Plenty of life left in the internal combustion engine

Written by: Peter Boag ~ President & CEO Canadian Fuels Association

In the drive to reduce transportation GHG emissions, there is a school of thought that the conventionally-fuelled internal combustion engine powered vehicle is at the proverbial ‘end of the road’.  True, alternative energy vehicle technologies are making inroads and capturing a small and growing share of the vehicle market.  But to paraphrase Mark Twain, prognostications about the death of the internal combustion engine are greatly exaggerated.

Recent (January 2017) US EPA conclusions on the achievability of increasingly strict fuel efficiency/emission requirements out to 2025 confirm this in spades.  Based on a broad array of research and information sources, including research from the US National Academy of Sciences, the EPA concluded “a wide variety of effective technologies are available to reduce GHG emissions from cars and light trucks, and that automakers are well positioned to meet the standards through model year 2025 at lower costs than predicted.”  The EPA observed that auto manufacturers “have been developing and adopting fuel economy technologies at unprecedented rates.”

This EPA conclusion aligns with a research report published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in November 2015 – On the Road toward 2050: Potential for Substantial Reductions in Light-Duty Vehicle Energy Use and Green House Gas Emissions.  The report concludes that “improving mainstream technology” has the greatest near-term impact on reducing fuel consumption and GHG emissions.  The research shows that “improvements in internal combustion engines, transmissions, and in vehicle technology through reducing weight, aerodynamic drag and tire resistances, provide the largest fuel consumption and GHG emissions reductions for the next 20-plus years”.

The report highlights the timelines required for new technologies to achieve major fleet penetration.  It notes that radical shifts in vehicle technology in such a large system as the in-use vehicle fleet (with a 15-year average vehicle lifetime) will take time, and only gain market share if the new technology vehicles are market competitive.  In this context, the report concludes that “the impact of alternative energy sources such as electricity and hydrogen, even going out 30 years or so, is modest”.  Moreover, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) technology is seen as a more promising path than battery electric vehicle technology for increasing electricity’s share of transportation energy consumption.

And here is the part that brings me back to the Twain quote paraphrased above.  In the report’s projections of future vehicle sales by engine type, internal combustion engine powered vehicles comprise 60 percent of sales in 2050!

Two recommendations in the MIT report stand out for me:  
  • Market-based incentives should be implemented to support conventional powered vehicles with incrementally lower emissions. 
  • Vehicle electrification is a potentially promising strategy, but we need to be more realistic about this opportunity, so we can better understand the most promising paths forward.
These recommendations support the overall view of MIT researchers that a successful approach to transport GHG emissions reductions comprises improving propulsion systems and vehicle technologies already in place, conserving energy by shifting to less energy intensive travel modes and operating vehicles more efficiently, and transforming (over the long term) to alternative energy sources.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, some policy-makers are zealously (and with taxpayers’ money) advancing a costly transportation electrification agenda that ignores the substantial emissions reductions that can be achieved at modest cost through advances in mainstream internal combustion engine technology.  The EPA and MIT recognize the continuing long-term viability and importance of the internal combustion engine powered transportation – is ideology getting in way of evidence as a policy driver in Canada?


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