The ICE (internal combustion engine) has transported man for more than one hundred years. It has brought goods to industry and homes, people to and from work, and enabled families to go a hundred miles or more away on holidays. There is no question that it has made our lives more convenient, or has it? With all this convenience, has the ICE and its necessary companion fossil fuel come to burden man more than it benefits him?
When Henry Ford made the automobile a household item there were fewer people on the planet and fewer cars on the road. We didn’t know then the effects of CO2 and couldn’t measure their small effect on the environment. Fast forward to the 21st century. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 1 billion cars on the road today. Let’s look at the dynamics of the ICE a hundred years after the Model T, along with what it takes for the convenience of filling up the family car at the local fast food mart.
First there’s the exploration for fossil fuel to power the ICE, and the pollution from making and powering ships — or, in the case of land exploration, trucks. Tools have to be manufactured and manpower is required to enable that exploration.
Let’s dismiss most of this as part of any product we utilize — say, mining the 2% of lithium to make electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Face it, everything we do burdens the planet. Everything we touch, eat, drive — and even breathing — burden our planet to a greater or lesser degree. Man’s existence and his future are tethered to the earth in the most fundamental way: no resources, no mankind; polluted resources, diseased mankind.
Back to our gas and diesel vehicles, let’s look at the resources and the pollution created in making the ICE. First, there’s extracting iron ore from the ground, then the smelting of engine blocks out of that ore, which is mostly done from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Then there’s the pollution created from bringing the engine block to a central location and machining it. Add the pollution of creating and bringing the hundreds of parts needed to finalize it to the same location, and the pollution and energy used in its assembly.
At this point, we have an ICE built, and for comparison, an electric motor that runs an EV. The EV, however, has only two moving parts, so the ICE has already used significantly more resources and energy than the EV. The EV motor is also much smaller and cast out of aluminum as opposed to the ICE block, which is cast out of iron and aluminum, which requires more heat and energy to produce.
ICE vehicles have another problem, a narrow torque band. Have you ever wondered why your car shifts up and down as you drive? The ICE produces maximum power and efficiency at specific rpms (revolutions per minute), and it needs a transmission with hundreds of parts to keep it in its best rpm range. Let’s add the pollution and energy in the making of that transmission along with the fluids to run it to the ICE equation, something else an EV with its constant torque doesn’t require.
ICE troubles continue after it leaves the assembly line. In order to run that ICE, the fossil fuel we extracted from the ground earlier now comes into play. Let’s look at the problems this creates.
The energy to extract and refine fossil fuel from the ground varies in estimates from 4.5 to 6 kWh per gallon. The energy source to do this is the same fossil fuel that runs the ICE with all its CO2 and other polluting emissions.
Next, we bring the fossil fuel to central locations for distribution, ships constantly crossing our oceans and trucks running on fossil fuel continue to pollute the planet. Storage of the fossil fuel at major distribution centers and trucks to bring that fossil fuel to your local gas pump pile on more pollution. We’re not done — you can’t fill your car just yet. Tanks that eventually leak have to be constructed and put in the ground at fuel stations all over the world using ICE machinery.
Unlike EV chargers, service stations must be manned when selling fuel, which means lights on, heating, etc., and the pollution that creates.
Did I forget anything or is your tank finally filled? Not yet!
Wars have to be fought to protect corporate oil interests. The machinery of war, testing of weaponry, and transportation of armies all bring with them more and more energy used and pollution created along with suffering, lives lost, and lands destroyed — trillions of dollars that people pay for the “convenience” of filling their cars.
There is still more: parts inventories have to be maintained, oils, belts, spark plugs, antifreeze, wires, coils, and brake pads. Brake pads? Don’t all cars use brake pads? You can’t include that! Regenerative braking in EVs is so good that EV drivers can go a hundred miles or more without using their brakes. There’s no reason to believe those brakes won’t last ten to twenty times longer than ICE brakes, or even the life of the car.
Which brings us to maintenance and the outfitting of repair shops. Add to this transporting consumable parts like air cleaners and oil filters for routine engine maintenance to your local parts store. For comparison, the maintenance on my electric vehicle for the first 150,000 miles is to rotate the tires and change the cabin filter.
Done yet? No, we haven’t addressed climate change, oil spills, the cost of acid rain, CO2 now at over 400 ppm, marine life and rainforest damage, etc., etc. All of this would take books, continuing research, and countless articles to cover.
Traffic and Braking
Every time an ICE vehicle driver takes his foot off the gas, he is wasting energy. If he also brakes, he is wasting considerably more energy, slowing down the mass of the vehicle while wearing brake pads causing its own pollution. An EV uses regenerative braking, which means that every time an EV driver takes his foot off the accelerator he puts energy from the mass of the vehicle slowing down back into the battery. Sitting in traffic, the EV shuts off as opposed to an idling ICE wasting fuel.
According to the US Department of Energy, in 2014, there were 3.1 billion gallons of fuel wasted due to traffic congestion. The chart below shows billions of gallons wasted since 1982. Today, we are up to 4 billion gallons and counting.
The ICE and the massive network required to maintain, procure, and defend the fossil fuel to run it have proven themselves to be some of the greatest burdens of modern man. The propaganda to hide, diffuse, and spread erroneous information about EVs and climate change goes into the millions of dollars. The lobbying to maintain wars, to control governments, and to buy politicians has shaken the foundations of democracy.
Isn’t it about time we ended this extensive burden to the world’s people for the sake of mankind’s future on a planet that has the potential to support life for the next billion-plus years? At what point do we ask ourselves if it’s worth the cost we’re paying to drive ICE vehicles and fill our tanks. At what point do we acknowledge that the cost of taking our children to soccer practice is burdening their health, their future, and the planet they will inherit, with a price they very likely will not be able to pay?
An earlier version of this article was published in 2017 on CleanTechnica.