Yes, Combustion Engines Will Be With Us For Decades; However...

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Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid

Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid

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It should be fairly obvious, but apparently it isn't: Plug-in electric cars are not going to sweep the marketplace overnight.

Their sales will grow slowly and steadily from a low base.

U.S. plug-in sales in 2012 tripled over the previous year, and most projections are that they'll double again this year.

Now comes a new article from Edmunds, entitled, "Why the Internal Combustion Engine Is the Future."

In it, engineering editor Jason Kavanaugh makes the points that electric cars are still pricier than equivalent gasoline-engined cars, and that battery-electric cars are range-limited.


In other news, the sun rose in the east today and is expected to set in the west.

We shouldn't be so harsh, perhaps; we spend a lot more time covering this field than most, and our readers operate at a higher level of awareness (if occasionally overoptimism).

[Pause to applaud our readers--several hundred thousand of you, now.]

Kavanaugh is right in most of his arguments, and he makes a point we often stress: Gasoline (and other liquid hydrocarbon fuels) are wonderful energy carriers.

Consider that 1 gallon of gasoline, which weighs about 7 pounds, can move a 2-ton object up to 25 miles.

Think about how much energy it would take YOU to do that.

We agree entirely with his statement, "Despite headlines suggesting electric vehicles are on the verge of upending the internal-combustion engine any minute now, they aren't."

He notes that much more efficiency remains to be wrung out of gasoline-powered vehicles, using increasingly advanced technologies.

And, he points out, we've been refining gasoline vehicles for 125 years--whereas the EPA, and like agencies in other countries, have only been regulated auto emissions for 40 years.

To be clear, we expect that gasoline vehicles will remain with us at the end of our lifetime (and we intend to live a good long time).

But plug-in electric cars will grow steadily as a proportion of the total.

Overnight dominance? Of course not. Duh.

Tesla Model S cars parked on Santana Row, San Jose, CA, April 2013 [photo: Anton Wahlman]

Tesla Model S cars parked on Santana Row, San Jose, CA, April 2013 [photo: Anton Wahlman]

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We note with sadness that Kavanaugh attacks electric vehicles for their "long tailpipe," the argument that the emissions from the powerplants that recharge their batteries are just as bad as tailpipe emissions.

That's true in China today, as he notes. But it's definitely not the case in a majority of U.S. states--including those with by far the bulk of our driving population--even today, against a 25-mpg car.

And that's according to both a 2012 Union of Concerned Scientists report and the landmark 2007 study jointly issued by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Counsil (EPRI-NRDC).

Even worse, Kavanaugh cites a study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology that purports to show electric cars having a hugely detrimental manufacturing impact.

The authors of that study themselves note that its results are an outlier. Worse, they use some rather odd assumptions, including roughly 900 pounds for the weight of the traction motor in a typical electric car--almost 20 times the actual weight of the motor in, say, an actual Nissan Leaf.

(We really must get around to writing a critique of that study.)

Volkswagen XL1 plug-in diesel hybrid

Volkswagen XL1 plug-in diesel hybrid

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In the end, we wish Kavanaugh had done a little more digging into the research on some of his secondary critiques.

We agree with his main point: Electric cars will come slowly.

But in a U.S. market of 15 million vehicles a year, and a global market that's likely to hit 100 million vehicles a year by the end of the decade, "slowly" still allows for a whole lot of growth.

We're not sure we agree with his summary: "Progress will progress and the hybrid will win." In the short term (10 years), sure.

And electric cars have one blatant advantage that existing carmakers are so far loath to promote: They simply provide a better driving experience than gasoline cars.

In the long term (20-25 years)--with battery costs coming down annually and gasoline-car costs rising substantially by 2025--we think that wins.

What do you think? Is Kavanaugh's article largely on target, or is he too pessimistic?

Leave us your thoughts (be polite!) in the Comments below.


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Comments (37)
  1. Honestly, I'm less interested in the Electric car taking over the market than I am in them becoming a reliable, affordable and practical alternative within the market.

