Why Internal Combustion Engines Are Far From Dead In Modern Times

It goes without saying that we here at Engine Labs are fans of the internal combustion engine. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t take notice of the powertrains of tomorrow. Back in 2012, we saw a modified Tesla Roadster show up at a runway race and hold its own among supercars and tuned imports.

At the time, electric cars and hybrids were fairly unrefined, but this Roadster was tweaked and obliterated everything there — in the quarter-mile at least. Electric Vehicles have made gigantic leaps in performance and efficiency since then, changing a lot of minds in the process.

But at the same time, there are no plans to change the name of this publication to “MotorLabs” any time soon. Neither the requisite technology nor the consumer climate is quite “there” yet for electric vehicles to completely dethrone the internal combustion engine as the prime power source for automobiles, especially as the piston-pounders continue to make technological advancements.

Innovations like Freevalve from Koenigsegg that pumps out 600 horsepower from only 3-cylinders with no cams! Or maybe the variable compression technology from Nissan with seemingly endless performance versus economy settings. And then there is the almighty bottom-line for auto manufacturers, which is what Engineering Explained tackled in their recent YouTube video.

With real-world examples and excerpts from the SAE Automotive Engineering magazine, host Jason Fenske outlines why it’s too early to start counting the internal combustion engine out just yet.

The Science Behind the Motor

Sure electric motors are great in our everyday lives and work in EVs for a select few people. but they are not yet ready to go prime time. Why? Science, my friends, science. We need to start with a concept called energy density or how much potential power a substance has versus its mass.

For example, the power potential a single gallon of gasoline has is equivalent to 139 soda cans of lithium-ion battery cells. Cans were used to demonstrate how lithium-ion batteries are expressed as cells. The space occupied only inflates once you include all the wiring, cooling and electronics needed. There is 13 times the energy produced out of one gallon of gasoline and fun fact: that gallon of gas only weighs six pounds! 

One gallon of gasoline weighs six pounds but produces 12,400 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg) versus 240 Wh/kg for lithium-ion battery cells. That means internal combustion engines have far more power density for the same weight.

By the numbers, the gallon of gasoline produces 12,400 watt-hours per kilogram(Wh/kg) versus 240 Wh/kg for the lithium-ion batteries, meaning 50 times less weight for the same amount of energy. But that is just the cells themselves. As a battery pack all connected up and ready for use, it can be as high as 100 times heavier. Compare that 6-pounds for gasoline to the first-generation Nissan Leaf EV batteries that weighed over 600 pounds, and had the same amount of energy produced!

Net result? The EVs require way more volume and get less cargo space. And that volume affects the feasibility of electric transport like planes, while passenger cars are just now starting to be able to fulfill their purpose in a way that makes sense, thanks to current technology.

Cost Of The EV Business

On average, electric cars sticker for about $12,000 more than a gasoline-powered counterpart, in the initial purchase price. The current low production volume and economies of scale mean that eventually, EVs will get cheaper. Of course, if we consider a low total cost of ownership, Fenske points out, “We’d all be buying old ’90s Honda Civics. no luxury brands would exist. No fun cars would exist.”

SAE Automotive Engineering magazine states of a survey done by AlixPartners: “EVs with price points above $48,000 currently can be profitable.” This is likely why no base Tesla Model3 seems to exist. An EV powertrain itself costs about $16,000 whereas the cost of an ICE system is about $6,500 to build meaning it’s far more profitable for their bottom line.

The estimate out there is 2-3 billion gas engine cars will have been sold by 2045. The government and OEMs will try and make them as clean as possible. But the market suggests if OEMs sell 10-percent EVs (that are twice as clean) versus 90-percent ICE cars, they have only reduced their total fleet emissions by 5-percent. With advanced ICE tech, even if you make gas engines even 10-percent cleaner that’s 10-percent net fewer emissions with just simple tweaks.

“EVs with price points above $48,000 currently can be profitable.” – SAE Automotive Engineering Magazine. Photo: Dave Pankew

Consumers Still Rule

The market rules how trends will go. We saw this during the last fuel price dip in 2015 when hybrid and EV sales dropped while trucks and SUV sales soared because most people care about saving money, not the environment. Plus there are huge limitations with EVs that ensure ICE dominance for a while, like sparse availability of charging stations and the range anxiety that creates.

Fenske points out he likes taking his Tesla around town but fires up the Subaru Crosstrek, with its boxer engine, to go on a long road trip. Life in an apartment or as one of the millions of people who only have street parking also creates a headache for potential EV owners, so gasoline hybrids continue to be a sweet spot for many drivers.

Then there are climate concerns where the EVs do not make sense in parts of the country. In states where it is cold, the ambient temperature does play a role and can reduce efficiency if an electric vehicle’s battery pack by 40-percent, according to the American Automobile Association. Some of the ranges on older EVs were dismal, like the first-gen Nissan LEAF that only mustered 86 miles (as tested) when not driving like a Granny.

An EV might be good around town but an internal combustion engine is preferred for a long road trip.

At The End Of The Day

Based on what we have seen over the last five years of EV development, they are definitely a force in the industry. Even the Tesla Model3 can outrun many sport sedans, but not always past the quarter-mile and certainly not for top speed. But many EV drivers are out to prove a point and despite their best attempts, have failed to outrun my 600-plus-horsepower car. While electric vehicles are coming into their own and continue to improve, the internal combustion engine’s 120-plus-year reign in the automotive industry will continue for the immediately foreseeable future.

Article Sources

About the author

Dave Pankew

Dave has been a gearhead forever and bought his first car at only 15. Since then he has owned, built and raced over 60 cars, turning his obsession into a career becoming Editor-in-Chief of a tuner magazine nearly 20 years ago.
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