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5/11/2017 The Internal Combustion Engine Is Not Dead Yet - The New York Times

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WHEELS

The Internal Combustion Engine Is Not


Dead Yet
Wheels

By NORMAN MAYERSOHN AUG. 17, 2017

Among all the worlds uncertainties, at least one matter seems settled: Batteries and
electric motors will have a major role in powering the cars and trucks of our future.
What is far less certain is how large that role will be, or how quickly the shift to
electrification will happen.

The trend of electric-powered cars has grown far beyond hybrids like the
ubiquitous Toyota Prius. Early this year, Ford Motor announced that it would
develop hybrid versions of both its brawny F-150 pickup, the countrys best-selling
vehicle, and the performance-focused Mustang. Last month, Volvo said that starting
in 2019, all of its newly released models would be hybrid or all-electric. This was
quickly followed by the news that France and Britain plan to ban the sale of new
petroleum-burning vehicles by 2040.

But gas- and diesel-powered engines are not done yet. Just as electrified cars
whether hybrids or pure battery-powered models seem headed for market
dominance, Mazda announced a breakthrough in gasoline engines that could make
them far more efficient. It is the latest plot twist in a century of improvements for
internal combustion engines, a power source pronounced dead many times that has
persisted nevertheless. Here is some truth-squadding on the latest in auto
technology.

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5/11/2017 The Internal Combustion Engine Is Not Dead Yet - The New York Times

Why all the excitement about the new gas engine


technology?
Mazda said it had made a big advance in a combustion method commonly
known as homogeneous charge compression ignition, which would result in gasoline
engines that are 20 to 30 percent more efficient than the companys best existing
engines. Researchers around the world have tried to crack this process for years, but
it has never really left the laboratory.

Mazda, which now markets no hybrid vehicles, calls the engine Skyactiv-X and
says it is scheduled for a 2019 introduction. In simplest terms, the big difference
with the new engine is that under certain running conditions, the gasoline is ignited
without the use of spark plugs. Instead, combustion is set off by the extreme heat in
the cylinder that results from the piston inside the engine traveling upward and
compressing air trapped inside, the same method diesel engines use. The efficiency
gains come with the ability to operate using a very lean mixture very little gas for
the amount of air that a typical spark-ignition engine cannot burn cleanly.

So there is still some life left in gasoline engines?


Definitely. John Heywood, a professor of mechanical engineering at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, predicts that in 2050, 60 percent of light-
duty vehicles will still have combustion engines, often working with electric motors
in hybrid systems and largely equipped with a turbocharger. Vehicles powered
purely by batteries, he estimates, will make up 15 percent of sales.

The power-boosting advantage of turbochargers is widely deployed today, but in


coming years it could be tilted toward the design of smaller engines that still meet
customers needs. The real benefit comes from downsizing, Dr. Heywood said.
That reduces friction, which chews up a significant part of the energy input.

Dr. Heywood, who has pondered whether he would best serve his students by
teaching combustion or electrochemistry, addresses the challenge of gasolines
future from a somewhat different direction: the practical limitations of battery
electric cars. Holding a gas nozzle, you can transfer 10 megawatts of energy in five

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5/11/2017 The Internal Combustion Engine Is Not Dead Yet - The New York Times

minutes, he said, explaining todays refueling reality. To recharge a Tesla electric at


that rate today, he said, would require a cable you couldnt hold.

The question is how much better gas engines can get. Conventional piston
engines have come a long way, and technical refinements like direct fuel injection,
variable valve timing and cylinder shutdown systems are now widespread. Along
with innovations in lightweight body materials and dual-clutch transmissions,
mileage has steadily improved, so naturally, further gains are now harder to come by
usually in single-digit percentages.

Why wont electric cars catch on faster?


That depends on what is meant by electric. In the United States today, only
about a dozen new models run solely on motors powered by batteries; five times that
many models in showrooms use some combination of a gasoline or diesel engine and
an electric motor. These hybrids, some of which carry large batteries that can be
recharged by plugging into grid power, can be very efficient. But because of the extra
equipment, their initial cost is higher. Electrified cars of all types are selling briskly
compared with previous years, but they are still a tiny portion of the total market in
this country. In July, hybrids and electrics accounted for 44,000 sales in a total
market of 1.4 million vehicles.

Even the plans in Europe to ban the sale of new gas- or diesel-powered cars will
take decades to fully kick in. The rules would not take effect for more than 20 years.
In addition, the average age of the 270 million light-duty vehicles on the road in the
United States today approaches 12 years, so even if sales of new petrol-burning cars
stopped immediately, it would take more than a decade for the fleet to switch over.

But cars like the Toyota Prius can still be more


economical, right?
Hybrids like the Prius may continue to save money at each fill-up, but thats not
the whole story. In its test of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan, a plug-in
model that the government says can drive 33 miles on battery power alone, Car and
Driver calculated the payback of the $2,100 hybrid premium to be more than eight

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5/11/2017 The Internal Combustion Engine Is Not Dead Yet - The New York Times

years (based on driving 12,000 miles a year and before any tax incentives). So, yes,
there are savings if you drive lots of miles or tend to hold on to vehicles for a long
time. The calculus shifts if gas gets more expensive. That said, the hybrid is friendlier
to the planet in terms of tailpipe emissions and greenhouse gases.

What else should we expect with engines further into


the future?
By 2050, Dr. Heywoods studies project, todays fuel economy could be doubled.
A quarter to a third of that improvement would come from improvements to the
vehicle, he said, in areas like aerodynamics and weight reduction. Other promising
areas include variable compression ratios a technology Nissan plans to introduce
next year and making better use of available fuels.

That question of whether to teach combustion or electrochemistry? Dr.


Heywood still wrestles with it, though he admits that the answer is both of the
above. The topic has become the theme of a presentation he has prepared and the
concept of electrification can be found on most pages.

A version of this article appears in print on August 18, 2017, on Page B4 of the New York edition with the
headline: Advances Mean Plenty of Life Left for Internal Combustion Engine.

2017 The New York Times Company

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