Is the electric car the inevitable wave of the future? Is the internal combustion engine finished, through, a relic of the 20th century—as many are now saying?
I have argued before that electric cars are overhyped. I calculated that the Tesla, for example, is still a really bad deal when you compare its substantial extra costs against the cost of operating a similar gasoline-powered car over five or ten years.
But what if I’m wrong? For example, how much of that calculation is due to the inflated cost of a Tesla, which uses all of the positive publicity lavished on it by the media to sell its cars at a pretty hefty premium?
Elon Musk’s genius was to realize two things. First, the electric car had to be exciting. Previous versions had been designed as environmental hair shirts meant to show just how much you were willing to sacrifice for the cause in terms of performance, design, and just plain cool. By contrast, Tesla took advantage of the one really interesting performance feature of an electric motor—its ability to deliver a lot of torque instantly on demand—and used it to build a fast sports car.
Musk’s second bit of genius was to realize that electric cars were not yet practical, that they were going to be a trendy plaything for the wealthy and upper-middle-class—and to go with that. It was another case of “greenwashing”: allowing people to indulge in a luxury product without guilt because it has “green” cachet. His hope was that he could follow the tried-and-true Silicon Valley approach of finding a class of early adopters, who are willing to buy a very expensive product just to have the latest thing, and using their money to keep the company going while you cut costs and eventually bring out a mass market product.
But all of this assumes the electric car is going to come to the mass market and be something other than an overpriced luxury. And Tesla might not be the company to deliver that.
Another interesting calculation looks at the cost of the Tesla battery plus electricity costs and concludes that by this calculation alone, the Tesla comes out ahead compared to buying gasoline—if you drive it for 400,000 miles, and if it lasts that long, which nobody really knows. Actually, this turns out not to be too far off from my calculation. I had calculated that to save money on gas by driving a Tesla, you would have to drive it for 30 years. That was based on the fact that the average person drives only about 15,000 miles per year. At that rate, to get to 400,000 miles and get the full value out of a Tesla battery, you would have to drive the car for just a little bit less than 27 years.
Still, let’s say that other car makers with better economies of scale can produce an electric car for something more like the ordinary cost, aside from the expensive battery. And let’s say that with some incremental innovations, the expensive batteries become a little less expensive and hold a bigger charge for a longer time. And let’s say that new technology and wider adoption lead to faster charge times and a lot more charging locations. So all of these things reduce the inconveniences of electric cars and bring their operating costs closer to and perhaps below that of a gasoline-powered car.
That is the argument offered recently in the Wall Street Journal, where Christopher Mims predicts a kind of tipping point for the sudden mass adoption of electric cars and the demise of the internal combustion engine.
But this assumes that the internal combustion engine is standing still—and it’s not.
In fact, the internal combustion engine is a moving target, and if you assume that we’re going to see future advances in the technology for electric cars, you also have to contend with current and future advances in the technology of the internal combustion engine.
You may not have noticed those advances because of a bias in reporting, particularly in the technology press, which does not consider the internal combustion engine a “technology” issue. (It’s the same way that Facebook, which is really a media company, is considered a “technology” company—but General Electric is not.) Electric cars are endowed with all the glamour of Silicon Valley and all the virtue of being a Politically Correct form of power. So it just becomes a habit among technology writers to make confident proclamations that the internal combustion engine is obviously on its way out.
Meanwhile, here’s what’s really going on in the world of the internal combustion engine.
Nissan did recently manage to make a few headlines with its design for a variable compression engine—though notice that this still had to be billed as a way of killing off the diesel engine, fitting in with the theme of the death of fossil fuels. But let’s look at what this really means. A variable compression engine is an internal combustion engine that can change the length of the piston stroke to achieve greater or lesser compression of the fuel-air mix, which allows it to optimize the performance of the engine for either maximum power or maximum fuel efficiency as needed. Nissan estimates that this could improve the fuel economy of the engine by 27%.
Now let’s put that number in context. Michael Dickey—and the only credential he needs with me is that he’s building an anime-inspired recumbent motorcycle—put the calculation like this:
While Lithium-ion batteries store 120 Wh/kg (watt-hours per kilogram of battery weight), gasoline stores 12,600 Wh/kg. And even though gas engines only get about 20% to the wheels (about 2500 Wh/kg), Li-ion gets 90% (108 Wh/kg), so an improvement in a gas engine from 20% to 21% exceeds the entire range of a typical battery powered electric vehicle, adding about 126 Wh/kg to turn the wheels.
As for other developments that could add efficiency to the internal combustion engine, consider just a few recent ideas.
