Four years ago this month in their February 2017 issue, Car and Driver published a column by Aaron Robinson that addressed the transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to battery-electric vehicles in an extremely clever alternate-universe manner. I’ve shared this column with numerous people over the years, but for some reason C&D has never seen fit to make it available on their website, even though contemporaneous columns from the same author are there. The column is also inexplicably impervious to Google and other search engines.
So as a public service to other fans of this column, I am reprinting it here, both in its original format and as searchable text. Should C&D or Mr. Robinson ever choose to make it available online, I will cheerfully remove this copy and redirect readers to their site.
by Aaron Robinson
Car and Driver, February 2017
Report to the Future Tech Committee, Society of Vehicle Engineers: As there has been much discussion regarding a new form of propulsion being proposed for motor vehicles, we have been tasked with compiling this report on the technology and its prospects for practical and commercial applications. Here is the executive summary:
As has been widely reported, the proposed technology, combustion of hydrocarbon fuels in a closed cylinder, represents a dramatic departure from the battery-electric powertrains that currently power 99 percent of our nation’s vehicle fleet. Given the radical upheaval this would cause to both the automotive-manufacturing industry and our all-electric recharging infrastructure, a thorough examination of internal-combustion technology is in order before further investment should proceed.
Early prototypes of the new “engine” appear as a heavy and bulky metal casing called a “block,” usually made of iron or aluminum, in which one or several reciprocating pistons are connected to a common crankshaft with rods. The hydrocarbon fuel and air are introduced separately to each cylinder via manifold vacuum or directly under pressure and ignited by a sparking device, whereupon the rapid heating and expansion of the gases displace the piston(s). The process is repeated serially to create continuous crankshaft rotation.
Several technical and market challenges are apparent. The number of moving parts in the “engine” that must be manufactured and machined to fine tolerances is many times that of our current electric motors, which have a single rotating assembly. Also, the best designs are only about 40 percent efficient as waste heat is lost through friction, transfer to the cooling system, and exhaust. Additionally, unlike electric motors, which make peak torque just above zero rpm, the new engine’s torque delivery is by comparison delayed, as it must first develop significant crankshaft rotational speed.
Furthermore, unlike our common electric motors, constant lubrication of the engine’s moving parts is required by a separate supply of hydrocarbon lubricant. This lubricant has a limited life due to contamination and heat cycling and must be replaced periodically. Will today’s motorists, accustomed to nearly maintenance-free electric powertrains, even accept a vehicle that has frequent and possibly costly service intervals in which the used lubricant, a slick and staining material laced with toxic heavy metals, must be safely disposed of?
Further, hydrocarbon combustion in the presence of the two main atmospheric components of nitrogen and oxygen produces substantial noise that will have to be greatly suppressed to be acceptable to both drivers as well as communities accustomed to hearing nothing from a motor vehicle but a faint whine. Also, the chemical reaction produces compounds that some medical experts believe to be unhealthy.
There is also the combustible nature of the fuel. Unlike electricity, which does not leak or evaporate and which has a proven infrastructure for home delivery, hydrocarbon fuel, and specifically its most commercially viable form, gasoline, both leaks and evaporates and is extremely flammable as well as toxic, the odors alone inducing rapid nausea. While batteries can overheat, that is a gin fizz compared with what gasoline does when lit. And to have any meaningful range, vehicles will be required to carry up to 20 gallons of it, enough explosive power to easily destroy the vehicle, its occupants, and surrounding structures.
Thus, the issue of gasoline refueling raises many questions. Obviously, consumers cannot be allowed to refuel at home as they currently do with free electricity from their rooftop solar panels. They will have to drive to a licensed commercial operation outfitted with the requisite specialized equipment. The SVE Safety Committee is already studying the matter and, in consultation with our lawyers, has developed some initial recommendations, such as requiring the driver to leave the vehicle with a trained technician who conducts the refueling in an open-air pit of reinforced concrete wearing some form of blast-proof garment. On the positive side, vast sources of crude oil, the raw form of gasoline, are said to lie in a wide range of locations, from the Alaskan tundra to the coastal waters of California, though the most accessible pockets are beneath the sands of the Middle East. The State Department has noted that increased trade resulting from our bulk purchases of crude oil can only help further cement friendly relations with our many allies in the region.
In summary: The market penetration of the internal-combustion engine is handicapped by several technical hurdles. A small market is possible among machinery enthusiasts of the type who prefer complex mechanical watches to simple and reliable digital timepieces. However, estimating the size of this market would be, at this point, purely conjecture.