"Calm down, dear" became a catch-phrase in Britain linked with a TV ad, and maybe the world's automotive manufacturers could take the notion on board as they flail around seeking a new technology to replace internal combustion engines.

As governments around the world impose ever-tougher fuel economy regulations on the industry in the name of saving the planet from global warming or fending off the day when fossil fuel runs out, we hear how the future belongs to battery power, or hybrids, and maybe this week it's fuel-cells.

Volvo of Sweden, now owned by China, is pushing fly-wheels, which store power generated by the vehicle's motion, then unleash it at the appropriate time. General Motors' alliance partner Peugeot-Citroen of France is working on a compressed air hybrid which uses technology evolved from naval torpedoes to replace the battery on a conventional hybrid. The car in motion generates energy which is captured and used to fill a tank full of compressed air. When required, the air is released, expands and generates power.

This is all costing millions of dollars as the manufacturers fear being blindsided by a new technology which could leave them isolated and destroy their markets. The Renault Nissan alliance has earmarked more than $6 billion to develop battery-only vehicles. German premium car maker BMW is investing about $3 billion to develop its little i3 battery car and i8 plug-in hybrid sports car.

Miniscule battery share

But according to consultancy LMC Automotive, manufacturers can calm down a bit.

By 2025, 85 percent of cars and light vehicles globally will still be powered by traditional internal combustion engines, LMC says. And battery-only vehicles will account for a miniscule three percent. That makes Renault-Nissan's target of 10 percent by 2020 look dangerously over-optimistic. Renault-Nissan has since scaled back this projection, and admitted that it won't make its target of 1.5 million electric vehicles sold by 2016 either.

LMC Automotive analyst Al Bedwell points out that although the internal combustion engine will be hugely in the majority by 2025, it will use a significant amount of new technology, and some electrification. It will be much more fuel-efficient.

"The emergence of 48 volt architecture will use less fuel," Bedwell said from his office in Oxford, England.

Hybrids six percent

Currently, about 97 percent of automobiles are powered by conventional engines. LMC expects hybrids to make up six percent of the market by 2025, with fuel cells only 0.5 percent, and natural gas and flex fuel vehicles accounting for 6.5 percent. Battery-electric scores 3 percent.

"(Improvements to conventional engines) will save energy and weight and cost and will dramatically improve fuel efficiency of future vehicles," Bedwell said.

Brake energy recovery captures energy while the vehicle is free-wheeling and returns it to the battery. 48 volt architecture raises the battery power from the old 12 volts and allows lighter electric wiring to electrify previously mechanical, and heavy, systems for steering, coolant and oil. Braking and steering by wire also becomes possible. For some reason, new technology to eliminate wire connections and replace them with electronic connections carries the "by-wire" moniker, when for instance "fly-by-wire" means no wires at all.

 

Bedwell expects variations on the hybrid theme to take an increasing share of the market, with battery-only power failing to take off. Mild hybrids like that used in the Honda Insight use electricity to augment power to the engine, but can't be used independently of the gasoline motor. The Toyota Prius's full hybrid allows limited electricity-only use, while its new plug-in version extends this emission-free range. The extended-range electric Chevrolet Volt is always powered by electricity, but when the battery runs out, an auxiliary gasoline engine fires up to produce juice for the battery.

Not ready for mass market

"There will be growth in full hybrid and plug-in hybrids. Plug-ins will overtake battery electric. Battery electric will become quite common in the premium (luxury) sector. But I'm quite pessimistic about battery electric even out to 2025. It's too much of a trade-off for customers," Bedwell said.

"In the business sector it makes some sense, but for private buyers it is an area which will develop slowly. The cost, range and limitations on the time it takes to refuel and recharge, not to mention the lack of a recharging infrastructure, are negatives. Yes, there will be improvements, but not enough to make these mass market options for most people," Bedwell said.

Recent sales of battery-only vehicles bear this out, with Tesla Motors selling more of its hugely expensive Model S super-cars than Nissan has sold relatively cheap Leafs. Last year Nissan sold just under 10,000 Leafs. Tesla hopes to sell about twice that in 2013.

Chris Guile, analyst with IHS Automotive in London, agrees that by 2020, and perhaps by 2030, conventional combustion engines will still represent the lion's share of the European car market.

Lots of improvement left

That is unlikely to be much different in the U.S.

"Incremental developments in engine and transmission technology still have a way to go in terms of improved efficiency," Guile said.

Guile thought the Peugeot-Citroen hybrid compressed air system and flywheels had promise.

"The HybridAir system which Peugeot is investigating with Bosch (of Germany) is already in use in off-highway applications, so it may not need much further development to get it into on-highway applications. The flywheel technology may have slightly further to go in terms of development but both offer an interesting alternative to batteries," Guile said.

"We believe there is a modest chance that both systems will be introduced to the market, although the volumes are not expected to be large before 2020. The Volvo/Flybrid system appears to be the most developed at this point, and therefore the most likely to make it to the market," Guile said.

Like LMC's Bedwell, Guile say 48 volt technology will allow manufacturers to make big fuel economy gains with much less cost than expensive batteries.

"Vehicles (using 48 volt electrical systems) are an evolution of the existing technology, rather than costly revolution/step change seen with full hybrids. By offering a modest power/torque boost on a higher number of vehicles, the manufacturers can downsize their engines, and probably reduce their fleet fuel use at a lower cost than with full hybrids," Guile said.

Kaushik Madhavan, analyst with Frost & Sullivan based in Chennai, India, expects fuel cell technology to be significant but not for a while yet. Madhavan sees what he calls significant investments in hybrids and battery-only vehicles, but the latter will still only account for between four and six percent of global sales by 2020, much lower than Renault-Nissan's projection.

Relax

Internal combustion engines (ICE) will still be dominant, so everybody can relax a bit.

"ICE will still be the mainstay, no doubt, for the next 15 years," Madhavan said. "However the big developments will come from improving efficiency. This will include adoption of aggressive downsizing coupled with hybridization and advanced power train technologies," Madhavan said.

The rush by governments to force automobile manufacturers to cut fuel use drastically and electrify was born on the belief that excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) would heat up the planet to a dangerous degree, and that because fossil fuel supplies would run out sooner rather than later, oil and gas supplies should be conserved at all costs.

Recent developments have cast doubts on those two theories. The refusal of the global climate to warm up, despite increasing CO2 emissions, has caused some to question the theory. Meanwhile the advent of gas and oil fracking techniques, led by the U.S., means supplies are no longer in imminent danger of drying up.

So far, governments in Europe and the U.S. show no signs of easing their long-term policy of ever-improving fuel efficiency. The European Parliament is expected to vote soon for a new standard for 2025 - the equivalent of 78 miles per U.S. gallon. The U.S. standard for 2025 is already set at 54.5 mpg, almost twice the current level.

If it becomes apparent to Europeans that supplies of fuel are more abundant than ever, they will begin to question not only the high prices they pay - more than twice what Americans pay at the pump - but the whole push to force manufacturers to make constant and very expensive improvements to fuel efficiency.