You may think it is crazy posing such a question after the glorious sun of the 2018 UK summer. Those more aware of the history of the Earth may even point out that the Pleistocene Epoch ended around 11,700 years ago. So how can it be the end of the ICE age now?

However, the question is not about the “Ice” age. I’m not talking about the demise of the woolly mammoths, but of another giant. One of the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s best 100 inventions. Due to its contribution to global warming and the use of non-renewable energy resources, it is time to consider whether it is the end of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) age.

If you have paid attention to the recent headlines, you would assume that the answer is a resounding “YES!” Article titles such as “Petrol cars to be banned by 2040” have been plastered all over news outlets and social media, especially around the summer of last year.

All the hysteria is based around commitments issued by the government that by 2040 vehicles with purely petrol or diesel-based power units will not be allowed to be sold in the UK. Technically, the promise is that by 2040 the “majority” of new cars and vans sold will be completely zero emissions, and all new cars will have zero emissions “capability”.

However, there is no ban specifically on the sale of hybrid vehicles which combine ICE’s and electric powered motors to form the power unit or the use of ICE’s already on the road

Environmental issues

It is clear why such commitments have been agreed to. In a global society with a growing conscience which is eager to care for our environment and facing issues such as climate change, pollution caused by ICEs and the environmentally unfriendly methods used to obtain ICE fuels have come under ever increasing scrutiny.

ICEs produce emissions which effect people and environments the world over. The emissions have been linked to increasing temperatures and producing some of the crazy weather seen around the globe recently. The annoyance of the noise from an ICE keeping you awake at night seems trivial in comparison.

Despite this, the benefit of the ICE to the world should not be underestimated or forgotten. Most, if not all, of readers will have, or have owned in the past, a car. Therefore, most will appreciate the luxury of being able to travel privately, directly to wherever desired, at whatever time you want, in reasonable speed. Even most public transport is powered by ICEs as well as some electric generators and machines for moving heavy loads.

Looking past how the ICE has improved our lives, we are now at a stage in our development as a global community where we can use new, cleaner technologies to power our travel. Technologies which make less noise, have less of an impact on air quality, reduce climate change, and improve energy security by using energy from renewable energy sources.

What alternatives?

Having the capability to and not exploiting these technologies would be irresponsible. Two of these alternative technologies identified for replacing ICEs are electric vehicles (EVs) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs). And two of the large car manufacturers currently backing these alternative power units are Nissan and Toyota.

Nissan’s vision for the future is based on EVs. Nissan aims to reduce total car emissions by 90% from 2000 to 2050 using predominantly solely electric powered vehicles. It is a large commitment from a company who had a 25% share of the EV market, over 100,000 vehicles, in 2016.

To make this vision become a reality, there will need to be innovations in three key areas: batteries, the powertrain, and charging. The main traditionally perceived problem facing EVs is that the range of the battery is not large enough. This will increase with increasing energy density, if it doesn’t compromise safety, and the development of materials with a lower heat resistance. In fact, modern EVs now have a much larger range than those which were original placed on the market.

The powertrain can be improved by more efficient cooling and the use of semi-conductors whilst charging wirelessly and/or ultrafast charging would improve the usability of EVs. The concern of how the electricity is generated will diminish as more of our electrical supply is generated from renewable sources.

Currently, there is no complete solution to these problems facing EVs, but Nissan has offered some novel solutions. Nissan pictures a future in which cars can be used to power your computer at work or appliances at home.

Nissan envisages changing roads, curbs, and parking spaces into wireless charging strips. This means that EVs can charge whilst on the move, whilst you shop, or whilst you sleep. The intelligent, autonomous EVs could even rearrange themselves to make sure those with low battery get to recharge before returning to where they were left.

Toyota’s quest for sustainable mobility appears to be leading it down another path. Toyota, the creator of the Prius over 20 years ago, also recognises the problems posed by ICEs and the cost and weight issues of batteries. Although 40% of Toyota’s sales in Europe are hybrid, Toyota’s vision for the future is based on the hydrogen fuel cell (HFC). Toyota’s plan is to improve all power units with a focus on hybrid vehicles until HFC technology is mature enough to take the place of the ICE and be used in conjunction with an electrical power unit.

Toyota prefers the HFC avenue of development for a number of reasons including being able to give new vehicles the same range as ICE vehicles, usually larger than EVs, whilst having the same refuel time as an ICE vehicle. Other advantages of HFCVs include their high energy densities, that there is no fluctuation in the amount of available energy, and that the only waste product is water.

What is best for the people?

