Europe's prestigious carmakers lead the world in perfecting the internal combustion engine -- but the days of the petrol motor are numbered, and the continent is changing gear.

On Wednesday next week, the European Commission will unveil its plan to reduce carbon emissions from new vehicles to zero within the next decade, to fight climate change.

The EU plans to be carbon neutral by 2050, but petrol and diesel cars remains the continent's main mode of transport and the pride of its globally admired marques.

Sources in Brussels expect the commission's plan, part of a climate climate strategy, to foresee an end to new registrations of gas guzzlers from 2035.

Europe's existing emissions limit of less than 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre was to have been reduced by 37.5 percent in 2030.

Exact figures are still under discussion, but Brussels is now expected to seek a 60 percent reduction by 2030 and a 100 percent reduction just five years later in 2035.

The economic damage the coronavirus pandemic has damaged the road vehicle market as a whole, but electric cars have been an exception, with growth accelerating.

Battery-powered cars represented eight percent of new registrations in western Europe in the first five months of this year, with 356,000 new vehicles.

This, noted analyst Matthias Schmidt, represents more than in the whole of 2019.

The impending new regulations will increase this trend, as they will not only spell doom for classic petrol and diesel motors but effectively force out hybrid and hybrid-rechargeable models.

These had once been seen as a transitional technology, a key product for an industry that boasts of employing 14.6 million workers in Europe.

The car lobby is resigned to going along with the changeover, but wants help from Europe, in particular in terms of developing a network of recharging points for battery cars.

Petrol engines will soon be on the scrap heap in Europe as the EU is expected to tighten its pollution rules
Petrol engines will soon be on the scrap heap in Europe as the EU is expected to tighten its pollution rules dpa / Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

"Under the right conditions, we are open to even higher CO2 reduction targets in 2030," said Oliver Zipse, president of the carmakers' association ACEA and chief executive of BMW.

The industry is divided about the best way forward, with some executives warning too quick a transition will drive up prices and favour Chinese competitors, which have an advance in battery technology.

But Europe's giant, Volkswagen, which represents one sale in four on the continent, has followed US champion Tesla in backing an all-electric future.

In 2015, the firm was at the heart of a scandal over faked emissions tests on diesel motors, and is keen to restore its image with the public and regulators.

"There is a huge conflict going on at ACEA level," market analyst Schmidt explained.

"Volkswagen was forced to go early into electric vehicles because of Dieselgate, to improve their image. they have made huge investments and now they have got the products ready to meet CO2 legislation.

"They are in a perfect position to gain market share, and they will be happy to see others go to the wall."

Volkswagen already plans to stop selling vehicle with internal combustion engines between 2033 and 2035.

"In general a car remains on the road for 15 years. If we want transport to be carbon free by 2050, we need the last combustion-driven car to be sold by 2035 at the latest," said Diane Strauss, of pressure group Transport and Environment.

The NGO's latest report, published in June, gives Volkswagen and Volvo good marks for their preparations, with Renault and Hyundai a little behind them.

But BMW, Daimler (which owns the Mercedes brand), Stellantis (Peugeot, Citrion and Fiat) and Toyota are seen as lacking ambition and remaining too wed to hybrids.

MEP Pascal Canfin, chair of the environment committee in the European Parliament, said the 2035 target date is a good compromise.

He said 2030 would be too soon for industry and workers to adapt, while 2040 would be too late for Europe's climate goals.

But Canfin is holding out for a fund of "several billion" euros to help fund the transition.