Open Menu
Open Menu

Open Diff: Is the internal combustion engine on borrowed time?

Published in Tri-Power V-8 beneath the hood of a 1964 Pontiac GTO. Photo by author.

On July 5, automaker Volvo Cars announced that every vehicle it launches after 2019 will be powered — in part or whole — by an electric motor. The next day, in an effort to meet ambitious pollution control targets, France proclaimed that new gasoline and diesel-powered vehicle sales would be banned by 2040, with ecology minister Nicholas Hulot calling the move a “veritable revolution.”

On July 25, Britain chimed in as well, announcing a similar ban on sales of new gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, specifically stating that the regulation would extend to hybrid vehicles as well as those powered only by fossil fuels. The two countries aren’t alone: Beginning in 2025, all new cars sold in Norway must be electric or plug-in hybrid, the Netherlands is considering a comparable ban with the same cut-off year. Even states in Germany, home of the Autobahn, are discussing a ban on gasoline and diesel-powered new vehicles, beginning as early as 2030.

It’s easy to dismiss the moves enacted by France and Britain, as 2040 is, at this writing, still 23 years in the future. That said, one cannot mandate the implementation of technology that doesn’t yet exist, and for electric cars to become a practical solution to fossil-fuel-powered ones, a quantum-leap in battery technology must occur.

Proliferation of electric vehicles also raises a multitude of other issues. Can the existing power grid support the increased demand? Will countries need to invest in new power plants, and if so, how will that power be produced? These are questions that must be addressed, but not in this forum.

Are we staring at the sunset of the internal combustion engine? After years of talk about peak oil and declining resources, will it be environmental regulations that finally close the door on the technology that gave mobility to most of the world’s population? If fossil-fueled new cars are banned, how long before governments enact laws banning existing internal combustion vehicles, too?

Or, is it much ado about nothing, particularly if advances in battery technology (or other propulsion methods) and investments in infrastructure don’t materialize? Will we see the 2040 dates (or even the 2025 dates) pushed back as questions remain unanswered?