Internal Combustion Engines Are the Future on

Why the Internal Combustion Engine Is the Future

EVs Have a Lot of Catching Up To Do


"There will be, for a long time to come, no alternative to the internal combustion engine." This statement was not uttered a century ago, when Nikolaus Otto's creation initially triumphed over steam and battery-fed electric motors to become the dominant choice of transportation on land, sea and air. No, these words were stated by Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen, in the winter of 2012.

Although President Obama has promised 1 million electric cars on U.S. roads by 2015 (2012 sales totaled just 13,263), Mr. Winterkorn is not alone in his sentiment. Studies by organizations as varied as ExxonMobil and the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy estimate that by 2040, about 90 percent of new cars sold will still have an internal combustion engine. And the reason the internal combustion engine will continue to cast a long shadow is simple: gasoline.

The Talents of Gasoline
Gasoline is a very talented energy source. It packs more energy into a given amount of volume than anything short of nuclear materials. It's also lightweight, relatively abundant and it exists in an easy-to-use liquid state at every temperature humans operate cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, scooters and airplanes. Best of all, it's cheap.

Gasoline is so capable that if it didn't exist, we'd have to invent it.

And it's those many talents of gasoline (and diesel fuel) that have made the internal combustion engine (ICE) a juggernaut to a degree that no method of propulsion (battery-fed EVs or otherwise) will usurp its dominance for the foreseeable future and beyond.

Despite headlines suggesting electric vehicles are on the verge of upending the ICE any minute now, they aren't. Today EVs constitute less than a 0.09 percent share of new car sales and by 2040, all-electric vehicles are expected to still comprise less than 1 percent of new vehicle sales.

The ICE's ongoing relevance and dominance are heavily influenced by cost and availability. The ICE is already supported by an incredibly advanced global infrastructure, and that's an advantage that cannot be overstated. This vast network has set the bar very high for would-be alternatives such as battery EVs or hydrogen-fed fuel cell vehicles.

Likewise, the mass manufacture of ICEs has been developed over decades, making ICEs cheap. This combination of cost-effectiveness and widespread refueling outlets has given ICEs tremendous momentum.

Setting the Standard
Despite the maturity of the ICE, advancing its efficiency and emissions is a relatively recent undertaking. EPA regulations kick started this development only 40 years ago in the early 1970s, and of course today, the ICE emits a small fraction of the pollutants it once did and consumes far less fuel. In addition, the strides made to the efficiency and emissions of the ICE in just the last half decade prove that it's far from tapped out.

Ever advancing computer controls, direct fuel injection, continuously variable transmissions, stop-start, improved lubricants that reduce friction, turbocharging and cylinder deactivation are just some of the technologies that have very recently boosted the fuel economy of gasoline- and diesel-burning engines, most over the last few years. And the results are staggering. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the last five years the fuel efficiency of the average car is up 16 percent.

In the meantime the ICE's reliability, power output and refinement have experienced a similar boost. Over generations consumers have come to expect that cars are relatively insensitive to ambient temperatures and experience little to no degradation in performance over time. But most of all they've become accustomed to refueling in scant minutes.

Charging Time
Forget about the very real and often-discussed issue of range anxiety: stressing over the fact that your electric vehicle just won't have enough juice to get you home. A larger hurdle is the time it takes to charge an EV.

In this age of right now, sitting around for eight hours waiting for your Leaf to charge up is not exactly a selling point. Even if the average EV could match an average ICE car's range (they don't), and even if recharging outlets existed in numbers anywhere close to fuel stations (they don't), EVs have a sitting-on-your-ass factor that conventional cars do not.

Even the best case of the charging times of the Tesla Model S, with its impressive network of superchargers that can charge the sedan's battery pack 50 percent in about a half-hour, demands significant time sacrifices by the vehicle's owner.

When purchased its long-term 2013 Tesla Model S, our CEO and editor in chief chose to pick it up at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, and drive it home to Santa Monica. A trip of 350 miles. A distance any $100,000 ICE-powered luxury sedan can easily travel on a single tank of gasoline. Not the Tesla. To cover that distance, our team had to stop twice at superchargers to top off the sedan's batteries, an exercise that added more than 90 minutes to the trip.

The lickety-split refueling times of conventional vehicles have cemented the expectation among change-averse and perpetually hurried mainstream consumers. The entire culture of personal transportation is built around them, and EVs' long recharging times are by comparison an undue burden. Not to mention that you can't pour electrons into your EV's tank via a jerrycan, so if you run out of juice you need a tow to the nearest recharging station.

Go Beyond Tailpipe Emissions
There are, of course, downsides associated with the use of gasoline, greenhouse gas emissions being the most prominent. This has made the zero-emissions battery EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S look increasingly attractive, and most manufacturers, from Fiat to Honda are getting in on the headlines. By the end of next year there will be nearly 20 EVs on the market for American consumers to shop.

