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Sustainable Energy

Volvo Is Killing Off Internal Combustion. Kind of.

Starting in 2019, all of its cars will contain electric motors—but many of them will still burn gas.

The Swedish automaker Volvo has announced that starting in 2019, every car it sells will have an electric motor.

It’s the first large car manufacturer to make such a grand and public commitment to transitioning away from selling vehicles that run exclusively on gas. “Volvo Cars has stated that it plans to have sold a total of 1 million electrified cars by 2025,” says Volvo’s chief executive, Håkan Samuelsson, according to the Financial Times (paywall). “This is how we are going to do it.”

The push is helped along by the fact that Volvo has been owned by Chinese automaker Geely since 2010. China is currently the world’s largest electric vehicle market, and domestic competition is strong. Geely already makes electric cars, including the Emgrand, and the arrival of some its technology in Volvo’s vehicles has been anticipated for some time.

Still, the new commitment by Volvo isn’t quite an all-electric revolution. While Volvo will launch five new all-electric cars by 2021, for now the bulk of its vehicles will be hybrids. Of those, many will be so-called mild hybrids that swap out starters and alternators—which service a regular 12-volt electrical system—for a jacked-up electrical motor and generator running at 48 volts. That allows the vehicles to stop running their main engine while idle, braking, or coasting, yet quickly restart when they need to. Mild hybrids can’t, however, propel themselves without burning gas.

Even so, it’s another signal that the entire auto industry is increasingly looking to move away from the internal combustion engine wherever possible. While electric cars have felt close to commonplace in the near future for decades, the sector-wide commitment to rolling them out is increasingly tangible.

The news may raise some concerns for Tesla, which is committed to building all-electric vehicles at scale. The company announced earlier this week that its first affordable vehicle, the Model 3, will begin to roll out of the factory as soon as this Friday. But it has also admitted that it could have sold more cars in the second quarter of 2017 if only battery supply—arguably the Achilles' heel of the electric car sector right now—had been able to meet demand.

For Tesla, scaling up production of its mass-market vehicle will require it to solve those kinds of battery headaches, starting now. The likes of Volvo, meanwhile, appear to be setting themselves up for a smooth transition to an electric future.

(Read more: Financial Times, “Tesla’s First Affordable Car Is Finally Entering Production,” “The World’s Largest Electric Vehicle Maker Hits a Speed Bump,” “The Paris Motor Show Confirms It: The Future Is Electric”)

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