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"In polluted Delhi, the diesel car of the future may act like a filter on the road"

Sumant Banerji     November 29, 2019

India's automobile industry finds itself in unwanted spotlight as thick smog hangs heavy over the skyline of North India. New Delhi recently achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the most polluted city in the world. But is the motor industry all to blame? Dr Ameya Joshi, who heads Emerging Technologies and Regulations for Corning Inc, one of world's leading innovators in material science talks about the politics of emissions and the way forward to Sumant Banerji of BT.

BT: Next year, India will leapfrog from BS IV to BS VI emission regime. How unprecedented is this?

AJ: India is in many ways taking what has already been learned from European regulations. It is a bit of a heads-up that we enjoy here. Even though it looks kind of abrupt, there is much more technical know-how behind it and a lot of thought put in by the government by looking into these regulations. It's a bold step forward because all these reductions in India for fighting pollution is critically needed right now.

BT: There has been a lot of talk on how to quantify emissions. Many countries talk of phasing out fossil fuels. Should India do the same?

AJ: There's growing emphasis on emissions globally. The emphasis is two-fold. One is reducing tailpipe emissions from vehicles. Second, is ensuring norms are met when they are driven on the road and not in some lab. There are differences in how diesel and gasoline are being phased in Europe versus China and India is following the European style.

BT: Would you say the dieselgate scandal of 2015 was the tipping point where the narrative on emissions changed?

AJ: Change was happening even before that but it provided that last ignition point for this. And this is definitely needed today. It acted as a catalyst so to say for the policymakers to work on quickly.

BT: Is industry even now on the back foot on emissions or is it more balanced now that it's been almost three to four years since the scandal broke out?

AJ: It's much more balanced now that there is a tremendous amount of progress that has been made by the industry in the past few years. Since dieselgate the industry realized that it must get this right and there is no escape now. Hence, a lot of work has been done and the industry has now moved from what needs to be met on emissions of the future to looking at what's even further into the future. Now the industry is making sure that it isn't going to exceed the norms and make sure cars are really clean. It's everyone's responsibility. Fuels to tailpipe emission to every engine, everything must come together. I am glad it's happening.

BT: There's a big question over the viability of diesel as a technology. What is your sense of what major OEMs are thinking worldwide?

AJ: Firstly, in the heavy-duty side, diesel engine has a long way to go. There is lot of conversion happening from diesel to gasoline and to compressed natural gas but still for most of the long-haul applications, diesels are here to stay for a few years. On the light duty side, clearly diesel has taken a hit. An image hit after the dieselgate and also a lot of political hit. Its' got an image that it's not clean. One thing to recognize is that from a CO2 perspective diesel engine offers a lower CO2 and the reduction (in CO2) as compared to gasoline increases as you go to heavier vehicles. Especially, if you are comparing an SUV in a diesel versus gasoline now, you do get a much bigger benefit. For countries like Europe which are mandating a 30 percent reduction in CO2 for the next level of fuel economy, OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are going to really struggle to meet the CO2 targets. If overnight Europe goes to gasoline, it's going to be a big challenge. So diesel engine has a role to play in that transition.

BT: But the scandal seems to have hit the nail in the coffin for diesel.

AJ: From an emission perspective, the timing of the whole dieselgate scandal was very unfortunate. It happened just when the regulations, the measurement techniques, the industry were in place, so diesel took a hit. But if you see today the RDE (real driving emissions) compliant diesels that are being certified are super clean in Europe. And by super clean, there is data to suggest diesel tailpipe emissions of 20 milligram per kilometer.  Which is to say if today diesel is at 80, potential Euro VII or Bharat stage VII could be roughly say 40. We are already talking 20 today, half of that, which shows it can be done with appropriate technology.  

BT: What about particulates which contributes so much to the smog that we suffer from in Delhi?

AJ: I just read a paper yesterday about fleet testing in Zurich where they have the histogram of particulate emissions from diesel. Roughly the average of diesels with good working filters was 10,000 particles per cubic centimeter. That is around 10 micrograms per meter cube if you do conversions, which is the World Health Organization recommended minimum for good health. Delhi is at 150 so.....long way to go. How much are these 10,000 particles per centimeter cube? This room is a good example. Let's say 10 feet by 10 feet. So, if this room is filled with diesel exhaust, the amount of soot would be equal to four eyelashes. That's 10 micrograms per meter cube. That's how clean diesel has become. In fact, studies today show a good vehicle with a properly working particulate filter can actually clean the environment. If the AQI in Delhi is at 160 micrograms per meter cube and you have tailpipe emission of 10 microgram per cube, the car is actually sucking up atmospheric particles and emitting relatively cleaner air. It's working like a filter. And this is real data. For both NOx and particulates, the technology is ready. It's mature. However, diesel has taken a hit in perception. And like it or not, it is declining.

BT: Policymakers across the world seem unconvinced especially when the claim is being made by the industry.

AJ: That's true, policymakers are being super vigilant and that's why all of this in-use compliance (RDE) testing is happening. There's a new sort of activity in Europe going on called periodic testing - roadside testing of vehicles. They are doing every bit to make sure that you really catch vehicles which are high emitters and fix them quickly. But to be fair if you read all the regulations written, they are, so far, not directly excluding diesels. They are just no longer lenient towards diesel vis a vis petrol. So if you have a vehicle that meets their limit they're saying you can drive it or now. They are phasing out older diesels and that's fair. For final regulatory level they're not still phasing out diesels. There are no blanket bans. Some cities occasionally make statements that we are not going to allow older diesels in the city center and the headlines are always very misleading. I think once you have these actual real world data with compliant diesels running on the road, in a year or two with the data at hand, I think the mindset may change. We will have to see.

