People in the cleantech community often say that manufacturers shouldn’t be spending any money developing new internal combustion engines (ICE). Instead, people say, they should devote resources to electric vehicles and phase out the existing engine designs over the next few years. While I get what’s being said, I don’t think people saying this have a very good understanding of ICE technology.
The technology has not only gone quite a ways, but has a lot of room left for improvement. More importantly, though, there are some important short and mid-term environmental improvements that can be made to help solve climate change while the industry changes over to EVs in the next decade or two.
ICE Isn’t “Old” or “Obsolete” Technology Due To Its Age
I’ve seen EV enthusiasts, most of whom weren’t car enthusiasts before Tesla, say that ICE is an old technology. And in a way, they’re absolutely right. It hasn’t fundamentally changed since the 19th century. Engines have been doing the old “suck, squeeze, bang, blow” since the Otto Cycle was invented. Other popular thermodynamic cycles for ICE are about as old, with the Atkinson Cycle (a more efficient cycle, used in the Toyota Prius) originating in 1882, and the Diesel Cycle originating in the 1890s. Even things that seem cutting edge, like homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI) cycle used in the Mazda Skyactiv-X, are pretty old, with similar technologies also originating in the 19th century.
If we are going to look at ICE that way, then we must also look at EV technology similarly. Electric motors date back to the eighteenth century, with the first practical designs for DC motors coming about in the early nineteenth century. This predates modern engine designs by decades. AC motor theory started in 1824, with the first practical motors available in the 1880s, leading to the technologies competing with each other openly on the roads as the twentieth century started.
Batteries are in a similar spot. The first modern batteries were developed in 1800, but it’s possible that some ancient civilizations had batteries, but they didn’t inform our current understanding if they did. Battery technology has obviously come a long way since 1800, though.
To say that combustion engines haven’t advanced for over 100 years would be just as absurd as saying that electric motors and batteries haven’t really advanced in that time. The fundamental principles of both were figured out long ago, but the little practical details that affect the real-world application of those theories have progressed quite a bit. In other words, you can’t judge a technology by the length of time it has been around and say that it’s archaic simply because it’s practically ancient.
EV fanatics know that battery technology vastly improved in the 90s and 2000s, and that the tzero electric car led to Tesla, which led to the whole industry changing. We get excited about every little new battery detail, and I can’t open Twitter without seeing somebody talking about 4680 cells. All of these little details added up to something big finally happening over 200 years after the technology was invented.
Some of the Advances Made
Engine technology did improve in the first half of the twentieth century, but not in any major way. Like electric motors and batteries, the state of overall technology wasn’t able to fully take advantage of great theories that weren’t practical yet. It was the computer revolution that accelerated both technologies.
Here’s a little bit about how fuel systems have advanced:
And the valvetrains have changed in some fairly major ways:
Right now, Mazda is probably the leader on this, and this video gives an overview of what it’s doing:
To Understand The Problem, We Need To Use Good Math
The most important thing to consider is that we need to improve overall environmental impact of vehicles, regardless of the source of improvement. On a single vehicle, the emissions can be completely eliminated by switching it over to EV, but if we don’t get the transition right, we can actually get into a position where the emissions problem gets a lot worse before it gets better.
How? Let’s look at an example scenario:
Imagine that we replace every economical small car with an EV (we’re still very far away from doing that). At present, most of these small economical cars are getting 40-60 MPG (depending on whether they’re hybrids). Even my 4-year-old Jetta gets 40 MPG at normal highway speeds. Moving to an EV means replacing these 50-ish MPG vehicles with vehicles getting over 100 MPGe, so that’s a huge improvement, right?
As I explained in this other article, the looks of numbers can be deceiving. Instead of calculating distance per unit of fuel (miles per gallon), we need to use burnt fuel per distance to understand this situation correctly. Helping a vehicle that already uses very little fuel (50 MPG = 2 gallons per 100 miles) to not burn fuel definitely has an impact, but if you increase the fuel efficiency of something like a semi-truck by only 2 MPG, then the same amount of fuel/emissions was saved as completely eliminating the emissions of the small vehicle.
Mazda, which has been putting in a lot more ICE efficiency work than the other manufacturers, has been reducing its environmental impact more than most of its competitors, despite that fact that it wasn’t (and, as of this writing isn’t) offering a single EV or hybrid model. How did the company achieve this? By upping the efficiency of its whole fleet across the board instead of producing some zero emission models and keeping its ICE models dirty the way GM, Ford, Chrysler, and most other manufacturers do.
In other words, making positive overall impact is more important than virtue signaling by wowing people with a few EVs while still churning out dirty cars en masse. Both have to get cleaner.
Both EV & Better ICE Are Essential (For Now)
If the manufacturers stop improving their combustion engines and slowly transition their sales over to EVs, the situation will get worse (relative to where it could be) before it gets better. If engine technology is allowed to stagnate to avoid putting any funds into ICE development, the environmental improvement of most vehicles in the company’s fleet stops. That means the potential gains made for the vast majority of vehicles sold stops (and that impact is HUGE). The impact of those stay-dirty gas cars is so large that selling even 10% EVs doesn’t make up for it. They’d have been better off to improve the gas engines while changing over to EVs.
The overall emissions situation for a manufacturer won’t actually improve relative to where they could have been until the majority of their vehicles are EVs, and that’s going to take at least 5-8 years. Had they still put some money into making cleaner ICE engines, all of those gas cars sold during that 5-8 years could have reduced emissions in that time, leaving everyone worse off for those years. Plus, those vehicles will be on the road after the model is replaced with an EV, meaning the impact of the last ICE cars people stubbornly hang onto for A-to-B transport will be that much worse off.
To solve the climate change issue, we will need every improvement we can get, and that doesn’t cut it.
We also have to consider the developing world. Even if developed countries transition all new sales to EVs by 2030, there’s no possible way for India, South America, and Africa to get there by then. Vehicles sold to those markets will be ICE vehicles for longer than they are in the wealthier countries. In poorer markets, we saw the original Volkswagen Beetle persist until 2003, and a Nissan car that was sold in the US in 1993 was still on sale in Mexico and South America until 2015. It’s not a happy thing to think about, but old technology, as it becomes cheaper, gets adopted in places that can’t afford the latest and greatest.
If we continue development, their vehicles will integrate that improved technology and cut their emissions in the 2030s and 2040s. If we don’t, they’ll have dirtier cars burning gas and diesel during those decades, when they could have been a lot cleaner. Given the large populations involved, that could have a major impact that we could have avoided.
I’m NOT Saying We Should Keep ICE Around Longer
In the long run, ICE vehicles will have to become a low-volume niche product for a tiny percentage of the automotive market. A very few enthusiasts (like people who own horses today), Luddites, and people with extraordinary range needs of some kind will keep doing the gas thing, but their numbers will be so few that their impacts won’t add up to anything worth bothering with.
The advantage to further cleaning up ICE vehicles today isn’t to keep them around in mass use for longer, but to make them cleaner while we’re still stuck breathing the same air that they do. We can hit climate goals faster and save more lives by cleaning them up during the time they have left, while still aggressively replacing them with EVs.