SAE WCX 2022: The Road to Zero Emissions Has Many Lanes

While BEVs are rapidly gaining traction as the “green” alternative to ICE, they should not be the only solution under consideration.

A zero-emission future will require a host of diversified propulsion systems. (Toyota)

Emissions are currently one of the hottest macro topics across the automotive industry. Governments around the world are ramping up regulations over the coming decades to reduce the carbon footprint of light and heavy-duty vehicles. While more stringent regulations certainly encourage R&D of advanced propulsion technologies which reduce CO2 and other emissions, policy alone does not will these technologies into existence. So, what does the road to the global effort to eliminate emissions look like?

This is the question that Kelly Sencal and Felix Leach (below) aim to answer in their co-authored book Racing Toward Zero. Sencal holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and is the Co-Owner and Vice President of Convergent Science, while Leach is an Associate Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford where he received a Master of Engineering. Their book outlines the challenges in developing sustainable transportation including low-carbon fuels, alternative energy sources, and the role of regulation in curbing emissions, as well as the total environmental impact from production to end-of-life.

“If we are to truly decarbonize transportation, we need to clean up every step throughout a vehicle’s lifetime,” wrote Leach (below, left). “The road to zero is a long and complicated one. It’s not nearly as straightforward as ‘electrify all the cars and make all electricity renewably.’” To this end, Sencal points out that BEVs are not the only solution for reducing emissions and that the solution to the issue in the future is likely going to be an eclectic one. “The electric vehicle is not ready. And it can’t and shouldn’t have to fight this battle alone,” Sencal penned. “In fact, one of the most immediate ways to go green is by improving the ICE.”

Leach (left) and Sencal at SAE’s 2022 World Congress with a copy of the book they co-authored Racing Toward Zero. The pair fielded questions from attendees in an open forum setting and discussed their theories on what the best approaches were to the overall reduction of emissions in ever aspect of the automotive industry. (Matt Wolfe/SAE)

While that statement my fly in the face the current trends in global emissions regulations and the electrification strategies of many OEMs, Sencal later outlines several advanced technologies and strategies for the reduction of CO2 emissions from the ICE such as Gasoline Compression Ignition, Premixed Charge Compression Ignition, and dedicated EGR systems as well as options for carbon-neutral fuels. “If today’s ICEs operate at, say 12-35% efficiency for gasoline engines, its possible that with one or more of these advanced concepts…an overall vehicle efficiency of 80% is possible with an ICE efficiency of 60%.”

At SAE’s 2022 World Congress in Detroit, MI, Sencal and Leach fielded questions from attendees in an open forum setting on subtopics such as the role of regulation in the industry’s effort in the reduction of greenhouse gasses and how to best approach meeting them. “I think regulation needs to begin to include lifecycle analysis very quickly so that we consider all the pollutants,” said Leach. It doesn’t matter for climate change where the CO2 is emitted.”

Leach also pointed out the pitfalls of lifecycle analysis and what their role should be in dictating global emissions regulations. “The problem with that when doing a lifecycle analysis, it’s really hard to get a fair assessment approach,” said Leach. “You (also) need to account for differences between countries. In the UK for example, we don’t manufacture as many products anymore, so we get other countries to manufacture it for us which means we effectively import the CO2 emissions. Which is why we need to concentrate less on picking technologies and more on solving the actual problem which is CO2 emissions.”

Sencal affirmed his co-author’s statement, stating “A big point we make in the book is that LCA is very complicated. If you want to get a certain answer, you certainly can. If you want to show that ICE is better, find and LCA that shows that. If you want to say BEV is better, you can also find and LCA that does that. That’s certainly a problem, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw away the methodology. We just need to improve the methodology and come up with some unbiased standards that the industry can agree on. That needs to be role of the legislation.”

Racing Toward Zero: The Untold Story of Driving Green  was published in 2021 by SAE International. Its ISBN is 978-1-4686-0146-6 and is available for download both in digital or print formats on SAE’s website for $28 USD.