    I think ICE vehicles and EVs will exist side by side for going on 50 to 100 years and I'm ok with that. I just want to be able to drive what I want to drive without hugely sacrificing my driving habits and needs (in the medium term, I get that sacrifice is necessary to the early adopter).

  2. I agree. When they are "reliable, affordable and practical alternative", they will naturally "take over" the market with their "better driving experience" alone...

  3. Good article, John. I especially enjoyed your snarky attitude, as it was well deserved. The same logic explains why horses will totally replace cars, because cars are so much more expensive and cars are so range limited - you can't just stop anywhere and stuff grass in them. Horses are much better on emissions too, sort of.

  4. The bigger, even longer term, issue that I seldom see raised is the fact that hydrocarbons are a limited resource. No matter how efficient gasoline engines become, eventually the world will run out of oil. We need to develop new technologies now in order to prepare for a "post-oil" world. It may not come within 20, 40 or even 100 years, but it will come. Even 1000 years is nothing in the great scope of geologic time.

  5. That's because we keep finding more of the stuff! Also, because it's a long term issue, and markets react to short term issues.

  6. Unfortunately, there are way more hydrocarbons in the ground than we can ever safely burn. Either we limit their contnued extraction or they will limit our continued existence. But one way or another, most of them will stay in the ground.

  7. It's very likely that we will never really run out. More likely, it will just become too expensive to produce. It actually may already be too expensive if you consider the true costs. However, that limited availability and increasing costs are precisely why it is so attractive to the oil companies and their investors. While cost goes up, profits go up. The value of their product is increasing as it becomes more scarce. So there is even more incentive for them to work through congress to try and kill the alternatives, and unfortunately they have a lot of money, way more than those people trying to affect a change. Our leaders are like whores, we need to pay them more than the oil companies, or at least get some that aren't so easily bought.

  8. There are many "on-the-horizon electric storage systems in development-just takes one!
    Further, I NEVER see an electric car advertised in the newspaper. I suspect the care makers don't want to take too big a bite into the market because it will eat into their IC sales and they don't want to make a blunder . So, as I would, they want to take it slowly.

  9. In my area (SF Bay Area) I see and hear a lot of Leaf ads. I partially think that the lower number of plug-in ads is due to availability being limited.

  10. There are lots of Leaf on the dealer lot. In my local dealer (one of the largest Leaf seller in the SF Bay Area that also sold the 1st Leaf in the area), there are about 15 Leaf sitting on the lot. It has been that way for about 4 weeks now. The Chevy dealer next door still has its 8 Volts sitting there as well for 4 weeks now.

    I am afraid that April is going to be a "slow" month.

  11. When the first oil crisis occurred back in 1973, I'd suggested / propogated a serial hybrid to considerably improve fuel economy. Some of my colleagues, well versed engineers at that time, waved my ideas aside as collateral B.S. Now, forty years later, this collateral B. S. is on the roads everywhere worldwide.
    Most railroads in Europe have been electrified; the same applies to subways and trams. Electric motors have no difficulty whatsoever to move these enormous masses. Amongst others, submarines have also been electrified (FCs). We dont have to wait for electrification to capture the market, it has already done so. There are several viable solutions in the pipe line just around the corner to solve the key problem of energy storage.

  12. Within the next decade, the ICE will begin to join the fate of the late steam locomotives. I, for my part, have not pity for the fate of the ICE nor for those clinging desperately to the stench and noise fabricated from them and am looking forward to a new era of technology.

  13. Steam turbines are still being used today. Nuclear submarine, Aircraft Carrier, Power plants are all still using it. It is far more refined than the old "steam engine".

    ICE will go through the same transformation. It won't go away. I think battery will improve but I don't think it will "ever" improve to the energy density of the fossil fuel in my lifetime.

