If you were to believe the mainstream media, the future of transportation is electric. And so it seems: In the coming year or two, we'll see a parade of electric vehicles (EVs), hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and extended-range electric vehicles (EREVs) -- and probably a few variations on those themes -- all of which employ kilowatts where gasoline once reigned. They're coming from both the world's biggest car companies and some of the smallest.
But the conventional gas-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) won't be going away any time soon. While the spotlight belongs to electricity, off in the shadows the auto industry remains in high gear to ensure that the century-old ICE technology doesn't go the way of the buggy whip.
There's good reason: Even the more optimistic estimates put sales of all of types of EVs at only 20 percent of the U.S. market by 2020. That's a good start, but it leaves millions of new car sales employing ICE technology, not to mention nearly a billion ICE-power cars already on the roads, hundreds of millions of which will still be on the road a decade from now.
As a result, the world's major car companies, in both collaboration and competition with dozens of Fortune 500 companies and startups, are turning up the heat on ICE technology, seeking to improve the fuel and greenhouse gas performance of both new and existing vehicles.
The fortunes of some of these firms rose last week when the Obama administration set new greenhouse-gas emissions standards for automobiles and light trucks, a long-awaited and much-needed move to prod the U.S. transportation system in the right direction. The first-ever national greenhouse gas emissions standards "will significantly increase the fuel economy of all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States," according to the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which jointly issued the standard.
Of course, the big automakers, not to mention the rest of the free-market crowd, viewed the standards as a needlessly expensive, technologically infeasible, and counterproductively intrusive mandate that will crush a U.S. car industry just coming out of bankruptcy, along with the jobs that come with it. And it will raise car prices, too, though the added cost will be more than covered by fuel savings.
But improving ICE technology turns out to be not that hard, technologically speaking. And much of the technology already has been invented, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, referring to "a number of more mundane solutions to reduce fuel consumption of vehicles that look and operate like cars now."
Among some of the incremental solutions: more-efficient tires, low-friction engine lubricants and added gears. Auto makers also will use technology to build four-cylinder motors that can deliver the power of six-cylinder engines and replace V-8 motors with more efficient six-cylinder versions. More use of turbocharging allows for reduced engine size while maintaining performance.
There's no shortage of companies working on these things. A January report on the topic by analysts at the financial services firm Robert W. Baird & Co. listed some of the products and technologies that can improve internal-combustion engines, along with estimates of their benefits. They include diesel (30 percent to 35 percent potential fuel-efficiency improvement), turbocharging (7 percent to 8 percent), direct injection (11 percent to 13 percent), cylinder deactivation (6 percent to 8 percent), variable valve timing (4 percent to 6 percent), continuously variable transmission (5 percent to 7 percent), automated manual transmission (5 percent to 15 percent), stop-start ("micro-hybrid") technology (7 percent to 9 percent), and low-resistance tires (1 percent to 2 percent). Many of these are in the market, or close to it. Behind these are still other technologies, says Baird, with exotic names like "homogenous charge compression ignition" and "advanced torque transfer technologies," each of which brings further improvements.
Put several of these together -- and throw in some lightweighting, thanks to advanced carbon-fiber materials -- and suddenly, Obama's new standard -- fuel economy of 2016 model cars about 34 percent better than last year's models -- seems like a relatively low bar.