Will the internal combustion engine quickly be replaced by new technology?
News about major car companies switching to mostly or entirely electric vehicles in the next decade or two makes it sound like electric cars will soon outnumber gas-powered vehicles.
However, there are many reasons why the internal combustion engine will be common for longer than some people think.
Will the internal combustion engine go the way of the steam engine?
Other than the steam turbines used in nuclear power plants, there isn’t much use for a steam engine today. Steam engines were too inefficient and too expensive to maintain to remain in use.
Will combustion engines still be around in the middle of the 21st century?
Most likely, there will still be plenty of people driving gas-powered cars in the second half of the 21st century, long after some argue the electric car will have replaced them.
Internal combustion engines still have many advantages over electric motors; too many for the technology to go away nearly as fast as some people believe.
While electric car technology is improving, so are gas and diesel engines. Internal combustion engines have been improving since they were invented, and improvement continues.
Internal combustion engines are the best they have ever been, and they are going to keep getting better. Companies are still spending money on research and development for internal combustion engines.
While we will see a lot more hybrid and even purely electric vehicles on the road in ten or twenty years, gas-powered and diesel-powered cars will still be common in 2040, 2050, and beyond.
Table of Contents
- Is the End of the Combustion Engine Near?
- Electric Vehicles are Not Yet Common
- What are the Advantages of an Internal Combustion Engine?
- Internal Combustion Engines Changed the World for the Better
- Improvements in Power and Efficiency Over Time
Is the End of the Combustion Engine Near?
Some companies are planning to mostly or entirely stop producing gas-powered vehicles in the 2030s. These plans make it sound like the end is near:
- All new models from Audi after 2026 will be electric vehicles
- Volvo will only produce electric vehicles after 2030
- Ford will only sell electric vehicles in Europe after 2025
- Nissan will only sell electric cars in China, Japan, Europe, and the US starting in the early 2030s
- Volkswagen will only sell electric cars in Europe after 2035
- General Motors will only sell electric vehicles after 2035
- Hyundai will only make electric cars by 2040
- Honda will only sell electric cars in North America, China, and Japan by 2040
- Toyota will only sell zero-emissions vehicles by 2050
In other words, one could argue that the end of the internal combustion engine is no longer even a few decades away.
If companies stick to their plans, most new cars sold will be electric, and then older gas-powered cars will gradually break down and be replaced with electric vehicles.
However, I’m skeptical that the electric car will take over anywhere near as fast as these dates suggest.
Many companies will not stick to their plans and will continue to sell more gas/diesel vehicles for longer than they claim. A market for gas/diesel vehicles will continue to exist, and companies will continue to supply it.
Electric Vehicles are Not Yet Common
Only 4.5% of the cars sold in 2020 were EV’s. Even less of those on the road are EV’s – only 1% of them.
If only 1% of the cars on the road today are electric vehicles, it is far-fetched that they will replace gas-powered vehicles any time soon.
Even if it might not take long for a quarter or half of the vehicles to become electric, you will still easily be able to find a gas-powered vehicle in the second half of the 21st century.
While I’m not against electric technology, I do not expect it to replace the internal combustion engine as fast as some people say it will.
What are the Advantages of an Internal Combustion Engine?
First off, electric cars take time to charge up. While battery technology is improving, it will still take a long time to charge a car battery in the foreseeable future.
It takes up to 12 hours to charge a tesla. While some electric cars can charge up in only four hours, most take 8 or 10 hours to charge.
Diesel and gas cars can be refueled very fast, so some people will still want to buy cars with internal combustion engines in three or five decades.
It is also much easier to find a gas station than find an electric charging station. This will gradually change, but not as fast as some people expect.
While many people have a garage to park their car in, many others do not. If you don’t have off-street parking, you cannot charge your car at home. Solutions to these problems might not appear right away.
You can also use a gas/diesel vehicle in remote, uninhabited locations where neither gas stations nor any electric charging stations exist.
You can bring a lot of fuel with you, so you can take a gas vehicle anywhere. With an electric vehicle, the weight of the batteries makes long trips in remote areas unrealistic.
An internal combustion engine also has a higher energy density than an electric motor. This means that a gas tank contains much more energy than hundreds of pounds of batteries. This advantage might shrink over time, but it will be around for a long while.
Electric vehicles are still more expensive than gas and diesel-powered vehicles. This might not change very quickly – it is significantly more expensive to build an electric car.
Electric vehicles are also less profitable for companies, so companies might be exaggerating how quickly they will phase them out. Electric vehicles also lose value fast after you buy them.
Another advantage is that internal combustion engines work in emergencies where the power is out. Someone with an electric car could be stranded at their home during a natural disaster instead of being able to escape with a gas-powered car.
In the long run, electricity will win – dishwashers, dryers, fans, and factory machines are all powered by electric motors, and someday transportation will be almost entirely electric as well.
However, this will not happen overnight. There will still be a lot of people buying new gas-powered vehicles in 2050.
Internal Combustion Engines Changed the World for the Better
Despite the harm fossil fuel technologies did to the environment, fossil fuels lifted countless people out of poverty. The modern world would not work without them.
People use tractors with internal combustion engines for growing food and transport trucks to bring it from farms to cities. If these engines suddenly disappeared, a lot of people would starve before they could be replaced with electric motors.
The internal combustion engine also changed people’s lives for the better by making travel easier. Before cars, a lot of people hardly ever went very far from where they were born. It took the car and not only the train to make longer-distance travel practical for most people.
Internal combustion engines power airplanes as well as cars, making the world much more accessible than it was before.
Propeller planes use internal combustion engines, and even a jet engine is similar to an internal combustion engine. Internal combustion engines also made mail delivery far faster than it was before.
The gas-powered internal combustion engine was invented in the 1860s by Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir. While earlier engines used internal combustion, Lenoir’s engine was such a breakthrough that he is considered the inventor of the engine.
Some people could immediately tell that Leoir’s gas engine was the future. Newspapers even in the 1860s ran stories saying that the age of steam was over.
In 1886, the Benz company in Germany began commercially producing personal vehicles with internal combustion engines. This was the beginning of the automobile age.
Once cars were made on assembly lines and not by hand, they became affordable.
Improvements in Power and Efficiency Over Time
An internal combustion engine almost works like a gun.
A gun creates an internal explosion to generate force, to propel the bullet out of the gun. An internal combustion engine uses an internal explosion to push a piston forward and generate motive power.
The internal combustion engine has seen countless improvements since people first realized it would replace the steam engine. Inventors have always tried to get more and more power out of the same amount of fuel.
A modern internal combustion engine relies on thousands of tiny explosions every second to drive a piston that can move a large vehicle at high speed.
Inventors have added variable valve control, fuel injection, turbochargers, and much more over the decades. Combustion engines have become safer, more efficient, and more reliable.
Computers have also made the internal combustion engine more powerful, as a computer with the right sensors can monitor everything going on in the engine to make it work more efficiently.
Because the internal combustion engine has been improved repeatedly for more than a century, it is a very powerful piece of technology that still has advantages over the electric motor.
Steam trains were still in use well into the twentieth century, and gas-powered cars will still be common in 2050 and later whether we like it or not.