  14. Even though IC will get more efficient, batteries are far more likely to improve. If you need to buy a vehicle in 2017 or 18 and you can have one that goes 300 miles on a charge, can be 60% recharged in 15 minutes, weighs less than 3000lbs, seats 5 adults comfortably, and goes zero to 60 in 5 seconds, and cost only about $3000 more than an IC, why would anyone want a gasoline powered vehicle? Assuming 1000 miles per month, gasoline would be $4 x 33 gallons or about $100 savings over a vehicle that gets 30/40mpg. that's a 3 year payback on up front cost. The only optimism I admit to is the time frame. It may take another 5 or 6 years to build my vehicle, but if solar panels are 50% more efficient or you drive more, the payoff is sooner

  15. That's six "ifs," including some big ones. I find it an odd to debate which technology will dominate when it's all based on speculation. Of course, If batteries get substantially better and cheaper, EVs will do well. If not, they won't.

  16. John,
    IMO you went easy on Kavanaugh. Regardless of the fuel burned in an internal combustion engine, its ability to extract the energy is limited as compared to an electric motor. Eventually & inevitably market forces will move people into electric cars and the major reason can be stated in one word...efficiency.

  17. EVs are inherently nicer to drive and nicer to own so overnight dominance? Of course that's a possibility. Duh.

    What would trigger it is a major breakthrough in battery technology.

  18. I agree.

    If there is an EV that performs like Tesla S with 300 miles range and quick charge 80% within 10 mins that cost less than $30k, it will be the Model T of EV. And it WILL dominate overnight.

    I personally know about 100 people who will go out and buy that tomorrow based on my experience talking with people at work during today's Earth Day "car show".

    All that depends on 1 thing and 1 thing only. BATTERY.

  19. I believe that most EV drivers will never go back to old tech and that adoption of EV's will be exponential when some critical mass of users telling their friends, etc. starts a stampede. California will force EV technology and in 10 years over half of new cars and light trucks will be EV/plug-ins.

  20. I would like to see a discussion of how current electric vehicles are suited to do any kind of towing. For example, would a Tesla or similar all electric be able to comfortably tow a small boat such as a 15ft. Boston Whaler? Or does adding extra weight make a hugh difference in battery drain and thus we are back to "range anxiety" for anything other than short trips.

  21. I forgot to add that I think "range anxiety" is the no. 1 thing that would stop the average car or truck owner from switching to electric......along with the perception (or maybe truth) that you can't expect an all electric vehicle to be able to do any "serious" work.

  22. You can always do a plugin hybrid like the Via truck. Even Catepiller is working on a "hybrid" earthmovers.

  23. If you double the weight, rolling resistance and wind resistance, then yes you are going to half the range. The key point here is to have enough range to comfortably be able to get to next quick charger (100 miles? 200 miles? who knows) and a quick charge time that is as low as possible. Handily enough, charge times appear to be dropping quicker than capacity is increasing, so I think in 10 years a 10 minute empty to full charge should be possible. If that gives you a good range and is virtually free, most will go for it! Especially if fuel is more expensive than now (almost a certainty I'd say).

  24. ICE as a technology will be with us for a long time. Maybe at least another 100 years. I don't see heavy vehicles such as trailer trucks or earth movers going away from that for at least another 100 years. But it is perfectly okay for typical commuting cars to go away from ICE.

    Most people don't drive that far daily. So, BEV (especially if it is cheaper) will be more than okay for most household for at least 50% of the driving. And most single home households today have at least 2 vehicles (or at least a 2 car garage designed to fit those 2 cars).

    It took hybrids about 10 years to get up to 3% of the sales. I think it will take equally that long for plugins to get up to 3-5%. Unless gas price goes up and EV price goes down.

  25. Another reason that ICE won't go away soon? Cost.

    ICE is so cheap to produce these days. It cost ~ $2-$5 per hp to make a mass produced engine today. That is "dirt cheap".

  26. As a Chevy Volt owner with 15,000 miles under my belt, I agree completely that the gasoline-powered ICE car has a near permanent place in the automobile fleet. However, I now am keenly aware that it is not as efficient as an electric engine in propelling a vehicle. The railroads learned this decades ago, which is why those diesel locomotives are actually propelled by electric motors. The diesels merely create the electricity. The non-plug-in gasoline car of the future, in my mind, should be a car whose propulsion is from electric motors -- perhaps one on each drive wheel instead of a single electric motor with a transmission -- with a minimal battery reserve (5kWH should suffice) and a gasoline engine optimized for generating electricity.

