Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that Mazda is being a Luddite, let’s be clear that Mazda will be introducing fully-electric vehicles in 2019 and plug-in hybrid models from 2021 onwards.
In fact, Mazda’s first attempt at a full-hybrid vehicle, the Japan-only Mazda Axela Hybrid that's based on a third generation Toyota Prius’ drivetrain, had impressed Toyota’s president and race car driver Akio Toyoda so much that he quickly established a joint venture company with Mazda.
After driving the Axela Hybrid, Toyoda-san was rumoured to have given his engineers an earful, as Mazda adaptation of Toyota’s own hybrid technology was found to be superior to Toyota’s own Prius. The 24 Hours of Nurburgring racer Toyoda-san was said to be especially impressed with Mazda’s ability to infuse a fun to drive character into the Prius’ green credentials.
Knowing that a friendly party is better than a rival, Toyota had together with Denso, another Toyota affiliate company, worked with Mazda to form EV C.A. Spirit Co., Ltd. The joint venture company is based in Nagoya, the same city where Toyota’s nerve centre is located in.
Through this joint venture, Toyota hopes to learn from Mazda on the finer art of making environmentally friendly cars that are also fun to drive. Mazda on the other hand, will be able to better secure its future thanks to Toyota’s vast resources.
If it wants to, Mazda can build an electric car right away. With less moving parts and ample choices of electric motors and battery packs from suppliers, building an electric car is a lot simpler than building a good internal combustion engine that meets all emission regulations. Just ask the post-dieselgate Volkswagen and their new focus on electric mobility.
By the way, Mazda's SkyActiv-D engines are still the only diesel engines in the world to comply with the toughest emission standards without requiring any expensive exhaust after-treatment. Its real-world emissions and fuel consumption have been independently verified by authorities in USA and Japan.
So if electric cars are cleaner and easier to build, what’s stopping Mazda from showcasing self-driving electric-powered concept cars, just like every major car maker? The simple answer is because electric drives and self-driving cars are contradictory to Mazda’s Zoom Zoom philosophy.
“We are a company of strange people, but we will never change our philosophy of building cars,” said a Mazda engineer that Carlist.my spoke to at the recently concluded Mazda ASEAN Media Forum in Hokkaido, Japan.
Mazda Vision Coupe Concept
Like many Mazda associates, the said engineer proudly admits that he is weird and strange, a subtle rebellion against Japanese society’s ideals on social conformity; to follow what the majority is doing. To put it bluntly, Mazda doesn’t give a damn about what others are saying and doing. Worse, they think everyone else is wrong in thinking that electric cars are the solution.
“We are not a big company. Our (global) market share stands at less than 4 percent, so we have to do things a bit differently” he said. In the eyes of investors, Mazda is not Wall Street material, but to the passionate people at Mazda, that’s exactly how they want it to be.
As a small company, Mazda can’t and won’t build cars that cater to every buyer. As a small company, Mazda needs to pick its battles wisely. It only wants to build cars that are worth building, selling only to people who love cars. For everyone else, there’s always a Toyota or a Honda.
Even when looking into the future, all Mazda concepts have a gear shifter, a tachometer, and a steering wheel, wrapped within a driver-focused interior. Large touch screens are not welcomed.
Now that we have established Mazda’s character, we will return to answering the question posted in the title of this story.
Are EVs Really Zero Emission Vehicles?
As mentioned earlier, Mazda is not against electric vehicles (EVs) or plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs). In fact, Mazda have plans to electrify their next generation engines. Where Mazda wants to distance itself is from the popular narrative that electrification is the solution to sustainable mobility.
Mazda’s question is simple – how can any migration to EVs or even PHEVs reduce emissions when 60 percent of the world’s electricity is generated from CO2 emitting fossil fuels. Even if one is to consider a large scale transition of power stations towards renewable energy, it will be many decades before these new plants can have the capacity to replace existing fossil fuel burning power stations.
Shifting from internal combustion engines to electrified drivetrains will merely shift the sources of emissions from vehicles to power stations. So how is this a solution?
