Don’t Write off Gasoline Engines yet

We live in an era when press and politicians tout the wonders of the electric car. We’re on the cusp of Nissan’s salvo in the electric car arena, and if you believe the pundits, electrics are the wave of the future.

In a desire to limit carbon dioxide productions (a goal looking increasingly problematic) and for greater fuel economy (although, yes, gasoline remains relatively cheap in America), the electric car is touted as The Next Big Thing. When it comes to range or cost-effectiveness, one might quibble with electric vehicles. But, by and large, their greatest virtue is fuel efficiency, and their carbon dioxide emissions are excellent -- if you don’t look too closely at where the electricity is generated. 

So it must have come as a major shock to the electric car’s many proponents when the winner of the most important Progressive Automotive XPRIZE category, the Mainstream Class, was a car powered by an internal combustion engine that burned E85 (a mixture of ethanol and gasoline). The four-passenger Very Light Car bested a field of 135 competing vehicles from around the globe, turning in a miles-per-gallon equivalent of 102.5.

To be fair, we must admit that no one will ever mistake the “Edison2 Very Light Car No. 98” for a conventional gasoline-powered car. But the outcome of this prestigious competition reveals a great deal of potential upside in making more efficient and Earth-friendly conventional internal combustion (IC) engines.

Interestingly, even the founder of the Edison2 organization was once a big believer in electric cars. But Oliver Kuttner and his engineering team closely examined the challenges presented by the Automotive XPRIZE. They came to believe that a very lightweight, highly aerodynamic vehicle powered by a small displacement IC engine was the right solution. 

It’s unlikely that we’ll see many 800-pound cars like the Very Light Car on our roads in the next decade. But Kuttner’s effort shows how out-of-the-box thinking might prolong the life of an internal combustion engine using gasoline or gasoline equivalents -- fuels with, needless to say, a pre-built infrastructure. Lack of infrastructure stunted any possible growth by hydrogen fuel cell cars and could loom as a major obstacle to electric cars as well.

Thankfully, most of us have home electricity. Charging an electric car, however, isn’t quite as simple as plugging into a home receptacle, especially if you want to charge up with any degree of speed.

Nissan recommends that electric LEAF car owners install a 220-volt receptacle in their garage -- a circuit much like the ones that power home clothes dryers. That prospect is somewhat daunting by itself, but a bigger problem might occur when several households in the same block decide to buy electric cars. The issue with this, which even EV proponents admit is quite likely to occur, is that the typical neighborhood electrical system (likely built decades ago) might not be robust enough to provide all the electricity needed.

Add to that the need for charging stations in office parking lots and parking structures, and perhaps even on city streets and highway rest areas. All of which begs the question: Who is going to pay for all this?

The point is not to bash electrics. EVs are technically interesting and offer excellent drivability in addition to fuel economy and emission benefits. But we should point out that while many people predict the demise of the internal combustion engine, it will very likely be with us for decades.