What does the future hold for the Internal Combustion Engine?

The internal combustion engine has been around for well over 100 years and if it is to survive it will have to adapt. So what are the opportunities and who are the challengers, there are several options – battery electric vehicles (BEV’s), hybrid electric vehicles (HEV’s).

BEV’s still have a long way to go before they are affordable for the average person in the street. The market is mainly limited to passenger vehicles and small vans and they are unlikely to venture into the domain of larger vehicles and HGV’s unless there is a breakthrough in battery technology. The travel distance in a BEV is limited to 200 to 300 miles on one charge and top up charging (using a fast charge point for half an hour or so) may only get you another 100 to 150 miles further. So longer distance trips have to be planned well in advance. Some local authorities provide free on street charging, but this may not always be the case and the availability of charger points is limited. The batteries are very heavy and use precious metals in their manufacture with a life expectancy of some 10 years or so which begs the question of how is the recycling and the waste from these batteries to be managed, are we replacing one type of pollution for another? Running costs compare very favourably to internal combustion vehicles even if charging on standard tariff rate instead of Economy 7 rate. Should BEV’s suddenly become very popular then generation capacity in the national grid to accommodate this increase in numbers could pose a very serious problem. There is a school of thought which suggests that the heavier construction of a BEV contributes to air pollution through extra tyre wear. Also until all of the electricity is generated from renewables (in the UK) some BEV’s could be seen as adding to the problems of air pollution by using electricity generated from fossil fuel. Costs of a family sized BEV could be in the region of £30k and without serious cost cutting will be out of reach of most households. All in all in my opinion, without some radical breakthrough in battery storage technology the pure BEV is likely to remain in the slow lane for several years to come.

HEV’s – Hybridised engines involve the use of diesel or petrol powered internal combustion engines with the addition of integrated electric power systems such as motor generators. These innovative systems enable the internal combustion engine to operate at a much higher level of efficiency, recovering in part the by-product of kinetic energy produced when braking. Capturing this ‘lost energy’ is very attractive as engine manufacturers appear to have reached the maximum reclaimable energy from the engine itself – although we would argue that there is yet more efficiency to be extracted from the internal combustion engine!
Costs of a typical hybrid vehicle can be several thousand pounds more than the equivalent gasoline engined vehicle, again this means that entry into the mass market will be some time off until production costs can be reduced. Unlike BEV’s there are heavy duty vehicles, buses etc which do use hybrid technology and have established themselves in the marketplace but they are significantly more expensive.

The internal combustion engine still has a very good future before it. The low manufacturing costs of a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine together with its cheap fuel storage system and refuelling infrastructure make it an ideal form of transport for everyone. The new technologies discussed above and those on the horizon will take some time to challenge the dominance of the internal combustion engine. Do you agree with this premise?