Change was always coming to the automotive industry, but events during the final four months of 2015 accelerated the pace of that change. As news of the Volkswagen emissions scandal broke just after the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show, the pressure on engineers to develop technologies that reduced emissions – whether CO2, NOx or particulates – grew inexorably.
It's a situation that has already been murmured about many times at the beginning of 2016 by OEM and supplier executives and engineers, both at the CES show in Las Vegas and at conferences including Automotive World in Tokyo. The paraphrased quote that stuck in my mind while attending the latter was this: the past four months will do more to change the industry than the last four years.
Change was always a given – legislation in Europe has been shifting us closer and closer towards vehicles with lower and lower emissions, increasing the complexity of combustion engines whether gasoline or diesel, and moving us towards greater levels of electrification.
It's something we can't hide from, but it seems strange that the impact of what Volkswagen did during North American official emissions tests could have such an effect on the entire industry, accelerating development more than the continuous tightening of legislation.
But this impact, and the move to highly electrified powertrains, isn't something that needs to be feared.
Combustion engines will still be at the heart of the vast majority of vehicles for many decades to come, and their efficiency will push well past the 40% barrier, especially as more firms begin to use Miller and Atkinson cycles, linked with technologies including variable compression ratios, cylinder deactivation and perhaps even HCCI. The industry now has an opportunity to become far more revolutionary.
Hybridisation, even when using only 48V systems, means that, as well as better efficiency, we could also see performance boosts. And with engineers and researchers looking to increase onboard voltages on plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles beyond 650V, electric-only ranges achievable on a single charge could exceed by many times what is currently possible. Imagine driving more than 500km without needing to recharge.
And, as was highlighted at the CES show, with increasing levels of connectivity – and by that I don't mean vehicle occupants able to access their social media accounts – it becomes possible to update vehicles over the air with new software and from that increase functionality. So even once a car has driven off the production line it can be improved. Tesla increased performance of its Model S sedan with an over-the-air update, but what about the ability to improve emissions too by recalibrating management software, or extending range yet further?
The industry rarely has the opportunity to do more than simply be evolutionist, so this is a time to savour.