Closer to home, more than 80 percent of Malaysia’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels – mainly coal and natural gas. Ten percent comes from hydroelectric power but while hydroelectric dams don’t emit CO2, their construction necessitate the destruction of vast swathes of rainforest.
Well-To-Wheel CO2 Emissions - Mazda is the only car maker to measure CO2 Emissions Holistically
Based on Mazda’s calculations, an average mid-size electric vehicle emits the following amount of CO2 depending on its sources of electricity – 200 g/km (coal), 156 g/km (petroleum), 100 g/km (natural gas). Those numbers are not too different from 2.5-litre Mazda 6 SkyActiv-G’s 135 g/km.
Who is going to meet the additional demand for power?
Put aside for a moment the environment arguments and consider the practical aspects: Can our power grids cope if more cars turn to electric power?
In many countries, seasonal weather conditions are already sufficient to drop power grid’s reserve to dangerously low levels. Below is the sample of peak power demand during peak winter season in Japan, when households are turning up their heaters. Notice the many days when power reserve level drops to just less than 5 percent.
Can the power grid still cope if more EVs and PHEVs are plugged to the grid? This is also part of the reason why for governments in Japan and the European Union are beginning to push for hydrogen fuel cells rather than pure battery electric vehicles.
Strange but true: Mazda believes internal combustion engines can be as clean as EVs
Recall back the Well-To-Wheel CO2 emissions numbers mentioned earlier, and how little the gap is between an electric car and Mazda’s own SkyActiv-G cars.
The way Mazda sees it, a simple 10 percent improvement in emissions of its current generation SkyActiv engines is enough to match real world CO2 emissions (well-to-wheel) of EVs.
Besides, even the fastest electric vehicle chargers will still take too long to recharge an EV, while driving range is still insufficient for long distance drives. As such, plug-in hybrids will still dominate and these vehicles will still require engines. The same argument also applies to range extended electric vehicles like the BMW i3, which rely on an optional small 660cc engine to charge its batteries so it can cope with longer distance drives.
Since batteries and electric motors are largely standard commodities, with minimal difference in performance from one make to another, Mazda believes that the company that makes a better and cleaner base engine will eventually get ahead with a better range-extended EV or plug-in hybrid.
Even by 2035, Mazda expects that internal combustion engines will continue to play a central role in 70 percent of electrified drivetrains, dominated by hybrids and plug-in hybrids.
Mazda’s Solution – As clean as an EV, accelerates faster than an MX-5, revs like a proper engine
Is such a solution possible? An all-new 2.0-litre engine that accelerates as fast as a two-seater 2.0-litre MX-5 roadster, with well-to-wheel CO2 emissions that matches an electric vehicle, while consuming no more fuel than the most efficient SkyActiv-D clean diesel engine. Yes Mazda believes that they have cracked the secret to the ultimate internal combustion engine, and Mazda is ready to offer it to consumers in the next generation Mazda 3, currently previewed as the Mazda Kai Concept.
Dubbed as SkyActiv-X, this all-new engine is a lightweight high revving supercharged but lean burn petrol engine (how Mazda achieved that is worthy of a thesis) that matches the torque, fuel efficiency and low CO2 emissions of a diesel engine, minus the NOx emissions. It runs on regular petrol, as low as RON 91, on standard Otto cycle, and still uses regular spark plugs.
The engine is so advanced that Mazda has to create a new category of engines for itself – SPCCI for Spark Controlled Combustion Ignition. It's a variation of the HCCI (Homogenous Charged Compression Ignition) concept that so many car makers, including Daimler, have tried but failed to make it work.
Explaining how this engine works requires another post on its own but the more technical savvy ones amongst you can jump into this article.
SkyActiv-X is just the beginning. Mazda has designed this engine with electrification in mind so imagine the future possibilities when its performance is boosted even further when it’s adapted as a plug-in hybrid. With a base engine this good, imagine how much better it can be with the aid of electric motors.
If rotary was what made Mazda famous in the '80s and '90s, SPCCI will be Mazda's defining powertrain in the coming decades. Now...if only they will race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans....