The internal combustion engine will end not with a bang…
A good article in Quartz, “Gas cars are like horses-one day we’ll just own them for fun (like Elon Musk)”, explores the way in which traditional cars are likely to remain around for many generations, but mostly as adult toys.
Is the internal combustion engine an outdated technology? A lot of car manufacturers are still competing to improve its efficiency and there are some very sophisticated models out there. The internal combustion engine has completely changed the world, allowing us to do things that we could never have imagined. But it has also helped create an unparalleled crisis, one that has been around for at least half a century. At this moment, the city where I live, Madrid, is imposing traffic restrictions in a bit to reduce pollution until such time as it rains. Each morning I peer up at the sky, like some urban farmer, to see if nature is finally going to help, and aware that City Hall’s restrictions are nowhere near enough to deal with the situation.
The fact that electric vehicles represent a minuscule percentage of total vehicle sales, or that hydrogen-powered vehicles are still the preserve of a tiny minority, despite being much more energy efficient and, above all, cleaner, shows that few of us are interested in helping clean up the air we breathe. The dates proposed for bans on the manufacture and sale of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles in countries such as China, India or France are between 2030 and 2040, far beyond what common sense would seem to recommend. These are countries are countries where large numbers of people are dying from respiratory diseases, and where children have grown up in cities where the sky is no longer blue… but their governments still think that the situation can continue to worsen for another twenty or thirty years.
The fact of the matter is that a ban on the manufacture and sale of diesel and gasoline vehicles needs to be imposed within the next three years, by 2020, regardless of the impact on jobs and profits at some of the world’s biggest employers. To condition the future of the planet and the health of its inhabitants to the needs of the motor industry is a huge mistake, the magnitude of which we will only understand when it is too late. The right thing would be to compel these companies to compete to develop clean technologies and overcome current limitations.
Nobody believes that the internal combustion engine will disappear. But the signs are that gasoline powered vehicles will be hobbies, in the same way as owning a horse, or the example I usually use in my classes: owning a light aircraft. Horse owners know perfectly well that the animal is not a means of transport. The number of horses, which declined over several decades as their use in the countryside declined, replaced by explosion engines, has been steadily increasing since the 1990s, but for different uses. No one is going to forbid us from owning a horse… but no one expects us to use it to go to work every day, either. The same applies to a light aircraft, at least in most cases.
What factors will lead to this change in the role of the internal combustion engine?
- Increasing restrictions on its use. In cities such as Madrid, these are fundamentally linked to climate, and are in the form of speed restrictions on the capital’s beltway, park in the inner city, or restrictions based on license plates. In others, such as London or Singapore, they are in the form of tolls when entering certain areas. These restrictions do not apply to electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles, making them increasingly interesting options. In some Scandinavian countries, these vehicles travel free on ferries, do not pay tolls or parking fees, while owners are given tax breaks and subsidies.
- Higher taxes on fossil fuels and diesel and gasoline vehicles: an unpopular option and unfair in that it hits those who may not be able to afford other types of vehicles, but one that will spread. The progressive decrease in the price and improvement in the performance of alternative technologies will lead to such vehicles becoming cheaper than their internal combustion equivalents within five years.
- The increasing availability of related infrastructure such as recharging stations, hydrogen supply, etc. While 87% of the needs of a particular user of an electric vehicle can be perfectly met at the moment with a single overnight charge at home, transport fleets will need additional infrastructures.
- The move away from vehicle ownership. Some analysts, such as Tony Seba, predict that in 2030, 95% of us will not own a car, and will instead use transportation services of various kinds. As Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá, says, “a developed country is not one in which the poor have cars, but one in which the rich use public transport.”
- The concept of public transportation will evolve from buses, metros or trams to include all types of transport services, among them fleets of self-driving cars.
- Self-driving cars need to be seen as a service, not a product to be privately owned.
- Dramatically lower accident rates from the use of autonomous vehicles will increasingly lead to a scenario in which private ownership will be prohibitively expensive. Insurance premiums will undoubtedly be one of the key factors in making the use of the internal combustion engine the preserve of those prepared to pay large sums of money to sit behind the wheel of their internal combustion engine-powered car.
In other words, even though it’s going to take far longer than it should, in the future, very few of us will own diesel or gasoline powered vehicles, and will instead use a combination of private and public transportation services. We’ll still be able to hold onto that convertible two-seater we bought in our youth, but it will make as much sense as owning a private plane or a horse does today, relegated leisure.
Now all we need to do is agree that although it will be painful and economically difficult in the short term, this evolution has to be speeded up…
(En español, aquí)