However, an EV is only as clean as the power plant that generates the electricity that it uses. The greenhouse gas emissions associated with running EVs in the U.S. varies regionally, but on a national scale, EV-related emissions undercut those produced by conventional ICEs by roughly 40 percent. Elsewhere, the story isn't so straightforward.

Chris Cherry, assistant professor of civil and environmental science at the University of Tennessee, published a study last year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that found that China's hellaciously filthy coal power plants actually make operation of EVs dirtier than conventional vehicles.

"An implicit assumption has been that air quality and health impacts are lower for electric vehicles than for conventional vehicles," Cherry said. "Our findings challenge that by comparing what is emitted by vehicle use to what people are actually exposed to. Prior studies have only examined environmental impacts by comparing emissions factors or greenhouse gas emissions."

There's also a significant environmental impact of manufacturing vehicles in the first place, and in this area it has been argued that ICE-powered vehicles hold an edge over their rare earth material-havin' EV counterparts.

Bjorn Lomborg, the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center in Washington, D.C., recently tackled the issues surrounding the viability of EVs and their promise of "zero emissions" in The Wall Street Journal. He wrote: "A 2012 comprehensive life-cycle analysis in Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that almost half the lifetime carbon dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery. The mining of lithium, for instance, is a less than green activity."

According to Lomborg, that makes the production of the electric car environmentally equivalent to driving that car 80,000 miles. "So unless the electric car is driven a lot, it will never get ahead environmentally," he calculates. "And that turns out to be a challenge. Consider the Nissan Leaf. It has only a 73-mile range per charge."

Others have countered that some of Lomborg's assumptions overstate EVs' environmental impact. At best the "cradle-to-the-grave" environmental effects of EVs remain unclear.

Where To Charge
Crucially, even if an EV existed today that could be recharged as quickly as an ICE is refueled, the infrastructure to dump that much juice that quickly is currently nonexistent. Filling a 20-gallon tank with gasoline takes 2 minutes, a task that delivers energy at a rate electrically equivalent to 22 megawatts. America's electricity grid, while ubiquitous, is woefully unsuited to deliver that level of power to motorists.

Hydrogen-fed fuel cell electric vehicles enjoy fill speeds approaching those of ICE-equipped vehicles, but hydrogen refueling stations number precious few. This is not to say that such alternate technologies are doomed, just that the realities of infrastructure involve significant headwinds.

Recharging EVs at home is de rigueur due to the long recharging times of today's EVs. In a practical sense, doing so essentially requires ownership of a house with a garage, and as such EVs are a tough sell to those who live in cities, apartments or rent a house. This quickly weeds out potential buyers before the sale.

And don't forget that a 240-volt power supply costs roughly $1,000-$2,500 to install into a typical family home, a one-time nut that is often overlooked when assessing EV cost of ownership.

The range provided by an EV is also adversely affected by hot and cold weather and degrades as the battery accumulates charge and discharge cycles. About a 20 percent loss in range is expected after 10 years of use, and this effect is exacerbated in hot climates.

And then there's the price. EVs remain quite expensive to manufacture, and their higher cost is borne in large part by taxpayers and consumers in the form of subsidies and/or higher vehicle MSRPs. Automakers have also absorbed some of the cost of today's EVs in order to keep their sticker prices palatable enough to move the metal, but taking a loss on every sale is not a sustainable strategy for long-term business prosperity.

Enter the Hybrid
Progress will progress and the hybrid will win. The ICE of the near future will see further gains along the path down which it is already headed. Downsizing, both in terms of vehicle size and engine displacement, will continue. Boosting will become more common, as will two- and three-cylinder engines and better valvetrains. The associated incremental gains provided by these approaches will be augmented by research in advanced combustion processes that provide ultra-lean operation and inherently low NOx emissions.

Similarly, battery technology will advance as time marches on. Ironically, those very advances in battery tech will further stack the odds against a rapid move away from ICEs because they will facilitate hybridization in a big way. Gasoline-electric hybrids better balance the myriad upsides and downsides associated with both technologies and will become more affordable (and better) in the bargain. By 2040, some 40 to 50 percent of new car sales will be hybrids.

Of course, disruptive innovations could radically change the outlook, like if somebody invents teleportation. As we wait for that unlikely moment to arrive, piston-pumpers will remain the preeminent propulsion technology for the masses.

Leave a Comment

Get Pre-Approved for a Car Loan


Get Pre-Approved for a Loan

Credit Problems?
We can help you get Financing!


New Car Buying Guides

See which cars and trucks our editors recommend

  • Sedan
  • Minivan
  • SUV
  • Convertible
  • Truck
  • Hybrid/Electric