Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles are likely to exist for the foreseeable future, especially as several global carmakers walk back their electrification targets owing to sluggish electric vehicle (EV) sales. In India, where air pollution levels are among the highest in the world, the government has urged the industry to start preparing for the upcoming Bharat Stage VII (BS-7) norms.

Willard Cutler, division vice-president and commercial technology director for Corning's Environmental Technologies, caught up with Fortune India to discuss the way forward for emission control in vehicles. Corning, widely known for supplying gorilla glass to smartphone makers, invented ceramic substrates in 1972 to control automotive emissions.

How did glass producer Corning end up making emission control ceramics?

Corning tried to sell GM, Ford and Chrysler windshield glass in the early 70s. The carmakers said they were not that interested in windshield glass, but they did have a pollution problem which needed a solution. When we invented the ceramic substrate, U.S. car companies said we are going to make our engines better so that within five years we don't need your product and as a result, we built a factory and depreciated it over five years because we said we are going to be out of business in five years. U.S. cars did get better and the pollution went down but the regulations became tighter. Then the regulations went from the U.S. to Europe, China and India.

The fascinating thing is diesel and gasoline particulate filters didn't find widespread use until 2005. So it took over 20 years from invention before it was used just because there was no regulation.

Passenger cars are seeing some electrification but the transition will not be easy for heavy-duty trucks. What's the way forward for these gas-guzzling vehicles?

You can either carry a battery or you can carry freight but you probably can't carry both. Corning is supportive of the eventual transition from internal combustion engine to electrification. Pragmatically, it would probably take longer for light vehicles. There are some practical limitations - battery materials availability, charging infrastructure, electricity generation and transmission and consumer acceptance. In the U.S., most EVs are expensive. Providing subsidies, at least in the U.S., is subsidising rich people to buy cool cars as opposed to saving the planet. I think it would take a while, people thought the slope would be quite steep. For early adopters it was, but now they are building more electric cars than people are willing to buy. It's even more challenging on the heavy-duty side.

The technology far exceeds what's required. The Euro 6 norms mandated filtering 90% of particles and the Euro 7 requires cleaning between 97% and 99%. If required, we can remove 99.9%. Automakers are trying to create an appropriate balance between what is possible and the minimum standards. Most don't get rewarded for doing more than the minimum.

How are emissions controlled in petrol and diesel vehicles?

A ceramic substrate, which can resist burning, captures carbon on its porous walls. In gasoline, the engine produces plenty of heat and gasoline burns easily. Every time you lift off your foot from the gas, there is a spike of oxygen. Gasoline exhaust is hot so it burns the soot immediately. In diesel, however, you have more soot and plenty of oxygen but diesel exhaust is substantially cooler. As mileage accumulates, the computer on the vehicle triggers a regeneration to clean the soot.

We have a lot of old vehicles on the roads. Is there a solution for such vehicles?

One old vehicle pollutes as much as 50 new vehicles. India probably has BS-2,3,4 all on the road. What do we do with those vehicles? Some have chosen to limit their entrance into certain geographic areas or scrapping. On the gasoline side, some of those could be potentially retrofitted. On the diesel side, it is more challenging because there is no computer to trigger cleaning.

India is the world's third-largest car market by volume. It is the largest two-wheeler, three-wheeler and tractor market. What are your plans for the country?

India is a growing economy and has a rising middle class. It was a great thing to go from BS-IV to BS-VI. It will be beneficial for BS-VII to be on par with everybody else. We are optimistic and continue to invest in India. We would like to expand as local OEMs expand. ICE engines in the world are declining. We see that it's going to grow more in India than decline.

As the CET business eventually starts to decline, we plan to focus on the glass business. We are also looking at how we can contribute to other components in electric automobiles. We are working on making exterior windows lighter to save weight. A gorilla glass for a car windshield helps with battery life and fuel economy. But the price point the carmakers are willing to pay is challenging and therefore you see it only on supercars. A lot of new cars are going for massive displays that stretch from pillar to pillar. It's quite expensive to deform and curve the glass. We will see this in Indian cars too. We want to become vital to India's auto industry.

What are your views on hybrid cars?

Hybrid cars in some ways are the best of both worlds and in some ways, they are the worst of both worlds. Hybrids require the same emissions technology as ICE vehicles. The CO2 footprint drops more rapidly by incentivising hybrids than by incentivising BEVs. In hybrids, even though the engine produces more particles, they don't make it out of the tailpipe because of filters. Each time a hybrid car starts, it releases a puff of particles. A normal ICE engine starts once, but in a hybrid car, you get a lot of spikes. Even though more pollution is coming out of the engine, it doesn't make it out of the tailpipe because of filters.

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