Suck, squeeze, bang, bust: the death of internal combustion

w12 internal 2011 02 02 600 Suck, squeeze, bang, bust: the death of internal combustion

I don’t smoke and I never have. I can’t say as I’ve felt the temptation to ever try that particular vice, especially given the cost these days.

50 years ago my avoiding that lifestyle choice would have put me in the minority, and if I’d dared asked a smoker to step outside or made any implications about what their habit was doing to my lungs… well, that wouldn’t have gone over well.

Today, of course, such questions and expectations are the norm, with legislation forcing smokers into the cold and science showing that what comes out of their mouths isn’t great for passers by. But why am I talking about cigarette smoking on a gadget blog?

In a few decades this is what it’s going to be like to drive a car with internal combustion, a life full of exorbitant taxes, constant inconveniences, and state-sponsored attempts at inducing shame among those who would dare putter around with an engine that casts off 70 percent (or more) of its energy as waste.

The internal combustion engine hasn’t become such a hugely popular means of propulsion for particularly complex reasons.

At the dawn of the automobile there were many different ways of powering a car, from steam to gunpowder to, yes, electric cars with limited range.

Gasoline didn’t win out because there were pump stations on every corner (there weren’t) or because it was scientifically created to be the perfect fuel (it wasn’t). It won because it was cheap — nobody wanted it.

marcus car 2011 02 02 250 Suck, squeeze, bang, bust: the death of internal combustion When Siegfried Marcus was (arguably) the first to put a four-stroke internal combustion engine in a car in 1875, paving the way for the modern automobile, gasoline was a largely unwanted byproduct of oil refining. Heavy greases, kerosene, and other petroleum products were pulled out of oil and all of them had a use — except for petrol. Nobody really knew what to do with the highly flammable, bad-smelling stuff. So, it was burned off or stuck in holding tanks, the sort that put a spring in the step of Trashcan Man.

Unfortunately we don’t have figures for what gasoline cost per gallon back in the 19th century. The earliest reliable data we could find comes courtesy of the Department of Energy, starting in 1919 with a price of $.25 per gallon — $2.84 in modern dollars. Over the next decades, as the gasoline car took over and pushed everything else out of the way, that price would actually drop to a low of $.17 per gallon in 1931. It would take another 25 years before a gallon of gas would get over $.30. Of course, gas prices have more than doubled in the past seven years.

Adjusting for inflation, gasoline got only cheaper through the entire twentieth century — except for a big blip during the Fuel Crisis. This is what helped the gasoline-powered car to take over, pushing all the other options into tiny niches that they’ve yet to escape from. In those ensuing years of dominance the internal combustion engine, the basic mechanism needed to turn the chemical energy of gasoline into something mechanical, has been heavily refined and improved.

mazda rotary 2011 02 02 600 Suck, squeeze, bang, bust: the death of internal combustion

Each time you put 10 gallons of gas in your car only three of those are actually used to move you forward.

But it still does a terrible job. An average internal combustion engine is less than 30 percent efficient. That means each time you put 10 gallons of gas in your car only three of those are actually used to move you forward and keep your stereo grooving. The other seven gallons are used to warm up your coolant, grind gears and bearings against each other, or are simply shot out the muffler as waste heat. Throw on a hybrid system to capture energy under braking, a heat exchanger to soak up the excess temperature, and a turbocharger to grab the noise and gaseous fury that comes out the back and you can help. But, you’re never going to get close to 100 percent efficient. Even 50 seems like a long shot.

Electric motors for cars, meanwhile, score efficiencies in the low 90 percent range, the bigger and more powerful the motor the greater the efficiency becomes. Now that certainly doesn’t mean EVs are 90-odd percent efficient overall, but they are already better than internal combustion. Look at a current vehicle like the Honda FCX Clarity, an electric car running on a hydrogen fuel cell. It can travel 60 miles per kilogram of hydrogen and, since the energy in one Kg of hydrogen is about the same as that in a gallon of gasoline, you get an equivalent rating of 61mpg. A Honda Accord EX, which weighs about the same, scores 24mpg. A Toyota Camry Hybrid is rated at 31mpg.

Diesel comes closest, with Honda offering a 40mpg diesel Accord in Europe, but that still falls short. And remember, this is still early days of electric tech. Yes, we have a way to go before we can, nationwide, consider the entire process of power generation, delivery, and storage to be that efficient. And, yes, until we get more renewable energy sources online the mere generation of hydrogen is a losing proposition. But the alternative isn’t exactly a rosy picture — especially if you consider the cost of throwing oil in a boat and toting it across the ocean.

In the coming years the odds are only going to get stacked further against the ‘ol suck squeeze bang blow routine. Whether the electrons come from hydrogen sifted through a fuel cell or straight out of a battery, electric cars are the future. They’re novelties now, but soon they’ll be practical and, at that point, people will have to make a decision: go electric or stick with the ICE?

Cars with “engines” will become less practical and more of a lifestyle decision.

At first it won’t be an easy choice, but as gas prices keep climbing and battery technology/hydrogen availability improve, cars with “engines” will become less and less practical and more and more of a lifestyle decision. The corner 24 hour store will stop having eight pumps offering gasoline and go down to four, then to two, then just one. It’ll be situated ’round the back and you’ll have to go inside and ask the cashier to turn on for you. Eventually that’ll be gone too; finding go juice will start to become a challenge.

focus motor 2011 01 11 600 06 Suck, squeeze, bang, bust: the death of internal combustion

Public service announcements will decry the awful impacts of carbon monoxide on our health, talk about the other noxious things spewing out of tailpipes, and try to label those driving cars with this tech as Bad People. Little towns surrounded by pesticide-free fields and peppered with organic coffee shops will ban cars powered by internal combustion, forcing those who own them to make big detours or just go back home.

By then the government will have put taxes high enough on the sale of gasoline that driving such a car will be a luxury enjoyed only by those who can pay out the ear to have the sonorous tones of a well (or poorly) tuned engine drone back in.

I don’t say this out of hatred for the internal combustion engine. I love the breathy rush of my Toyota MR-2, its air intake just behind my head. The lumpy idle of my Subaru WRX’s flat-four makes me grin and my Triumph’s inline triple gives me tingles in all sorts of good places as it approaches redline. I take my earplugs out at the start of every F1, MotoGP, ALMS and other race I attend so that I can better experience it — and then hastily stuff them back in before I’ve done too much damage.

But the days for that experience are numbered. The internal combustion engine will not be the practical, economical choice for everyone forever — not even for long — and when we hit that threshold we can’t all spend our days lamenting what’s lost or searching for ever-funkier alternative fuels. Besides, have you ever heard the scream of an electric-powered car or bike accelerating hard? It sounds pretty good. It sounds like the future.

Update: For those getting hung up on the relative efficiency bit, I encourage you to view this research presentation (PDF) which compared well-to-wheel efficiencies of various types of powertrain, including losses for everything from transporting oil to generating the electricity from coal. It concludes that current fuel cell vehicles are on-par with diesel hybrid vehicles, but that those in the future will be more efficient, and current battery-powered EVs are more efficient still.

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