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The End Of The Internal Combustion Engine?


Invented by Etienne Lenoir in 1859 and perfected for commercial use by Nikolaus Otto in 1876, the internal combustion engine (ICE) and its piston or rotary-driven variants that use fossil fuels have been around for over a century and a half and are growing in use and applications.

But the arrival of non-ICE electric vehicles, promoted as a means of reducing carbon emissions that are thought to lead to global warming, are gradually being advanced by several countries. These countries are contemplating the phaseout of fossil fuels in 12 to 25 years and it is placing the ICE’s future in doubt.

Though the electric vehicle has been an alternative to the ICE from the dawn of horseless-drawn transportation, stretching back to the mid-nineteenth century, its popularity and uses faded as the high cost, low speed and short battery range was no match for the early piston-driven vehicles. Though some of these setbacks continue to disincentivize electric vehicles (EVs), improvements and government coercion appear to be setting the stage for the demise of the ICE before the mid-21st century with the rise of the EV as its replacement.

But even if all nations banned the ICE, would this lead to the demise of gas, diesel, jet or natural gas engines? Practically speaking, no, but the balance of the century will no doubt witness the decline before the demise of the ICE. Even with heavy-handedness by governments and assuming the ban on ICE is universal, it is unlikely that the ever-rising world fleet of fossil fuel-based vehicles will disappear overnight given their longevity and popularity. Indeed, since 2010 global automakers have seen an average annual growth of 5% in ICE-based vehicle production. Advocates of EV’s have recently lamented that the rise of self-driving cars and ride-sharing services will only add to the trend of more ICE built vehicles even with impressive growth in EV sales spurred by aggressive government regulations and cash-subsidy incentives.

The longer life cycles of ICE vehicles, now thought to be in the range of 250,000 miles or over 400,000 kilometers, extends the likelihood that the piston engine isn’t about to run over by the EV, despite the heavy hand of the legislators. For poorer, less developed countries, the switch will not come as easy either, as the cost of establishing EV infrastructure such as charging stations and subsidies to facilitate the transition, is a tall order. Even then, the switch to EV’s in poorer countries would be rendered pointless if the means of energy production to operate electrical charging stations were fossil fuel based, coal or oil.

Despite technocracy, our farewell salute to the internal combustion engine, at least as far as transportation is concerned, may be a wee bit longer than imagined.

Senior Petroleum Analyst, Canada

Dan is a skilled and noted bilingual (French and English) consumer advocate specializing in energy and current affairs. Known as Canada's “Gas Guru,” he founded to better help motorists anticipate the price of gasoline in advance across Canada. He has over three decades of experience in the petroleum industry, as a parliamentarian and an analyst.