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The Internal Combustion Engine Is Alive and Well


The Internal Combustion Engine Is Alive and Well

August 24, 2017

It’s the end of August, and many people are driving back from vacation to go back to work or to school.  How many are driving electric cars? Many electric vehicle owners use their vehicles for driving around town.  When heading to the mountains or the beach, with golf clubs, fishing rods, and strollers, the internal combustion engine is the way to go.

Mark Twain is reported to have once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  So also are reports of the demise of the internal combustion engine.  Thanks to the Clean Air Act, which allows California to set its own emission standards, electric vehicles—EVs—continue to be promoted by environmental advocates as means of saving the planet by hastening the end of the internal combustion engine age.

Advocacy shouldn’t be mistaken for reality or fact.  Although EVs probably have a bright future, it is not imminent.  Without generous federal and state subsidies and California’s extreme emission standards, their future would be dim at best.  The reasons are simple.  Battery packs are expensive, and in spite of major investments in battery technology, EVs still have limited range and temperature driven performance constraints.  Until costs are reduced much more and range extended, EVs will remain middle- to upper- class symbols of environmentalism.

Over the past 10 years, the cost of batteries has declined and energy density needed for range has increased. In spite of this progress, an assessment by Franco Gonzalez of IDTechEX states,  “Lithium-ion is the best battery technology we have ever seen… but it will not achieve transformative factors of … cost and performance … because of the inherent material limitations.   A new generation of battery technologies will be necessary …to address the existing and future challenges.”  That view is consistent with the Energy Department’s 2015  Quadrennial Technology Review,  which states, “Despite current promising advances, much more R&D will be needed to achieve the performance and lifetime requirements for deployment of these advanced technologies in PEVs.”

These assessments help explain why manufacturers continue to make substantial investments in internal combustion technologies. They see a payoff from extending the lifetime of the gasoline engine.  For example, Mazda has developed a new series of engines that use advanced technology to achieve diesel-like fuel economy with gasoline.  Mazda claims that these new engines will be 20 percent to 30 percent more efficient.  Nissan has a new variable compression engine that it claims will improve efficiency by 27 percent.  These are just two examples of the advances being made by all auto manufacturers.

Robert M. Wagner of Oak Ridge National Laboratory concludes, “It would be a mistake to believe that such technologies will completely sweep aside what has come before. Instead, the internal combustion engine will continue to be integral to the transportation of people and goods for the foreseeable future.” Similarly, Rob Tracinski, writing in RealClear Future, suggests, “Counting out the internal combustion engine is looking more like wishful thinking … rather than a sober projection of the future. Sure, advances in battery technology and reduced production costs might bring electric cars closer to the cost-effectiveness and convenience of the internal combustion engine—but the good old ICE will still be able to leave the electric car in its dust.”

Driving choices should be driven by advances in technology, not ideology or the heavy hand of government by subsidies and regulation. Just look around you on the highway, and see what people are choosing to drive.


William O'Keefe is a contributor to Economics21.

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