I get asked this question a lot, often on long airline flights where you can easily alienate a seat companion with an answer that he or she does not wish to hear. Given that passions often run high among both lovers and haters of gas-guzzling cars, it’s a hard question to answer (safely). And the truth of the matter is, I don’t really know.
But over the course of decades, I’ve had the chance to put this question to all manner of experts in the field – the world’s best automotive engineers and business executives, technology specialists and experts, top scientists, researchers, lab managers, technical authorities, designers and economic pundits, green activists, military and political leaders. Now admittedly, some of these individuals can be classified as biased or interested parties (after all, there’s a whole industry out there with armies of employees dedicated to the promotion and welfare of the car engine), but my ‘expert panel’ represents a reasonably fair and measured sampling of the proverbial best minds on the topic. All speaking freely, usually off the record, so take this as you may.
And the overwhelming result of my private, unscientific, ongoing ‘poll’ is clear: despite significant advances in green or electric vehicle technology, the internal combustion engine is here to stay for the foreseeable future, at least to the end of this century.
So why’s that?
Several things influence this consensus of opinion. One is that green technology –pretty much all of it of any significance – has been mandated by governments. If the green movement and subsequent green legislation hadn’t driven the global car industry to cut exhaust emissions and go electric, we’d all still be cruising the boulevard with big-block V-8s up front. But could governments go the extra mile and truly convert the car business to an environmentally sustainable operating basis in the long term? The expert panel remains pessimistic.
Another factor seems to be the lingering suspicion, if not conviction, that the process of transforming basic technologies among large populations is more often than not a very slow process, one that requires considerable innovation and capital investment, two resources that always seem in short supply. Germany and Japan, for example, are now finding out how difficult (and dirty) it is to pull nuclear power off the grid.
A third, more technical, point is that oil and its derivative fuels still hold huge advantages over all of the alternatives for transport use (especially if you don’t mind dumping the combustion trash into the atmosphere).
So backed by more than a century of steady and even intensive research, development and engineering efforts, the internal combustion engine today sets a high performance standard for low-cost, effective vehicle propulsion, one that has even partially cleaned up its act in recent years. Conversely, the growing use of fossil fuel-based electricity generation – China, for instance, the world’s biggest car market, builds a new coal-fired power plant each week – tends to undercut the argument for more electric vehicles in terms of the technology’s total environmental footprint.
Finally, although the ‘experts’ readily acknowledge and applaud the remarkably effective progress that green and electric vehicles have made in recent years, they tend to believe that electric propulsion is really not there yet as a substitute technology, and probably won’t reach the market in a fully capable form that can go for 300 miles or more on single charge at an affordable price for some time to come.