  27. The internal combustion engine will lose all support when batteries have become cheaper and more energy dense, or when fuels cells have become cheap. I see such a breakthrough on the horizon , especially regarding the latter, around 2025. The ICE will become as fossil as the fossil fuels it burns. It will happen in Southeast Asia and Europe. The US will cling longer to its natural gas and gasoline.

  28. Hi - Don't want to pick nits (but I'm going to anyway). "Consider that 1 gallon of gasoline, which weighs about 7 pounds, can move a 2-ton object up to 25 miles." You are missing something here. Time. A gallon could take 2T around the world if you were prepared to wait long enough.

    Anyway, that aside we can all blather on about "long tail-pipes" (nice!) and "100 mile range" (Why on earth do we need that? We don't. Do all our cars have that now? No. What's the average daily distance driven by a car? 35 miles. Yawn! Next!)

    All that matters is what it costs. If it's cheaper to run an EV then they will sell - and yes *overnight* - if the price of fuel goes up fast enough. This is the bottom line. End of.

  29. @Martin: Ah, if only retail car buyers were able to look objectively at total cost of ownership. Regrettably, they're not.

    Retail buyers chronically overweight purchase cost (or monthly payment) and underweight lifetime costs--and they will make illogical decisions to save money on their fixed monthly cost that will hurt them over the long run in running costs.

    I agree that a spike in gas prices changes behavior. In fact, it often changes it far MORE than is warranted by those same analyses. But that's an entirely different article.

  30. Actually, I think the spiking of gas price has done more for the Prius like hybrid sales than pure BEV sales...

    That is why I have always said that high efficiency low price hybrids such as Prius is the biggest threat to EVs...

  31. As someone who took far to long to by a decent hybrid, I don't expect sales of EV's to accelerate all that fast, yet. I do think that as more people get to noticing them in action, they will be more comfortable with them and curious and the sales rate will continue to rise. That depends on the factors already mentioned and assuming the major manufacturers don't lobby the rules for CAFE standards out of existence and don't lobby the government into ditching regulations on carbon emissions. It isn't like I believe the government actually cares what the will of the people is.

  32. As long as battery technology continues on faster and faster, I think people will look at the EV as a common sense alternative to a gasoline vehicle.

  33. History has shown us that technology does not advance at a steady pace. through-out history, breakthroughs have led to explosive changes. With the amount of money/time being spent on battery and recharging technology, it is a very possible that a major breakthrough could happen any day. Couple this with the push to create more and more clean and renewable energy sources, things could change practically over-night. On the flip side of the coin, as research continues on bio-fuels and the like, the ICE could remain in play for some time. Only time will tell...

  34. As long as we're tallying little benefits to make a case for EV: without foreign oil dependence, US military activity could basically cease.

    The money saved could probably fund the switchover.

  35. Indeed, the ICE will be with us for XYZ years.
    But, nothing prevents us as from early 2014 to convert them to HICE, with onboard H² production from electrolysis and a tank filled with H²+O.
    Sure, 99.99% of the other side of this screen will not believe this or be hyper-sceptical at best.
    Watch this space!

  36. If you put aside the snarky tone Kavanaugh, admits that
    Hybrids will continue growing and that gas engines will be
    getting smaller. Well as that trend continues, there will be
    the break out point where, it makes more sense to go over on
    an battery alone. I perosnally believe the synergy between Solar PV and
    EV cars will have a virtous cycle. I will predict this in 5 years Kavanaugh
    will be writing articles about the 50 models of Hybrid cars and the broad range of EVs available.

  37. I think if it wasn't for a serious push from the government, the car manufacturers would only sell the supersized cupholder edition vehicles in America and fuel efficient versions where gas costs a great deal more than here.

    If electric vehicles are to take a large portion of that market share, they have to get the word out better. FWIW, I haven't seen a Nissan Leaf advertisement in a year. Of course, since they were supply constricted, there was no need. Can't remember the last Chevy Volt advertisement I saw either.

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