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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Internal Combustion Engine Jumps The Shark

The Preußen, a German steel-hulled five-masted ship-rigged windjammer built in 1902
The internal combustion engine jumps the shark, or to put it into terms from another transportation field, it enters the "More Sails" phase.

The first successful steam-powered vessels were built for use on canals and rivers in the early 1800s. Not long after, there were ocean-going hybrid ships with sails and steam. The steam engine didn't have to wait for the wind, could sail in any weather, and didn't have to jibe and tack. With these ships, new trans-Atlantic crossing record times were being set and more ships began incorporating steam engines.

Not all ship makers embraced the new technology. Some responded to the threat by doubling down on the legacy that they knew and loved. To compete with the record-setting times, they added more sails. This is when sails jumped the shark. The effort prolonged the demise, but did not prevent it. During the late 1800s, large sailing ships almost completely disappeared as steam power took over. The bulk of the transition occurred during just one century.

Internal combustion engines (ICE)

Much like the ships that added more sails, there are automakers today turning the ICE engineering to eleven in an attempt to prolong its life. In late 2017 Mazda announced a 'Holy Grail' breakthrough in engine tech with their Skyactiv-G high-compression gasoline engine. Similarly, Toyota made claims in February of this year that they had created the world's most thermally efficient 2.0-liter gas engine. They are not the only ones, despite dieselgate (more on that below), just weeks ago, Volkswagen's leader announced a "Diesel Renaissance" is on the horizon and Nissan has been talking about HCCI as the next great thing in engines since 2013. Occasionally, you'll see a story about rotary engines posed to take over... These are all signs of "more sails".

Engines are a mature technology. It's highly unlikely that there will be a breakthrough that greatly changes their fuel economy. Internal combustion engine tech is over 100 years old and it has had a lot of R&D sunk into it. There are fundamental limitations to combustion.

The headlines often say something like "New Engine 30% More Efficient" but this is very misleading. First, the results that you get in the ideal conditions of the lab are, just that, ideal (in a warmed up engine at optimal RPM...). In the real-world, this will be reduced, but for the sake of argument, let's assume they really have a 30% improvement. Gasoline engines are about 20% efficient. So a 30% improvement would mean 50% efficiency, right? Wrong. That headline means 30% better than 20%. This is what I call "marketing math". If you were at a restaurant and the bill was $20 and you left a generous 30% tip, that would be $6. Appling this to engines, you could call a 26% efficient engine 30% better than an engine that is 20% efficient. A headline that reads "6% improvement" does not get as many clicks as "30% improvement". If they are comparing the improvement to a lower efficiency starting point, marketing math can make the improvement percentage even higher.

Even in the unlikely event that an engine with a 50% thermal efficiency were to be created, it still would not compete with the 80 to 95% efficiency of its new rival, the electric motor. Even an efficient gasoline engine is still burning gasoline and emitting pollutants into the air where we live and breathe.

Model T vs Today

The original 1908 Ford Model T had a fuel efficiency of 21 MPG. Not including hybrids, the average fuel efficiency of the gasoline-powered cars on the road today is not much better than the original Model T. More than 100 years later there was no big breakthrough that allowed 200+ miles per gallon.

Dieselgate 

Emissions cheating is yet another symptom of the engine apostles clinging to the old technology and pushing it beyond its capabilities. Either the emissions requirements could be met, or the performance requirements, but not both. The majority of this press coverage focused on Diesel, but some gasoline engines were found to be using defeat devices as well.

As a society, we no longer want the health impacts or the environmental impacts that fossil fuel engines cause. Emission standards increased to reduce these impacts, but engine technology is just not capable of being something other than what it is, a combustion machine.

Hybrids Are Transitional

Just as the earliest Atlantic crossing ships to use steam engines were hybrids, some of the cars available today are a mix of traditional internal combustion and electric motors. The Toyota Prius was a landmark hybrid car. It nearly doubled the fuel economy of other cars at the time of its US introduction. Today, there are plug-in hybrids from many automakers. You can plug them into a standard outlet in your garage overnight and the next day the battery will be full. This allows you to drive some limited number of miles on electricity. Then when the battery is drained, it just uses gas from the tank and you never have to worry about mid-day charging.

Driving a plug-in hybrid allows you to enjoy many of the benefits of an all-electric vehicle without ever worrying about where you could plug-in. If you are not already driving all-electric or not ready to jump in with both feet, I would recommend that you get a plug-in hybrid as your next vehicle. Depending on the electric range, you could cut your gasoline usage in half. You'd get to experience the smooth quiet acceleration of an electric motor and still have the safety net of using gasoline when you need it.

Sailing Into The Sunset

The introduction of the steam engine to ships has many parallels to the electric motor's entry into cars.

Just as the first steamships were used on canals and rivers, many of the early electric cars of this generation were urban runabout or commuter cars with less than 100 miles of range. This class of electric car filled these niches very well, but they were not a general purpose vehicle.

Just as the first steam engines to cross the Atlantic did so as part of a hybrid vehicle design, the first "transcontinental" vehicles to utilize electric motors were hybrid cars.

It took nearly 100 years for the engine to fully replace sails. However, just as everything else happens faster in our modern era, transitions are speeded up too. Today the Chevy Bolt EV and the Tesla Model 3 are for sale. These are just the first of many long-range affordable electric cars that will be coming to market. Over the next decade, things will change radically.

ICE has jumped the shark. It is not dead yet, but the writing is on the wall. Don't let it take you, your career, or your business down with it. I'm not sure if engines will be history by 2030, 2050, or 2070, but this is the century of their demise. It's time to consider electric cars rather than putting more sails on your internal combustion vehicle.

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