The rise and fall of the Internal Combustion Engine?

Peter Debenham, senior consultant at Ignite Exponential, the innovation business arm of engineering and design consultancy, Plextek, traces one of the most significant inventions of the last 150 years to modern-day burnout.

In 1872, American George Brayton invented the first commercial liquid-fuelled internal combustion engine. In 1876, Nicolaus Otto, working with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, patented the compressed charge, four-stroke cycle engine. Three years’ later Karl Benz patented a reliable two-stroke gas engine and by 1892, Rudolf Diesel developed the very first compression ignition engine.

This course of events revolutionised the way humans all over the would travel for generations to come. The combustion engine was here to stay.

So, imagine if you saw the following headline in your newspaper tomorrow morning: “All urban petrol stations stop selling petrol and diesel, with most urban repair garages facing bankruptcy”.

While electric cars have been around for years, the pace of change is accelerating faster than anyone expected.Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced his ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’. One of the ten points includes a focus on transforming our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles, with the end goal being to eradicate the sale of petrol and diesel cars in the UK by 2030, 10 years earlier than planned.

The Prime Minister has said: “Our green industrial revolution will be powered by the wind turbines of Scotland and the North East, propelled by the electric vehicles made in the Midlands and advanced by the latest technologies developed in Wales, so we can look ahead to a more prosperous, greener future.”

Whether we meet this ambitious goal, only time will tell.but once Electric Vehicle (EV) ownership hits a certain tipping point, the ability to run an Internal Combustion Engine car (ICE) will become impractical in many areas. After allowing for pollution control measures, even 25% electric car ownership would mean virtually no-one driving in an urban area would be using an ICE vehicle.

Many people still remain uncertain whether or not electric cars will become the majority. However, many are equally wrong believing they will also slowly take over from petrol and diesel-powered vehicles with no other side effects.

Given the average car on the UK roads is eight years old, it would take 12-15 years for ICE vehicles to slowly disappear, even if ICEs were banned tomorrow. That could be the case for the UK as a whole, but in areas of high urban and suburban populations, the change is likely to arrive much faster than anyone believes. Why? Infrastructure.

Changes to charging

At the moment, most electric car users charge their vehicles at home and remain within their vehicle’s single-charge range for about 99% of the time. But around half ofcar owners do not have off-street parking, so will require some kind of commercial charging system as opposed to private. Rather than the current slow charging via hundreds of thousands of stand-alone charging points, it is more likely that high-density rapid charging at a smaller number of ‘fuel’ stations will dominate, in turn making electricity infrastructure easier to plan.

To support this acceleration in the UK, the Prime Minister has announced that £1.3 billion will be invested to drive the rollout of charge points for electric vehicles in homes, streets and on motorways across the country, so people can more easily and conveniently charge their cars.

We already have a power distribution network set up. Over 99.9% of homes in this country are electrically connected. Most have a household fuse of 60A. Given the average house uses around 8kWh of electricity a day, that equates to about 1.5A your home is drawing at any time. This leaves 58.5A which could be used to charge a vehicle.

If EV batteries were charged to full capacity while the sun shone, or wind blew, then they would have more than enough energy stored to supply and heat homes when the generation level drops. Already there are systems emerging which allow you to plug in your house to your car - rather than the other way around.

But for this to become a reality, many limitations of battery technology still need to improve. As part of the ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’, the government have said that nearly £500 million is to be spent in the next four years for the development and mass-scale production of electric vehicle batteries.

EVs require significantly less maintenance than ICEs. At the moment, things like exhaust replacements and oil changes are the backbones of many local, smaller repair shops. Such jobs will vanish and with them the profitability of the local workshops. ICE maintenance will become more difficult and the convenience of the relative lack of maintenance of an EV will further push their adoption. The combination of collapsing demand and subsequent reskilling will probably result in most local repair shops having to reinvent themselves or going bankrupt.

The fuel station ecosystem is much more vulnerable than many people believe. A lot of small outlets are already near profitless and survive by attracting customers with other co-located services such as shops and repair facilities.

Unfortunately, EVs do not naturally fit the fuel station approach, but need significantly longer dwell times for their slower charging cycles of currently more than 30 minutes, so supermarkets with large car parks where people already regularly go for longer will fill the gap while the traditional fuel station, which depends on a high turnover of customers may not survive EV disruption.

Driverless vehicles, journey transformation and haulage

Even by 2030, we may get to a point where most new road vehicles can drive themselves. This makes a much larger impact economically and behaviourally than what kind of fuel the vehicles will be using. If you could choose the perfect vehicle to appear on your drive automatically for each journey, based on number of passengers’ need, baby seats and the luggage being taken; or if you just wanted the special birthday bus, then that would lead to a huge reduction of energy required and utilisation of the vehicle fleet.

It would also transform the haulage industry, as without the driver, goods could be moved around in smaller, discrete crates, at the optimum time of day, which would result in the more efficient use of the road network. When vehicles are not in use, they could be used to store energy from the network or be moved intelligently to the most likely place they will be required. Journeys that are organised longer in advance will therefore be cheaper.

Instead of plugging in your EV, imagine using wireless power transmission to power vehicles parked at a particular spot. WiTricity, set up by a team of physicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), already do this with a wireless charging mat in your garage. The same technology could possibly be used in car parks, or even in road surfaces. Perhaps then repair shops will turn into ICE/EV conversion hubs. Although probably not very profitable for large scale businesses to consider; for small and/or freelance businesses, it is an interesting prospect, which could save many businesses from going bust.

In all reality, the future will certainly be a mixture of uses and energies. In 20 years’ time, some people will be driving petrol cars, some people will be driving electric cars, some electric cars will be driving people and some people will still be riding horses. Brayton, Otto, Daimler, Maybach, Benz and Diesel’s legacy will, arguably rightly so, live on for some time yet to come.