End of the Road for the Gas Engine?

Posted on August 27, 2021 by Martin Oaks under Community, Resources
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Is it time to administer Last Rites to the internal combustion engine?  Will it soon go the same route as Blockbuster Video, the Princess telephone and the Pony Express?

Obituaries for the engine have been written since the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970 went into effect.  The gas guzzler unofficially became “Dead Tech Walking” at that point.

But in the last five years, events have doubled-down on the fate of the engine.  The flash point occurred in January of this year when General Motors announced it would phase out gas and diesel powered vehicles by 2035 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2040.

Mercedes Benz upped the ante two months ago.  The luxury auto giant said “By 2022, Mercedes Benz will have Battery Electric Vehicles in all segments the company serves.  From 2025 onwards, all newly launched vehicle architecture will be electric only and customers will be able to choose an all-electric alternative for every model the company makes.”

Skeptics point out that both GM and Mercedes did hedge their statements. The exact language in the GM release contained a qualifier about the 2035 target date:  the company said it had “an aspiration” to eliminate tailpipe emissions in that timeframe.   And Mercedes pledged to go all electric by the end of the decade “where market conditions allow.”

Jessica James of GM clarified the automaker’s position:  “The central point is that we made a firm commitment to carbon neutrality by 2040.  That is happening.  But some things need to come together to meet the 2035 deadline.  It’s out of our direct control.”

Clearly, both manufacturers are making significant investments in Electric Vehicles (EVs), but they also want wiggle room to gage how consumers will buy into the new technology.

Public acceptance is the crux of the internal combustion engine debate.  Opinion polls demonstrate the majority of Americans feel electric cars and trucks are good for the environment, but when it comes to individuals making the decision to purchase EVs, it’s a different story.

“For every new vehicle shopper considering EVs, there is another at the other end of the spectrum,” data analytics firm J. D. Power and Associates concluded.  In a recent survey, 20 percent of the consumers questioned indicated they would buy electric, 20 percent would not.  The remaining “unsures” in that survey are those automobile manufacturers have to persuade.

Reasons given for a reluctance to go electric include the price of the vehicle, a perceived lack of available charging stations, less variety of models from which to choose, and real questions about how much emission reduction EVs will provide.

It is true that EVs are priced 10 to 40 percent higher than their gas engine counterparts, but manufacturers are tirelessly working to address this issue.  More federal tax credits may be on the way, but they are not guaranteed to apply in all circumstances.

The issue of charging stations — “range fear” is the technical term for those drivers who fear they will be marooned somewhere without charging options — is also being addressed.  As is the variety of models dealers can offer.  Both will take time to resolve.

The charging station situation is particularly nettlesome:  it will take massive investments to create new stations and transform grid infrastructure to accommodate projected growth estimates.

The other variable, perhaps the key variable, is the uncertain political environment.  Voices on all sides of the issue — politicians, social media “experts,” and cable television activists– are continually stir frying events.

In a letter to President Joe Biden written this spring, twelve governors, including those from California, New York, and Oregon, urged ending sales of gas powered vehicles by 2035.

Opposition to a sudden conversion to EVs is equally emphatic — prohibitive costs, autoworker job loss, and unpredictable, unintended economic consequences in other sectors of society have all been put forward as reasons for caution.

And then there is simple reality.

Sam Abuelsamid, an auto analyst, offered a blunt assessment: “The average age of a vehicle on the road today is almost 12 years old in the United States.  Even if 100 percent of vehicles sold were electric today, it would still take 20 to 25 years to replace the entire vehicle fleet with electric vehicles.”

The New York Times offered a similar observation.  “Even in 2050, when electric vehicles are projected to make up 60 percent of new sales, the majority of the vehicles on the road would still run on gasoline.”

Are EVs coming?  Yes, definitely.  How soon?  Take a guess, no one really can answer that question without reservation.

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