Tesla’s Elon Musk is the only auto company CEO I know of who couldn’t care less about tailpipe emissions or developing new technologies for a very old device, the internal combustion engine.
I doubt lawmakers in Washington, Brussels, Tokyo, Beijing or elsewhere have a conscious plan to outlaw the internal combustion engine, but that appears to be the end result of tightening fuel economy and clean air standards. Perhaps only vehicles that work hard, such as that F-150, tractor-trailers and trains, will be outfitted with gasoline or diesel engines 20 years from now.
Powertrain analyst Dave Sullivan at AutoPacific doesn’t quite agree with the idea that electric cars are the future when costs come in line with internal combustion-powered vehicles.
“The delta is still wide,” says Sullivan. “Look at the cost of a Nissan Leaf powertrain versus a Nissan Altima. That 2.5-liter engine has been around forever. Nissan uses that volume to drive the cost of an Altima down. So, the volume and age of that 2.5-liter engine means it was paid off years ago. The Leaf? Not so much.”
But it comes down to more than just the cost of parts. With EVs, automakers can massively cut product development bills. Electric-car powertrains don’t have to be certified to meet emissions for individual markets, like internal combustion engine vehicles. Automakers waste billions of dollars each year building slightly different versions of the same vehicles to help pass regional emissions and fuel economy standards.
Sullivan says EVs have unique issues, though, that affect costs.
“The kicker here is that the EV market seems to follow the life cycle of a cellphone. They sell OK when they come out but drop off rapidly. They also get tweaked quite a bit. The first-generation Chevrolet Volt had numerous battery changes. Consumers are demanding improved performance and more range every year,” he says.
It’s been a long time since anything challenged the supremacy of the internal combustion engine. A century ago, steam and electric cars enjoyed a brief spurt in popularity. After World War II, a lot of money was spent on turbine cars, but nothing came of it.
This era is different. We’re seeing GM, Ford, Toyota and Honda commit billions of dollars to improve the performance of electric and fuel cell powered vehicles while making huge leaps in reducing costs. This is setting up an epic battle for the space under the hood.
By 2025, when current federal fuel economy standards are fully phased in, we’ll have a pretty good idea if the internal combustion engine has a future in passenger cars.
I’m not betting on it.