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On Tuesday, August 8, Mazda announced plans to introduce a compression gasoline engine to meet its long term sustainability goals, bucking the trend of automakers embracing electric technology. Compression ignition technology works by igniting the fuel-air mixture through the compression of the piston; there is no need for spark plugs. According to Mazda, this results in improved torque of up to 30% and improved engine performance of up to 45% compared with a 2008 gasoline engine of the same displacement. Compression gasoline technology offers the low-gear torque and fuel economy benefits of diesel without sacrificing limited fuel availability, cold-weather starting issues, and tepid acceleration. However, the new technology faces roadblocks from intellectual property protection, long-term testing needs, governments, and the advent of electric vehicles. While compression ignition gasoline may delay the onset of electric vehicles, the technology does not fundamentally differ enough from conventional internal combustion engines to offer a meaningful alternative to electric.
Mazda’s proprietary Spark Controlled Compression Ignition will give Mazda a distinct competitive advantage but, due to the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, Mazda may risk losing mass adoption if it does not share the technology with other automakers. Mazda is a small player – it controlled 1.8% of the global passenger car market in 2015 according to Euromonitor International and JATO Dynamics. By comparison, Toyota and Volkswagen controlled 9.4% and 8.6% of the market in 2015, respectively. Premium marques Mercedes-Benz and BMW controlled 2.7% and 2.6% in 2015, respectively.
Because of Mazda’s small size and the fact that other automakers are increasingly embracing electric vehicle technology, Mazda needs other automakers to adopt its compression ignition technology. To do so, Mazda may have to relinquish intellectual property rights to the technology. Especially given Mazda’s history with rotary engines – another unconventional engine architecture that ultimately proved unreliable and fuel inefficient – Mazda needs to quickly prove the long term durability of compression ignition, which may not be feasible without other automakers’ buy-in.
France’s and the United Kingdom’s bans of new gasoline and diesel vehicles starting in 2040 shows that Mazda has an uphill battle to fight to prove the legitimacy of its new combustion technology. Other countries like Norway heavily subsidize electric vehicle ownership and aim to eliminate the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles by as early as 2025. These long-term policy decisions can be overturned, but add to the barriers that Mazda needs to overcome in the near future to show that its compression ignition technology surpasses the environmental and mechanical benefits of electric powertrains.
While more efficient internal combustion engines may delay the mass adoption of electric vehicles, electric technology offers technical advantages that internal combustion engines cannot overcome. Specifically, electric motors take up far less space than internal combustion engines and operate using fewer moving parts, which means less research and development for automakers and less wear and tear for consumers. Electric motors also deliver full power nearly instantaneously, besting the improved torque from compression gasoline engines. Further, in most cases, electricity generation uses less fossil fuel than the oil and fuel powering internal combustion engines.
Electric cars still have major hurdles to overcome – namely a lack of fast charging stations and prohibitively high prices. However, as an increasing number of automakers embrace electric technology as a means to reduce build complexity and governments embrace electric technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, investment in charging stations will increase to meet consumer demand and the price of battery technology will decrease due to scale and research and development. Compression ignition gasoline may have the power to effectively challenge diesel engines but is too little, too late when it comes to electric.
Despite Mazda executive Robert Davis saying that the “impending death of the internal combustion engine is overrated” to Automotive News in August 2017, Mazda is keen to learn about electric vehicle technology. Through a joint venture with Toyota, Mazda and Toyota will build a $1.6 billion plant in the United States under the premise that Mazda will share with Toyota its advanced internal combustion engine technology and that Toyota will share with Mazda its extensive knowledge about electric vehicles. While Mazda may receive the benefit of having Toyota test its compression ignition engine, the magnitude of the investment and Toyota’s decades-long experience with electric vehicles highlights Mazda’s long-term interest in avoiding missing the boat on what looks to be the future of powertrains.