No easy alternatives to internal combustion engine

Published July 1, 2000

As Vice President and Presidential candidate Al Gore was reiterating his controversial call for “phasing out” the internal combustion engine in less than 25 years, the Energy Information Administration, a department of the Administration’s Department of Energy, was saying it couldn’t be done.

Skepticism about how fast viable alternatives to the internal combustion engine could emerge was a central theme of a presentation by David M. Chien, a senior transportation and forecasting analyst for the Energy Information Administration, at the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook Conference held in Washington DC in March.

Chien predicted that fewer than one million of the seven million cars expected to be sold in the year 2020, about 10 percent, will have something other than a conventional internal combustion engine under its hood.

With some 200 million cars currently on the roads in the U.S., it will take decades before the existing fleet turns over and more than a small fraction of cars on the road are powered by something other than conventional gasoline and diesel engines.

Candidates to replace the ICE

Three propulsion technologies currently lead the competition to replace the internal combustion engine, or ICE. They are:

  • Hybrids: A small ICE, probably fueled by gasoline, diesel, or natural gas, is paired with an electric motor that is recharged by the energy used in braking. The electric engine assists the main power plant when additional speed or acceleration is needed. Toyota and Honda both sell small gasoline-electric cars in the U.S., and Ford has said it will begin making a family-sized hybrid electric vehicle by 2003.
  • Fuel Cells: Fuel cells generate electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen electrochemically, without combustion. The absence of a national infrastructure for providing hydrogen to motorists means most fuel cell vehicles will have to “reform” hydrogen from gasoline or methanol using an on-board device. Some technological barriers remain to be solved, such as finding ways to reduce the size and weight of the device that “reforms” the traditional fuel or a way to safely store hydrogen on-board at room temperature.
  • Electric: Electric motors are powered by on-board batteries that are charged at night or when the vehicle is not in use. Electric cars themselves produce zero emissions, but their production is not zero-emission. Carbon dioxide and sulfur are produced by centralized electric generation plants, and lead is released during the production and handling of batteries. Electric cars are now widely thought to be an inferior option due to their short range, high cost, and limited performance. Detroit will build them only to meet the zero-emission requirements of a few states such as California and Massachusetts.

Advantages of ICE

The perseverance of ICEs and conventional fuels predicted by Chien won’t be due to inertia or “foot-dragging” by car and truck manufacturers. Rather, current automotive technologies hold several advantages over their competitors.

First is low purchase price. EIA’s Chien expects hybrids to cost between $10,000 and $15,000 more than conventional cars, in constant 1998 dollars, from the time of their introduction around 2003 through 2020.

Fuel-cell powered vehicles are expected to cost between $45,000 and $65,000 more than conventional cars when they become available in 2005. However, Chien forecasts the price of fuel-cell cars will gradually fall until they are “only” about $15,000 more in 2020. Chien did not forecast the prices of electric cars, probably because of barriers to commercial production described above.

The second advantage of ICEs is their low cost of operation: With inexpensive gasoline and diesel readily available, owners of cars with conventional internal combustion engines enjoy operating costs of only $0.05 per mile and have no difficulty finding fuel. Hybrids are expected to have an advantage over ICEs due to their superior fuel economy, but fuel cells and electric cars will be at a decided disadvantage.

Chien forecasts that the number of refueling stations offering hydrogen or methanol will be just over 2 percent of the number of stations offering gasoline and diesel in the year 2011, and only 3.5 percent by 2020.

A third consideration is vehicle range. A typical new car with a gasoline ICE has a range between refuelings of approximately 345 miles. If modified to reduce weight, rolling resistance, etc., such a car can go 545 miles before refueling. Electric cars can’t approach either range, and barring an unexpected breakthrough in battery technology, it is unlikely they ever will.

Light-weighted fuel-cell cars with hydrogen stored on-board have ranges of 402 miles, comparable to current cars but about one-third less than a similarly light-weighted conventional car. Fuel-cell cars that “reform” hydrogen from gasoline do better (845 miles), and hybrids do best of all (1,090 miles).

A fourth problem for technologies seeking to upset the internal combustion engine is that American drivers consistently demand higher performance from new vehicles, about 3.5 percent more horsepower per year, according to Chien. Electric cars are competitive in this regard . . . for about one hour. Quick starts and high speeds quickly sap the power from the batteries of electric cars, greatly reducing their range.

The promoters of hybrids and fuel-cell cars believe they can deliver performance that is comparable to that of traditional internal combustion engines, but so far hybrids (such as Honda’s new Insight) rely on light-weighting and other tricks to achieve parity–changes that conventionally powered cars are likely also to adopt in the coming years. Scientists and engineers are still searching for ways to downsize and lighten fuel cells and fuel “reformers.”

A final consideration is safety. In the event of an accident, acid-filled batteries may leak and pressurized canisters of hydrogen may explode. Recharging batteries and refilling pressurized tanks present significant safety risks that few people are now accustomed to managing. The extensive light-weighting proposed to offset the added weight of fuel cells and batteries makes those vehicles less safe in a collision with other cars or stationary objects.

At a time when many new car buyers choose large sport utility vehicles because of their perceived superior safety, it is not unrealistic to imagine that a large share of the buying public will take a pass on electric and fuel-cell vehicles for this reason alone.

Lessons for environmentalists

The slow rate of introduction for alternatives to the conventional internal combustion engine shows that solving the technological challenges of new engine designs and fuels is not the primary difficulty they face. More important is producing a product with features that consumers are known to prefer, such as safety and performance.

Conventional engine and fuel technologies are moving targets, in the sense that they are continuously being improved at rates that probably approach the rate of improvement being reported by alternative technologies. Emissions from new cars in the year 2005 will probably be so low that the even-lower emissions of hybrids and fuel-cell cars won’t be a selling point.

Today’s cars and trucks produce consumer benefits often overlooked by their critics and those who think finding substitutes will be easy. A customer-oriented approach to automobility begins by asking drivers what they want, not what the latest technology can deliver.

Too many career environmentalists and government regulators ignore revealed customer preferences, and then wonder why Detroit “drags its feet” when it comes to commercializing new technologies.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, publishers of Environment & Climate News, and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (1994).