A draft proposal from the European Commission depicts a plan to exclusively exempt cars burning carbon-neutral e-fuels—the tech into which Porsche is investing $100 million—from otherwise complete bans on internal-combustion vehicles coming down in 2035, Reuters reports. It’s a public glimpse at the national politics backing one of the more interesting technologies developing in the automotive world.
This is a weirdly specific carve-out, part of a weirdly national back-and-forth political bargain. The only vehicles exempted from the ban would be ones that only run—can only run—on e-fuels alone, according to a draft proposal seen by Reuters:
“Such vehicles would have to use technology that would prevent them from driving if other fuels are used, the draft said. This would include a ‘fueling inducement system’ to stop the car from starting if it was fueled by non-carbon neutral fuels.”
E-fuels offer the promise of “guilt-free gasoline, like a low-sugar soda” as we wrote in our explainer in December 2022 of Porsche’s $100 million e-fuels pilot in far southern Chile. The program uses renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then mashes that hydrogen together with carbon pulled from the atmosphere over and over again, until the hydrocarbons involved can be refined into straight gasoline. The synthetic gas is carbon-neutral, though it does end up producing the same pollution as regular gas when it’s burned.
When we sent tech reporter Tim Stevens down to Chile to tour Porsche’s e-fuels site, and drive this synth gas, the tech worked as promised, but everyone agreed that they were perhaps less than convinced that it was contributing to the greater good. “Is it better than oil production? Of course,” Araceli Clavijo, a biologist and researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council told Road & Track. “Is it harmless? No.”
Using solar and wind power in Chile to power high-dollar Porsches on the other side of the world is maybe not the best use of Chile’s renewable energy, but it makes a bit more sense for a company like Porsche, or for a nation-state like Germany so heavily invested in internal combustion. Not that anyone is saying that e-fuels are the future. Certainly Porsche isn’t investing in it as if it was. The company’s electric car investments, by contrast, are in the billions, not millions.
It makes clearer sense as a lifeline to internal combustion engines. With e-fuels, a company like Porsche can keep its relatively low-volume cars in production while also complying with European environmental goals. That is, it can do all that if Europe allows this carveout.
This draft proposal lends some insight into why Porsche has chosen to throw some money at e-fuels. Spending $100 million to make your 911s cleaner might be questionable math, but spending $100 million to help keep even a small chunk of your business from getting completely wiped out by EU regulations is some easier calculus.
Now, there is a lot of politics at play here. The internal combustion ban set for 2035 is the product of “months of negotiations,” per Reuters, but Germany’s Transport Ministry “surprised” the rest of Europe by inserting these “last-minute objections to the law, days before a final vote.” This indicates Germany is requiring an e-fuel carve-out for the country to sign on. That is to say, only if this exemption heavily favoring Germany’s high-profit export industry of gas-burning luxury and performance cars is allowed will Germany agree to this environmental regulation.
Another wrinkle is that while Germany is pushing for the carveout, it’s the rest of Europe countering with the requirement that these cars be able to only run on e-fuel. If synth gas is meant to be indistinguishable from regular gas, that is going to take some work to figure out, and sure enough, Germany has requested some revisions to “improve” this caveat, according to one Reuters source.
Germany and Porsche are not the only players here. Ferrari also sought the carveout, as Bloomberg reported in March. The involvement of two performance car manufacturers here makes some of the intentions of these e-fuels development clear. They want a more environmental future, but only if it lets them maintain their investments, maintain the status quo.
Of course, no e-fuels program is big enough to make any meaningful dent in the auto industry. “A study published on Tuesday by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research found that all planned e-fuel projects worldwide would only produce enough fuel to cover 10 percent of Germany’s demand for e-fuel use in aviation, shipping and chemicals in the next few years,” writes Reuters.
But as we can clearly see, that’s not the intention. It doesn’t matter if these e-fuels investments can’t cover even 10 percent of Germany’s transportation demands. They’re not working on as big a scale. They’re about saving flat-six and V-12 engines at Porsche and Ferrari, keeping production lines humming at these highly symbolic companies.
Then again, maybe these desires aren’t mutually exclusive. If a LaFerrari can run on guilt-free gas, why not let it?