Volvo’s push for electric cars is just a mild jolt

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My, oh my, didn’t Volvo just let the cat loose amongst the pigeons! What seemed like a normal news week, with the mainstream media trying to make headlines out of a boring G20 conference, exploded with news that Volvo was “abandoning” the internal combustion engine. Even Donald Trump’s failed handshake didn’t garner as much attention and Emmanuel Macron’s threat to impose capitalism on his socialist French subjects was relegated to Page 2 news.

OK, I exaggerate. But, nonetheless, there was much fevered talk of internal combustion’s impending Waterloo. Hard questions were posed: Would Big Oil, as lunatics like Tony Seba suggest, be out of business in the next few years? Would all Volvos really be electric by 2019? And how did the Swedes, seemingly bit players in the EV market, suddenly jump to the front of the emissions-free queue? Indeed, so dramatic was the alarm that it behooves us to step back, take a deep breath and put Volvo’s July 5th press release into perspective.

Officially, Volvo’s statement promised to “electrify” all its cars by 2019. That didn’t stop some in the mainstream media — The New York Times declaring “Volvo Cars became the first mainstream automaker to sound the death knell of the internal combustion engine” — from implying the automaker would soon convert its entire fleet into Tesla-like electric vehicles.

In actual fact, what the company’s official statement proclaims is that, by 2019, it “will introduce a portfolio of electrified cars across its model range, embracing fully electric cars, plug-in hybrid cars and mild-hybrid cars.” The key word in that sentence, I suspect, is “mild,” as in some — probably most — of the electrified vehicles the Chinese-owned automaker is promising will be mild hybrids. Depending on your perspective, mild hybrids are either hardly electric (Elon Musk decrying anything that still sports a piston and a connecting rod) or the near-term future of mobility (European manufacturers looking to get out from under their seemingly never-ending diesel catastrophe).

Essentially, what a mild hybrid does is replace a gasoline engine’s traditional alternator with a high-voltage motor-generator unit (MGU). By souping up said electric system, mild hybrids are able to extend the operation of current stop/start mechanisms — those annoying systems that shut down your engine at red lights and then instantly start them up again when the signal turns green — to shut down the gas engine when you’re coasting on the highway, flying down hills or just noodling around town. They also allow a little brake regeneration — recouping electrical charge when the car is braking — and can even act as a (very mild) power booster. They are also more efficient at driving ancillaries — such as modern electric power steering systems — reducing the parasitic drag on the engine.

You’ll note that nowhere in the previous paragraph did I mention an electric motor, Prius-like, driving the vehicle’s wheels. That’s because current mild hybrids can only indirectly supply power to the wheels — essentially through the alternator’s rubber belt to the gasoline engine — but not to the wheels directly. The gas engine still does all the grunt work, the small MGU serving only as an assist. Future “mild” systems may be able to power the wheels more directly by connecting to the transmission rather than the engine, but, measured by popular perception — a hybrid being defined as a vehicle with an electric motor attached directly to its wheels — current mild hybrids aren’t hybrids at all, merely gas engines with steroidal alternators.

So why the hubbub?

Well, for one thing, European automakers are desperate for a low-cost gasoline/electric alternative to the much-denigrated diesel engine while suppliers are touting fuel consumption improvements of greater than 10 per cent for mild hybridization. For another, mild hybrids are comparatively dirt cheap, costing between US$600 and US$1,000 to add a 48-volt charging system to a vehicle.

Indeed, cost is why I suspect most of the “electrification” that Volvo is promising will be mild. By way of example, the company’s XC90 T6 sport-ute is powered by Volvo’s incredibly efficient supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder. The T8 version of the same vehicle takes that powertrain and adds an electric motor and a 9.2 kilowatt-hour battery. A true “plug-in,” the T8 eAWD can travel about 20 kilometres on electric power alone and is rated at a little over nine L/100km compared with the 10.6 L/100 km the gasoline-only T6 consumes.

The problem is the T8 costs $74,450 versus the T6’s $62,700. I’ll save you reaching for your iPhone; the difference is $11,750. The smaller XC60 sees an even bigger $17,350 jump to the T8 plug-in version. So, unless Volvo is determined to commit självmord — the Swedish word commonly denoting suicide also happens to mean self-destruction — we shouldn’t be looking for plug-in powertrains in every 2019 V60. Indeed, chances are that for the foreseeable future the vast majority of all Volvos will still be powered by good old-fashioned internal-combustion engines.

Does this diminish the import of Volvo’s pronouncement? Other than perhaps a little deliberate — perhaps I should say cynical — manipulation of a gullible media, I’d say no, not at all. Even mild hybrids, as simple and deceivingly named as they may be, are a worthwhile step forward, one that will reduce the company’s carbon footprint. To universalize that technology is noteworthy news. Besides, Volvo is also promising to unveil five actual electric vehicles between 2019 and 2021.

Perhaps more importantly, does this advance the cause of electric vehicles?

Well, yes and no. The yes part of that answer lies in furthering the perception, in the public’s eyes, that the era of electrification is inevitable. Other automakers will no doubt view the reaction to Volvo’s pronouncement with envy and want to capitalize on similar statements. On the no side, it’s doubtful said pronouncement will spur any new technological advancement, mainly because all automakers are already furiously developing similar mild-hybrid technology. Why Volvo has the upper hand in this race is that it uses essentially the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine to powers all of its cars. This gives Volvo a huge advantage compared with giants such as General Motors in only having to only re-engineer one powertrain — as opposed to many.

The ultimate irony, however, in all the attention being paid Volvo’s missive is that mild hybrids are hardly new. What is now being celebrated as a breakthrough for Volvo was first introduced, almost a decade ago, by none other than GM as its belt-alternator-starter system (BAS) on Saturn, Buick and Chevrolet engines. Perhaps it’s a measure of The General’s lack of reputational equity or simply a matter of poor timing, but the American version of mild electrification was roundly decried as less than hybrid and sold poorly.

Sometimes, public relations are way more important than engineering.

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