The internal combustion engine is going to be around a lot longer than most people realize.
With its roots in the 19th century you might have thought the ICE would have been surpassed by now. But the tried-and-true, piston-driven, spark-ignited, gasoline-fueled engine has more than 100 years of development going for it.
Thanks to even greater use of electronic technology, the ICE will see significant improvements.
Electronic valve control will maximize efficiency through a wide range of engine speeds at the same time it eliminates a lot of rotating mass in the engine.
Faster and smarter electronic combustion control will further raise the efficiency of the piston engine, perhaps eliminating emissions right in the chamber, rather than processing them with expensive traps, filters and catalysts.
And yet, it’s amazing how clean the auto industry already can make piston engines. Those built to California's PZEV (partial zero emission vehicle) standard are so clean that when driving around in the LA basin, the air going into the engine actually is dirtier than the exhaust coming out the tailpipe.
The California Air Resources Board tells me these cars are so clean that if someone wanted to commit suicide by locking themselves in their garage and letting the engine run, they would not die. They might get a headache, but they'd live to tell the story.
Of course, PZEV cars don't do anything to reduce CO2 emissions, but the piston engine can be very competitive on this front, too. All you have to do is change the fuel.
It turns out the piston engine runs just fine on hydrogen. If you do it right, an ICE can run more efficiently on hydrogen than it will on gasoline, and with zero emissions.
And of course a piston engine runs just fine on biofuel, natural gas, propane or any number of fuels we may want to turn to.
Nothing against fuel cells, which theoretically are more efficient, but it's going to be very difficult for them to match the cost, power and robustness of a piston engine, even when you measure it on an emissions or fuel-efficiency basis.
The piston engine even fits perfectly into the push for the “electrification” of the automobile, where you get rid of all the pumps and hydraulics in the brakes, steering and chassis, and go purely electric.
In this hybrid-type application, all the engine has to do is act as a generator to recharge the batteries. Imagine how much cost you can design out of an engine if all it has to do is purr along at 2,000 rpm!
The point is, nothing has yet surpassed the ICE and it keeps getting better all the time.
I’ve always joked that when we really do find a UFO in Roswell and the scientists take it apart and peer inside, they’re going to find a V-8 in there. It might be running on dilithium crystals, but it'll be a V-8.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit and Speed Channel.