The car industry has changed so much in the past 10 years, predominantly thanks to the rise of hybrid and electric vehicles. We’re now in the midst of an EV revolution, which spans the entire industry ranging from small urban runabouts to exotic hypercars. We can now safely say that electric vehicles are here to stay, but that raises the question. What will happen with the internal combustion engine? Are gasoline and diesel engines running on fumes or are they going to stick around?
The arrival of the Tesla Model S came as a shock to many car manufacturers in 2012. Whilst most kept a cool and calm public appearance, it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in the boardrooms of the top ten manufacturers when it was first unveiled. Its innovation was so advanced compared to anything we’d seen before that the 2012 Tesla Model S is still years ahead of even the latest electric cars from any other brand. Motor trend magazine named it the car of the century for this reason and despite being a bold claim, you can see where they’re coming from.
To combat this sudden shock to the market, manufacturers have reacted differently. Some have taken a measured approach, Nissan for example, with investment in both combustion engines; variable compression and in electric cars; the Nissan Leaf program. Others have shunned electric power altogether like Toyota, with their seemingly feeble attempts at revitalizing hydrogen and borderline misleading “self charging” hybrids. With new innovations like electromagnetic camshafts, 48v mild hybrid systems and turbocharging, there has been some innovation happening in the internal combustion space recently, albeit at an ever slowing pace.
We need to be honest. The current state of electric cars is a mess. Overly expensive, limited range and extremely heavy models occupy most of the space in the market with the only few sensible cheaper options, like the Hyundai Ionic and Volkswagen ID3 having massive waiting lists and significant entry costs. Although we could easily see a future where all cars are electric, this is only a part of the picture. The electric car movement is much more political than most people realise. For example, did you know that in the UK, the average electric car, a Nissan Leaf for example, charged from the average home will cost you around 4.1p per mile to drive. Pretty cheap. Travelling that same distance using its gasoline brother, the Micra, would cost you 13p per mile, more than 3 times the price.
So electric cars are much cheaper to run then? Well, not really. The issue is, these cost comparisons make no sense in the real world due to one inescapable fact, tax. In the UK, more than 70% of the price of fuel is paid as tax, which goes straight to the government. In parts of Europe, this is even higher. In the USA fuel duties are lower, but the point still stands. In many countries across the globe, gasoline is actually cheaper than water before taxes are applied!
Electricity however, is only taxed at 5%! All things equal, 10,000 miles driven with 0 tax applied on both fuel and electricity would cost £380 for the electric car and £390 for the combustion car. Not so great now is it? Now factor in the purchase price, with the average EV costing as much as 37% more than its piston engined sibling, the significantly reduced range, the increased weight and poor charging infrastructure and suddenly, electric vehicles become much less compelling.
Because of this, electric cars are almost exclusively created by the tax system, making it much less of a tech issue and more of a political issue. For example, what happens when the government need to raise the money lost as less people drive fossil cars and more people drive EVs? You guessed it, more tax on electricity. This renders the reduced cost of electric vehicles pointless, yet you’ve still got all of the drawbacks of an EV! Essentially, electric car drivers are currently subsidized by gasoline car drivers, but once this reaches a certain point, it wont be able to continue and the government will have to raise lost taxes somewhere. This will likely come in the form of a “per mile” based tax or a straight up tax on electricity.
There are other issues too. Did you know that gasoline is one of the most energy dense fuel sources in existence? Without getting too sciency, Gasoline has an energy density of 46.4 mega joules per litre. Compare this to the very best current battery technology, lithium ion, which only has 9 mega joules per litre of energy density and suddenly you start to see where the problems begin. Whilst the electric motor is more efficient, it still makes high intensity applications like trucks and aircraft unviable. Sure, it can be done but when the cost of the battery far exceeds the cost of the vehicle, it makes little sense for all but the most efficient and low powered vehicles. There is simply no other power source for big ships, ferries, boats and planes quite like a combustion engine. Unless battery technology can improve by a factor of 5, this isn’t likely to change any time soon.
When it comes to charging, its even more of a mess. Currently, only large cities and urban areas have enough charging stations needed for regular use of electric vehicles, and that’s with less than 1% of all cars being electrified! In remote areas or third world countries, theres not even electricity infrastructure built for anything, which of course directs them to only one choice – internal combustion. Although there are more and more charging stations added each year, it will be decades before this number remotely matches traditional filling stations. You also have to bear in mind that the time each car is spent refilling is longer, so turnover at charging stations will be slower. You might argue that people will charge at home, true, but this depends on having a driveway with direct access to an electricity point. For people living in apartments, people who use separate car parks or just have on street parking, this is a major issue.
Today`s petrol and diesel engine are incredibly efficient and durable, and this is a big step forward compared to the stuff produced just a decade ago. Whilst the last of an old technology will always be better than the first of a new one, EV’s present significant barriers to mass adoption which is unlikely to change any time soon. Although electric vehicles tend to have strong acceleration, quiet interiors and efficient regenerative braking, they are just not ready for the masses. Car brands know this too. Whilst some are treading lightly and trying to stall the progression into EVs, others are going full steam ahead, often making a loss on each vehicle.
The current CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra doesn’t expect the company to produce profitable EVs until “early next decade”. Ex CEO and automotive legend Bob Lutz recently said to the website Automotive news that “we are approaching the end of the automotive era”. “The end state will be the fully autonomous module with no capability for the driver to exercise command. You will call for it, it will arrive at your location”. Referring to combustion cars, “Everyone will have five years to get their car off the road or sell it for scrap” Whilst this seems like science fiction, he’s a smart guy. The engine is often the “soul” of the car and provides differentiation that helps buyers to choose which car suits them. Once that’s gone, electric cars will become much less reliant on branding and are likely to become more similar to eachother, somewhat like smart phones over the last few years
As to whether your next car will be electric, your next next car will be electric or even your next next next car, its up for debate. With the increasing environmental pressures being placed on car makers, and the ever tightening restrictions being applied to where you can drive your fossil car, the death of the internal combustion engine is nigh, at least for normal drivers in normal cars. How long do you think it will take? 5 years? 10 years? Are you looking forward to this change? Let me know down in the comments.