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The future of low-emission vehicles – predictions in a time of changing regulations

03 March 2023

Passenger and freight transport is estimated to account for 20% of Europe's total CO2 emissions, which is why the European Union continues to set new limits on the sector's emissions. For example, the current regulation provides for a further 15% reduction in CO2 emissions for all vehicles by 2025, while the Fit for 55 package provides for a reduction of as much as 55% for passenger cars by 2030. The implementation of these targets is accompanied by changes to the rules for calculating emissions from different types of vehicles, including plug-in hybrids, which until now have been considered low-emission vehicles. 

Low-emission vehicles – what does that mean? 

According to the EU Regulation of the European Parliament and the Council, which sets CO2 emission standards for passenger and light commercial vehicles, an emission-free car is one whose tailpipe emissions are kept between 0 and 50 g CO2/km. By comparison, the current upper limit for CO2 emissions is 95 g/km. So naturally, there will be all-electric vehicles, hydrogen vehicles, but also various types of hybrid cars that at least half-use "green" propulsion. As it turns out, however, such a rule doesn't always work for hybrid vehicles, as it can't always be assured that they will operate primarily in the electric mode. This is especially true for plug-in hybrids, whose powertrain allows them to use the internal combustion engine even all the time.

Regulatory changes in Europe for zero-emission vehicles 

Most likely, plug-in hybrids will lose their designation as zero-emission vehicles in Europe starting in 2025. This is all due to a new way of calculating fuel consumption, which will take into account more realistic coefficients of internal combustion engine operation. This is because it turned out that, with financial incentives for potential buyers and with manufacturers not having to bear the emissions costs of such vehicles, they were able to develop a portfolio of larger, higher-powered hybrid cars, which can generate even more emissions in daily use than internal combustion cars. Especially since the latter often use much smaller, downsized units today. Due to the convenience of use comparable to combustion cars and the lack of recharging, plug-in hybrids have become one of the most popular types of cars purchased on the European continent – in 2020, Europe even overtook China in this regard. 

How much are the CO2 emissions of plug-in hybrids and combustion cars? 

The discussion regarding the real-world emissions performance of plug-in hybrids has been going on for quite some time. In 2020, for example, the German environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe reported that plug-in hybrids consume more electricity than BEVs and more fuel than traditional internal combustion vehicles, with CO2 emissions three to almost four times higher than claimed by manufacturers. Data from companies using combustion and hybrid vehicles in their fleet on a daily basis showed that the latter can emit as much as 499 g CO2/km, while the limit for fleets in the EU is just 95 g/CO2. Why such a difference? Declared emissions quoted by hybrid car manufacturers are based on measurements taken under laboratory conditions, assuming regular battery charging. In daily use, drivers of such vehicles do not always have access to a charging station or the time to carry out a full charging cycle, and as a result generally use the internal combustion mode. In the case of SUVs with capacious engines, this translates into very high emissions. The result of an ICCT think tank analysis of 100,000 drivers from Germany, the Netherlands, the US and China showed that they used electric drive only 37% of the time. 

What about low-emission cars beyond 2025? 

The definition of zero- and low-emission cars will not change. However, the fuel consumption of plug-in hybrids will be made more realistic. Currently, an unrealistically high share of electric propulsion can be assumed during type-approval testing, resulting in manufacturers quoting very low fuel consumption of as little as 1 liter per 100 km. The upcoming changes to the calculations are to be underpinned by real data collected by 2024 from the on-board computers of vehicles in daily use, and once again modified in 2027 so that even more realistic internal combustion engine usage rates can be assumed. The upcoming changes, however, will not affect the future of hybrid vehicles, in which the battery is recharged, for example, in the process of braking, since in this case the time of use of the combustion engine and electric motor is regulated automatically by the on-board computer, not the driver. 

The future is zero-emission vehicles 

Looking at the direction European Union legislation is heading, it won't be long before all new vehicles have to be zero-emission. Sales of electric cars are on the rise globally, and the phase-out of all internal combustion vehicles from automakers' offer in the European market is expected to take place in 2035, and this includes hybrids. Although it will be possible to use such cars and sell and buy them on the used-car market, their future seems a foregone conclusion. As predicted by the authors of the legislation, cars powered to any extent by an internal combustion engine are expected to disappear completely from European roads after a period of normal vehicle use of about 15 years. Still to be resolved, however, is the inadequacy of infrastructure in many countries to accommodate a complete transition to all-electric cars and the inadequate range of such vehicles. 

The role of EPP parts in developing green vehicles and reducing CO2 emissions 

At Knauf Industries, we are supporting the development of electromobility by expanding our portfolio of ultralight and highly durable EPP parts for green vehicles, from efficient insulation solutions to parts for electric battery packs. EPP foamed polypropylene is a very forward-looking material that has been accompanying automotive development since the 1980s. In that time has found ever-new applications in vehicle construction – from front bumper absorber to flat floorboard fillers in electric cars. The extraordinary ease of molding parts from this innovative material opens up almost unlimited horizons for designing new, lighter and stronger car bodies. The material, which is filled to 95% with air, effectively reduces the weight of electric cars, helping to increase their ranges, thus promoting their popularization.

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