"Death of the internal combustion engine" is now a thing

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The very first working four-cycle internal-combustion engine was invented by Niklaus Otto in 1876, and in due course it changed the world.

A quarter of a century later, gasoline engines, steam-powered vehicles, and electric drive competed on an equal basis, but by 1915, it was clear the gasoline engine would triumph.

The next 100 years brought more than 1.2 billion vehicles to the surface of our planet, the vast majority fueled by gasoline burned in internal-combustion engine.

DON'T MISS: China developing timetable to end sales, production of gasoline cars

Six weeks ago, state media in China revealed that the country was evaluating in what year it should end the sale of new vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel fuel.

The Chinese car market is the world's largest, at 31 million vehicles last year. Carmakers have no choice but to follow the country's rules if they want to remain relevant globally.

Now, suddenly, we starting to hear serious discussion about "the end of the internal-combustion engine."

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

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The first such article that came across our desk actually preceded the Chinese announcement.

In August, The Economist published a story titled simply, "The death of the internal combustion engine."

"It had a good run," the story began. "But the end is in sight for the machine that changed the world."

"Rapid gains in battery technology favour electric motors instead," it continued, noting the gains in range from the newest mass-market electric cars like the Chevrolet Bolt EV.

That was a one-off; we made a note and moved on.

Cash for Clunkers tradeins: Mercury Sable and Toyota Camry

Cash for Clunkers tradeins: Mercury Sable and Toyota Camry

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Then, last week, came another story, this one in The Washington Post.

Saddled with the lengthy title, "Why 2017 will go down as the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine," the piece covers some of the same ground.

It also cites three specific reasons why 2017 may prove in retrospect to have been a tipping point for electric cars.

CHECK OUT: Hey, media, get it straight: "electrified" is NOT "electric," and the difference matters

First was the China announcement, which followed similar plans from small and not terribly influential markets like Norway and The Netherlands.

Second was the arrival of the Tesla Model 3. Although that car is now in "production hell," to quote Tesla CEO Elon Musk, if we assume it ultimately sells in the tens of thousands a month, that will be a new sales level.

Third are plans by many automakers for an "all-electric future," although like many writers, the different between electric cars and "electrified" cars is glossed over—and it's an important one.

Mazda SkyActiv-X engine: three changes to hardware and sensor ancillary equipment

Mazda SkyActiv-X engine: three changes to hardware and sensor ancillary equipment

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Mazda 2.0-liter SkyActiv-X engine with spark-controlled compression ignition (SPCCI)

Mazda 2.0-liter SkyActiv-X engine with spark-controlled compression ignition (SPCCI)

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Mazda 2.0-liter SkyActiv-X engine with spark-controlled compression ignition (SPCCI)

Mazda 2.0-liter SkyActiv-X engine with spark-controlled compression ignition (SPCCI)

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While automakers and their engineers are going to greater and more complex lengths to bring the energy efficient of engines into the 40-to-50-percent range, they still run on fossil fuels.

For the vast majority of North American drivers today, 1 mile driven in an electric car has lower wells-to-wheels carbon footprint than the average new gasoline vehicle even if charged on the dirtiest, most coal-heavy grids.

Charged on cleaner grids or renewable energy, no vehicle with a combustion engine will ever get as low in carbon as that electric car.

Still, it's important to keep in mind that the first modern battery-electric vehicle hit the market less than seven years ago.

The increasing severity of climate-change effects and rapid progress in cost reductions for lithium-ion batteries together have taken us to a place probably unimaginable seven years ago.

Zero S electric motorcycle charging next to Nissan Leaf during Ride the Future Tour [Ben Rich]

Zero S electric motorcycle charging next to Nissan Leaf during Ride the Future Tour [Ben Rich]

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It may well be 50 years before the last passenger vehicle with an internal-combustion engine is sold anywhere in the world.

But for the first time, that possibility is being discussed—and not in tones of horror either.

How times change.

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