automotive industry who makes a living from pistons, spark plugs or camshafts.
But Volkswagen, of all companies, is firing sharply against this technology. “The so-called “potentials The potential of synthetic fuels is “generally massively overestimated”, Wolfsburgers take a stand on a planned federal law on renewable energies in transport. Their production is “complex, cost-intensive, not very climate-efficient and with low efficiency”. Considerations of producing fuel for cars in this way are considered nonsensical by the authors of the VW paper. The statement is available to SPIEGEL.
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The words mark a new escalation in a directional dispute that has divided the industry in Germany for some time now. While U.S. company Tesla is setting the pace with battery-powered cars and Toyota is focusing heavily on hydrogen, the industry in Germany is divided over which technology will be the future – and whether a favorite can even be foreseen yet. VW is fully committed to battery-powered vehicles, while others give e-fuels or even hydrogen a good chance in the medium to long term.
Many managers rave about e-fuels
There is only one point on which the parties involved are in fundamental agreement: CO₂ emissions from automobile traffic must be drastically reduced in the coming years, not least as demanded by lawmakers. There has been disagreement for years about how to achieve this goal.
Time and again, executives from automakers and major suppliers have spoken out about clean hydrogen from renewable energy sources and their plans to use e-fuels in combustion engines. This is how CO₂-neutral mobility is possible, they say.
The industry association VDA writes in its statement on the planned federal law, the use of hydrogen and synthetic fuels is “in all transport applications” possible. In addition, the association is calling for higher targets for hydrogen and e-fuels than previously envisioned in the draft legislation. About the internal documents had first the “Suddeutsche Zeitung” reports. Similar tones have been heard recently, especially from BMW.
Experts criticize manufacturers’ dispute
VW, on the other hand, could hardly have formulated its position more undiplomatically. But CEO Herbert Diess insists on his point of view. In spring 2019, the VW Group had threatened to leave the VDA because the association lacked a clear stance on electromobility and wanted to keep all doors open when it came to future technology.
But who is right? And what does this debate actually bring to the industry??
“First of all, it is not helpful if the VDA and important representatives of the automotive industry disagree”, says Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. “It would make much more sense to ask what could lead to lower CO₂ emissions in passenger car traffic in the short term. In my estimation, this would lead to electromobility”, says Bratzel, referring to the battery variant.
Hydrogen remains nevertheless a future topic, above all for the heavy load traffic. “But the topic of hydrogen cannot be limited to traffic alone, and certainly not to passenger cars,” says Bratzel, says Bratzel. “To achieve this, the entire industry and all sectors must be considered.”
Enormous amounts of electricity required
Battery researcher Maximilian Fichtner, a professor at the Helmholtz Institute in Ulm and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), also seems slightly alienated by the debate. “I would like to see the same players who always preach openness to technology being just as committed to creating the conditions for these technologies – for example, green electricity.”, says Fichtner, who previously worked for twelve years in fuel cell development. “However, I see a discrepancy here.”
Fichtner also advocates a pragmatic approach, but emphasizes advantages of battery technology. “In a battery electric vehicle, about 70 percent of the energy used arrives at the wheel; in a fuel cell car, it’s 20 percent at most, and in an e-fuel vehicle, barely ten percent”, says Fichtner. “This begs the question: Can we afford this??” After all, a lot of green electricity is needed for the production of e-fuels. But that will probably be in short supply in the future “because our entire industry will be converted to CO₂ neutrality in the next few years”.
The extent to which the debate is confusing the industry is evident in the VW Group itself. While the company’s top management is pushing for energy to be put into expanding battery-powered electromobility first, there are dissenting opinions in its own realm. Porsche CEO Oliver Blume spoke out in favor of synthetic fuels at an automotive conference just last week. This, after all, with the caveat that e-fuels are still too expensive at present and will probably only be cheap enough to replace gasoline and diesel in ten years’ time.