First, there’s the camless engine, which increases efficiency by digitally controlling the valves that regulate fuel intake and exhaust.
Then there are a whole series of efforts to create very small, lightweight rotary engines, from Paul Moller’s 3-horsepower-per-pound motor to LiquidPiston’s tiny four-pound prototype that can replace a forty-pound go-kart engine.
Michael Dickey points out that the most efficient engine is a hybrid of internal combustion and electric motors.
Since gas is great at storing energy while batteries suck, and electric motors are great at moving your vehicle and incorporating regenerative braking, while mechanical transmissions are limited and gas engines hate running at anything but the optimal RPM, a serial hybrid is still the best way to go: efficient gas engine running at optimal speed, turning a generator with a small battery pack just for rapid acceleration and regenerative braking.
And if you carefully read that article from Christopher Mims, you’ll notice that his confident assertion that the big automakers are going to convert a lot of their fleets to “electric” actually refers to the adoption of hybrid gasoline-electric engines. It’s a technology so thoroughly proven that one variation on it—the diesel-electric motor—has long been the standard for railroad locomotives.
But even here there is room for improvement. Toyota has developed an idea for increasing the efficiency of a hybrid engine by eliminating the crankshaft and generating electricity directly from the movement of the piston through the cylinder. Volvo is experimenting with ditching the battery pack and electric motor and instead storing energy in a high-tech 60,000-rpm flywheel.
A lot of these ideas won’t work out. But the same goes for electric cars, too, and it only takes one or two successful innovations to make a big difference. Matt Person, who recently wrote for RealClearFuture about 3-D printers, is trying to raise venture capital to test his own patents for radically more efficient internal combustion engines. He told me:
I am not the only one with such grandiose ideas, either. There are lots of others working on radical engines which I think are quite viable, any one of which could disrupt the status quo. Someday, someone will hit the proverbial home run and really put an end to electric car hype.
But notice that we have been talking about all of this simply in terms of fuel economy, granting the assumption that the most important issue is to reduce fuel use. The actual behavior of the market indicates that most people don’t really care that much about fuel economy. Reduced fuel consumption is the mania in the press because they think the electric car is necessary to save the world from global warming. Yet that depends on a whole chain of assumptions: that man-made global warming is actually happening, that the cars Americans drive will make a difference, that electric cars offer significant fossil fuel reductions rather than just a “long tailpipe,” and that we wouldn’t be better off doing something else to save the world.
While the media tends to have its own fixed views on those questions, the buying public clearly does not place as high a premium on fuel efficiency, certainly not at current gasoline prices. And thanks to another big, uncelebrated advance in energy technology—fracking—gas prices aren’t likely to go up very far in the foreseeable future.
The result is that advances in the design of the internal combustion engine have actually focused less on fuel-efficiency and more on performance. As my friend Jack Wakeland summed it up, “The world has just passed through a 25-year-long golden age of car design.”
With all of the vast new “tight” oil formations being tapped with progressive hydraulic fracturing, who needs fuel economy? It’s boring. No, what we’re looking for is more luxury and more performance than we ever thought Detroit (or Stuttgart, or Yokohama, or Seoul) would ever be able to produce for the masses.
Production methods and numerical quality control have cut parts tolerances so much that they’re no longer interchangeable, they’re identical. As a result, precision designs are available for every aspect of the drive train. Every car engine is an exotic Cosworth, zero-clearance, 4-valve-per-cylinder beauty, fuel-injected with digitally controlled ignition, massive polished air intakes, and tuned exhausts. Starting 15 years ago, little 2.0-liter four cylinder engines straight from the factory routinely produced over 200 horsepower, the kind of power Detroit used to get out of 6.7-liter V-8s back in the early 1970s. Today, Ford’s 5.0-liter push-rod V-8 engines make 360 hp, 412 hp in the high-compression sports car variant.
And now we have computer-controlled turbochargers with absolutely no turbo-lag. These designs create breathtaking performance for luxury cars (0-60 in 4.9 seconds) and extraordinary low-rpm torque for work trucks. The new mass-produced turbocharged engine designs are turning little 2.0-liter 4 cylinder engines into screaming 240-305 hp brutes.
And I haven’t gotten into the computer-controlled air shocks for luxury cars, the high-capacity brakes, the new tire designs that have come out over the past 25 years, etc., etc.
Or take a look at what a bunch of 1.6-liter hatchbacks can do on the rally circuit.
Counting out the internal combustion engine is looking more like wishful thinking on the part of environmentalists, 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.