So how does this affect the future of the ICE? Some say it’s the end of the road for ICEs. Others take the opposite view. For example, consider the costs of an EV. The upfront price is higher than that of a conventional vehicle, and although the cost may be recouped over a number of years in lower maintenance and fuel costs, for most people the upfront price is, currently, just too much.

This is before any considerations are given to the location of the nearest charging point and whether the slow charge time of up to 8 hours is manageable, unless the Tesla Model S and its 30 minutes 0 to 80% rapid charging is within your price range (from £70,000).

Now take into account that the parties most interested in the new power unit technologies are parties that wish to operate a fleet of autonomous, zero-emission vehicles. Such a service will be extremely useful for those making short trips in densely populated areas with an abundance of fleet vehicles where waiting times will be small. However, for those living in remote areas or not on the outskirts of a big city, a fleet of hail and ride electric vehicles may not be so useful or abundant.

A fleet of autonomous, zero-emission vehicles in, for example, the City of London, would be a great idea – but would each individual living in the suburbs or countryside be willing to give up their freedom of movement and independence? Would it be fair to force them to buy a private EV/HFCV or have their ability to travel restricted to the availability of fleet vehicles or public transport? Perhaps not.

The evolution of ICE’s

The ICE has come a long way since its inception in 1853. In fact, some of the first developments like Nikolaus Otto’s patented four cycle engine (1876) and Karl Benz’s patented two-stroke engine (1879) made sure that the ICE was chosen to power vehicles over electricity and began the ICE age.

There have been many inventions over the years which have brought the ICE from its relatively basic beginnings to the complex machine we know today. And with each step the ICE has become more efficient and less damaging to the environment.

Modern developments in ICEs include Audi’s electric powered compressor which reduces turbo lag and makes the engine more efficient at low rpm, Ford’s EcoBoost engines which achieve up to 30% better fuel efficiency and 15% fewer greenhouse emissions, Camcon’s Intelligent Valve Actuation which has replaced the camshaft with a digital valve train system and can improve fuel economy by 7.5%, and the use of lightweight materials.

The trend appears to be using electronics to develop the ICE and each incremental development makes the power unit greener. It shows that just because we may stop using ICEs at some point doesn’t mean we should not make them greener for use in the near future.

Only last year the Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 team announced they had produced a racing engine that had hit the 50% thermal efficiency mark, around 30% more than conventional road cars. So it’s not as though the brakes have been applied to the development of the ICE.

Although the $12-14 million price tag for the power unit means we won’t see that particular engine on the road, technology from F1 will eventually filter down to road cars, in one form or another, as was the case with the sequential gearbox and Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems. The development made by F1’s engine manufacturers shows, if nothing else, that there is much development to be made on the efficiency of the everyday ICE. However, with the new Formula E electric series, it is possible that an arms race is about to warm up.

If you need further evidence to suggest that this arms race will not be an easy win for EVs, there is plenty to be found. Earlier this year Mazda introduced its Skyactiv-X engine with Spark Controlled Compression Ignition. A cross between petrol and diesel engines combining the best traits of both and providing a reliable solution to burning petrol at diesel compression ratios without causing the engine to explode.

Essentially, Mazda’s new engine promises up to 30% lower fuel consumption by compressing a lean air/fuel mixture to pressures just short of combustion and then injecting a second dose of fuel and igniting it with a spark to quickly burn through the whole mixture. The engine can run in this mode across a large operating range and only switches to a conventional spark igniting mode under hard acceleration.

The future

As so often happens when technologies or companies are in an arms race, innovation is the result. There will be inventions on both sides fuelling innovation on the other and collaborations between the two will yield power units with ever increasing efficiencies and reducing emissions.

We are already seeing the benefits of hybrid vehicles and as they become more mainstream. The most popular combination is the ICE supplemented by an electric motor. The electric motor helps the ICE to be more efficient during acceleration whilst energy from the ICE which is usually wasted under breaking is harvested to charge the battery which powers the motor.

The current symbiotic nature of the ICE and the electric battery powered motor is likely to drive simultaneous advances towards higher efficiency power units. Areas such as catalytic converters, bio fuels, and battery architecture are all technologies that will likely develop alongside each other somewhat. It would be senseless of the brilliant minds which make these breakthroughs not to combine them with the latest and cleanest technology not only for the benefit of the environment but also the people around them to improve quality of life.

That is why it appears that the new power unit technologies may actually help keep the ICE running long into the future, albeit a lot leaner and cleaner. For that reason, it is fair to say that the ICE age is not yet over!