The mobility revolution: the insights of a Renault Group executive

Philippe Brunet
Back in April, IFP School played host to Philippe Brunet, Alliance Senior Vice President, Powertrain and EV Engineering, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, member of the Management Board at Renault Group and a graduate of the school (APP 1988), for a lecture on mobility.
He agreed to answer our questions and provide an insight into the main challenges currently facing companies operating in the mobility and automotive sectors.


The global context and environmental issues: what are they and what do they imply in terms of the constraints placed upon automotive manufacturers?

Philippe Brunet:  « Rather than simply an evolution, as far as mobility and transport sector players are concerned, it is a fundamental revolution that is taking place. 

Environmental issues now take center stage, covering two aspects:
-    on a local level, particularly in towns and cities, standards aimed at reducing particle emissions to manage air pollution and preserve air quality;
-    secondly, on a planetary level, there is the increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases and the resulting impact on global warming. Countries apply and adapt regulations designed to reduce CO2 emissions, such as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (known as CAFE) standards in the USA, with equivalents also applied in Europe, as well as in other countries, including China (CAFC) and Korea (CAFK). 
Against this backdrop and following on from dieselgate in 2015, manufacturers now have to tackle both issues at the same time. 

The following observations can be made:
-    an unprecedented tightening-up of emissions standards, particularly in Europe, with the introduction of the RDE (Real Driving Emissions) test, which reinforces measures and broadens the test conditions to incorporate real driving scenarios;
-    an acceleration in terms of the frequency with which standards are revised;
-    unprecedented media pressure, driven, in particular, by new players (NGOs, municipalities, etc.), which is becoming increasingly global in nature, a new phenomenon.
This marks a radical shift from the context observed previously. And it concerns all automotive manufacturers! 

One of the consequences: diesel sales are falling. 

For private vehicles around the world, the challenges are driven by European and Chinese markets, which have some of the toughest environmental regulations. It is essential for manufacturers to take into account new standards and develop new technologies. »

What technologies are players primarily focusing on and what are the main challenges to be overcome? What are the possible scenarios?

Philippe Brunet: « In a context whereby traffic restrictions in cities are increasingly frequent and emission levels during the cold-start phase of vehicles are set to fall, it is necessary to reinforce exhaust gas treatment and electrify powertrains. 

Manufacturers are thus facing a dual challenge: They have to be able to invest in all technologies (gasoline/electricity/hybrid powertrains) and remain competitive from the customer’s point of view, both in terms of vehicle purchase price and the total cost over the vehicle’s life cycle*.

Managing IC engine emissions requires investment in after-treatment technologies, representing around 30% (or more) of the cost of the engine! In addition, the cost of the battery currently accounts for around 50% of the overall cost of the car (and not of the engine!). 

In this context, hybridization may be seen as a transition technology as we wait for the cost of the batteries to fall below the costs of after-treatment technologies. The challenge lies in reducing the cost of batteries, while increasing their capacity and range and reducing charging time!

Also, since the performance of a hybrid powertrain depends on the performance of the IC engine, the gasoline engine still has a role to play! This is primarily true for the reason just given, but also because some markets are almost exclusively dominated by a demand for gasoline engines. Such is the case in Russia, for example, where CAFE regulations are yet to be deployed.

Nevertheless, manufacturers are researching alternative technologies of considerable interest, such as hydrogen and the fuel cell. But numerous problems still remain: the storage space that would deliver the desired range, clean hydrogen production and the roll-out of dedicated infrastructures. However, these technologies may find an application in the heavy truck sector until such time as they are sufficiently mature for an application in private vehicles. »

Why do you refer to a mobility revolution? What currently lies behind all these transformations?

Philippe Brunet: « Manufacturers are bound by considerable external constraints forcing them to accommodate the fundamental intrinsic changes taking place. It is for this reason that the term revolution is appropriate.

The technological challenge lies in being able to overcome numerous constraints:
-    firstly, cost constraints. These are correlated with the maturity of the technologies themselves. On top of this comes another not insignificant source of cost increases: the development of a vehicle’s onboard connectivity in the context of the roll-out of driverless vehicles.
-    secondly, time constraints, with reduced development times due to the tightening-up of regulations and an acceleration in the introduction of new regulations. Manufacturers have to be able to prepare for the future, while meeting current expectations with their varied associated challenges.
-    thirdly, the need to invest in several technologies at the same time since there is no single solution. Alternative energy infrastructures and accessibility also need to be developed.
-    fourthly, customer expectations vary from one country to another and these expectations and regulations may evolve differently depending on the country.
In addition, within this radically evolving ecosystem, the human challenge is crucial. The technological transformation is primarily being driven by a tightening-up of standards that are changing at an ever faster pace. The potential risk, therefore, is that customer attitudes and habits fail to evolve at the same pace as the technological transformation under way. Users, for example, are not yet prepared to pay more for a greener car. 

Social acceptability is a major problem. Car manufacturers are thus faced with the challenge of ensuring prices remain affordable.

All this requires unprecedented internal transformations: supporting changes, transferring skills. 

It is vital to make the right decisions and train teams in tomorrow’s technologies, while continuing to work and produce to meet existing expectations. 

The only thing that is certain is that the answer will lie in the capacity of players to be agile and demonstrate adaptability. »

* Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)