BT: How do you look at what is happening in India where the government completely goes from one direction to the other?  The broader underlying emotion is to do away with tail pipe emissions entirely. Do you think that's a good strategy to have for a country like India?

AJ: India is not alone. Most governments are struggling with this problem. You want to reduce fuel consumption and reduce pollutants. They don't go hand in hand all the time. If you want to really reduce pollutants you make engine changes frequent and they have an impact on fuel economy or vice versa. Trying to clamp down on both and make 100 percent EV, obviously is not going to work in the short term. Just mandating that from tomorrow you can only drive EVs is not feasible anywhere either. Governments are still trying to figure out what is the right mix and it depends on the mix of technology they promote. It depends on the local availability. So, if a country is rich in CNG, it is going to promote CNG.

BT: What is that good policy for India?

AJ: A good policy has a mix of all of this for many reasons. As I said, all your diesels have a lower CO2 than gasoline so, having some amount of diesel is probably okay. It also depends on what you want to do with the vehicle for heavy loads. For city driving, hybrid is probably better and there are lot of studies now which show roughly average gasoline hybrid today gives a 30 percent benefit compared to conventional gasoline and that puts it at par roughly with diesel. So, give some incentive to vehicle buyers. Moving them to hybrid probably will require a smaller incentive away from diesel or gasoline. On the other hand  promoting EV technology is also good because by the time your grid gets really clean you want the technology to be mature. California is struggling with the same thing and trying to motivate it. It is the same thing in China. India is being aspirational and as we reduce dependence on coal, let's push EVs but in the meantime hybrid is a good technology to pursue because it gives you reductions today.

BT: The confusion that prevails between regulators and policymakers on this topic, is it the same with manufacturers when it comes to resource allocation for future technologies?

AJ: There's definitely concern from manufacturers across the board that there are conflicting messages being given out by governments on which technology to be promoted. In the U.S., you have the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) versus California. There is a lot of confusion but broader picture is that OEMs are very cognizant of customer preferences. They are keeping a close eye on not just what governments are saying but what their customers are demanding. So they are being proactive and giving a voice to the consumers. There's a back and forth happening there.

BT: What is the customer voice that is completely missing in India?

AJ: A very high priority for customers is performance at the end of the day. You can do all of this analysis but at the end of the day when you buy a car and you get into it, the customer still wants that feel of higher torque or fuel economy and that a basic requirement of cars that will always be there.  Then, there is still a lot of concern among consumers on charging an EV for example. Will it charge in time? Or, I don't want to be waiting for 30mins even with rapid charge. There is range anxiety. In that sense, some people just like diesels for the feel of a diesel. There is going to be that customer segment which will say I don't care about anything, but I want my diesel. Clearly people have started liking turbocharged vehicles for example. So, there's that trend. I would say first they want the performance and then fuel economy and now, increasingly emissions are definitely playing into the factor for purchase.

BT: How far away are we from a time when EVs will be the predominant force in the global automotive industry?

AJ: People talk about this hockey stick where EVs will take off or be more than 50 per cent of the market. It depends on battery pricing. People say $100 per kilowatt hour prices is the tipping point. And there are ranges anywhere from 2025 to 2040 that has seen in the literature. So, there's a big spread in that. Long way to go, as we have to build charging infrastructure. Then the cost of vehicles has to come down to parity with (internal combustion engines) ICEs from an overall cost of ownership perspective. All of these things have to be lined up and its not easy. It's not just a matter of consumers liking EVs and buying it anymore. Still there is a definite price differential, like when China cut its incentives recently, the sales dropped. We are not there yet on a self-sustaining market.

BT: An electric car battery needs a whole lot of raw materials-lithium, Cobalt, nickel, chromium. Some are rare earth metals. Do we have enough resources to sustain an industry that produces almost 100 million cars a year or do we run the risk of a supply shortage where battery prices would eventually shoot?

AJ: There are multiple aspects to it. One is the there are a few raw materials which are going to be scarce. There's a geopolitical aspect, which is okay even if you have plenty of it but if it's located in Congo that's not necessarily the best place to get from. So, there is the political aspect. Countries like India probably hopefully are not going to rush into EVs directly and then find, we have these millions of vehicles to power with batteries and a shortage of raw materials.

There's also the recycling element. We haven't yet seen generations of battery electric vehicles similar to conventional ICEs. So, what happens when the battery dies after 10 years? How are we recycling or how many batteries do we need during a life of a vehicle? What about price shifting from the vehicle to or from fuel to electricity?

BT: What about the oil industry? Do you expect Gulf countries to reduce prices of crude if EVs became competition on operating cost?

AJ: Absolutely. The price of fuel itself is a big thing too. There's a lot of models out there which look at these things and make assumptions based on what you put in those numbers and you come up with different sort of end points. But in the end we have to look at all the raw material availability etc.

BT: So, given the level of uncertainty, should we stop seeing ICE vehicles as the villain of the piece?

AJ: Definitely you should stop seeing them as villain. My example earlier on particulates, that when you put a filter on it is super clean. You can see the exhaust is very clean both from particulate but also from NOx and hydrocarbon levels. The US standard for gas right now is 30 milligrams per mile for NOx and hydrocarbon combined. That is already lower than what Euro VII would be and there are vehicles running on the road in US which meet the regulations on the road. ICE vehicles are already pretty clean.

BT: So India has nothing to be worried about on environment with ICE vehicles?

AJ: India being worried about emissions is a good thing. That's why this leapfrog happened and is catching up with advancements. Hopefully by BS VII we might be closing the gap further. I would rate US, Europe, India and China as equal partners in making sure that the world becomes cleaner.

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