VW brand chief not concerned with e-fuels: ‘by 2035, combustion is over’

VW brand chief Thomas Schäfer said that recent discussion over an e-fuel exception to EU’s 2035 gas car ban is “unnecessary noise” and that “by 2035 [combustion engines] are over anyway,” in a recent interview with Automotive News Europe.

The interview mostly covered European topics, such as the availability of Volkswagen’s upcoming EVs in Europe. But the VW executive also spoke forcefully about electrification being a no-brainer.

The EU was recently about to finalize a plan to ban new internal combustion engine cars in 2035 across the bloc, but at the final hour, auto-producing countries, including Germany and Italy, objected. The proposal was slated not to get final approval until Germany made a compromise with the EU Commission, allowing e-fuels as a “climate-neutral” fuel for combustion vehicles.

E-fuels are synthetic fuels that can be produced from captured carbon emissions. They can be considered carbon neutral because those carbon emissions would have been released into the atmosphere, but are captured, turned into fuels, and then burned and… released back into the atmosphere. However, since their use as a fuel did not contribute to increased emissions over what the baseline would have been before their capture, this is why they are considered carbon neutral.

But e-fuels also need a source of carbon to be fueled with, to begin with, and most carbon capture currently happens in oil & gas fields. This carbon is often used to help drill more oil or used in tricky accounting to make firms look carbon-neutral when they aren’t. If carbon reductions from capture get double counted – for example, by the oil company doing the capturing and by the cars that are burning it – then we end up pretending that we’re making more carbon reductions than we actually are.

And they still emit as many harmful air pollutants as fossil fuels, and are therefore still harmful to human health.

It takes energy to make e-fuels as well, and that energy could just be used to fuel an electric car in the first place. Why waste solar and wind resources on converting carbon into fuel, only to burn it and release that carbon into the atmosphere, when you could just charge a car with the electricity from solar and wind in the first place?

And they also perpetuate the combustion engine. An e-fuels exception means that companies can continue making combustion engine cars, convince themselves that they’re carbon neutral, but also sell them in locales without an e-fuel requirement, which still causes just as much global warming. And those global warming emissions affect everyone, whether they happen in Europe or Saudi Arabia.

VW brand chief sees e-fuels as a distraction

So the e-fuel exemption is somewhat of a maintenance of the status quo or “unnecessary noise,” as Schäfer rightly called it:

What you do you think about Germany’s [subsequently successful] bid to modify the 2035 EU combustion engine ban to include cars powered by e-fuels?

Schäfer: That’s unnecessary noise from my point of view. By 2035 [combustion engines] are over anyway. We said by 2033 we’re done. By 2030 we plan that 80 percent of our vehicles sold in Europe are battery electric, so why spend a fortune on old technology that doesn’t really give you any benefit?

Who’s behind the German position? Party politics? VW Group CEO Oliver Blume?

Schäfer: It’s not Mr. Blume behind it. I guarantee that. This discussion around e-fuels is widely misunderstood. They have a role to play in existing fleets, but won’t replace EVs. That’s complete nonsense. Look at the physics of making e-fuels. We don’t have enough energy as it is, so why waste it on e-fuels?

VW has been among those at the forefront of the industry in terms of electrification. Much of its progress happened under former CEO Herbert Diess, who stepped down last year and was replaced by former Porsche CEO Oliver Blume.

There was some question over whether Blume would be as positive about electrification as Diess, who said consumers would be “dumb” to buy one of VW’s gas cars in 2021. But it looks like VW as a brand is at least charging forward with its EV plans, per Schäfer’s comments in this interview. And according to Schäfer, Blume, CEO of Germany’s largest company, apparently was not behind Germany’s push to get the e-fuel exemption into the EU regulations.

Schäfer points out that the e-fuel question is largely irrelevant to VW and should be irrelevant to the industry as a whole. VW is done with combustion engines, EV demand will be high by 2035, and there’s no sense in investing money to improve an inferior, older technology like combustion engines.

He also stated, in an answer about upcoming Euro 7 emissions regulations, that VW “would rather put [its] money into electrification during the final years of the combustion engine than make a final version of it that is prohibitively expensive.” If Euro 7 requires hefty R&D to make gas engines cleaner, why bother spending that money when EVs are already clean?

Electrek’s Take

Clearly, we agree with Schäfer here. Making exemptions to regulations purely to perpetuate combustion engines is folly.

Not only will companies be wasting money developing a dead-end technology (which Daimler, inventor of the combustion engine, stopped doing in 2019), but they’ll be giving up a perfectly good opportunity to electrify now. By wasting focus on dead technology, they only put themselves into a worse long-term position because the future is coming no matter what.

We see this happening in the US as well, as automakers’ current EV commitments aren’t enough in light of new EPA rules. Automakers could respond to these rules by begging for exceptions so they don’t have to follow the rules, or they could increase their commitments in recognition that technology, consumer desires, and the threat of climate change are all advancing quickly.

In the EU, some governments chose the former path, asking for exemptions. But more intelligent brands, like Voltswagen, seem to see the way the tide is changing.

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