If you’ve watched too much news recently it’d be easy to believe that we’re well on our way to a world with self-driving cars that all run on electric power. As these things usually go, the latest and greatest gets all the attention, but the tried and true doesn’t get as many headlines. The good old internal combustion engine (ICE) has been powering the world for over a century now, and despite the much-needed technological advancements in electric vehicles, gasoline power is not going away anytime soon. There’s no doubt that gas-burning engines have done serious damage to our environment and are a major contributor to the overall warming of our planet, but there may be a way to have our cake and eat it too.
Instead of arguing about whether or not ICE should go away, I’m going to focus on the ways it might evolve to remain relevant in the face of an industry that is moving toward an electric future and a world that desperately needs to reduce its production of carbon before it’s too late. The gearhead in all of us could formulate several dozen reasons why liquid-dinosaur-burning engines need to stick around (“The sound!” or “The power!”), but the reality is that the future won’t welcome gas-burning engines with open arms as we have in our lifetimes. The people working to fundamentally change how internal combustion engines function may be able to change that, at least a little – to usher the dirty, old technology into a new age.
In order to remain relevant, the internal combustion engine may need to be reinvented. It has carried on in the automobile relatively unchanged for several decades, so it’s not surprising that an evolution is in order to keep the gears turning. Companies like Koenigsegg are working to push ICE engineering to new frontiers by recreating parts of the ages old design. The company is pushing its Freevalve technology to market, which uses pneumatic actuators to open and close valves, rather than the traditional camshafts that have powered internal combustion engines for so long. Engines equipped with the technology will be able to run on diesel, gas, and/or alcohol without being modified mechanically – at least in theory. It can also shift between two-stroke and four-stroke cycles. The company believes that its technology can produce an engine that is completely CO2 neutral.
Mazda is another company making strides to move internal combustion engines in a new direction. Their-X engine will be the first mass-produced compress-ignition gasoline engine. The technology takes the traditional gasoline engine design and changes it to be much more like that of a diesel. An in-depth explainer on how it works lives here, but suffice to say that designing a gasoline engine to perform like a diesel engine means a drastic increase in fuel economy and reduces the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the vehicle overall.
Microwave Ignition is a company that has focused on using (you guessed it) microwaves to ignite fuel instead of the traditional spark plugs. The system burns fuel at a lower temperature, which increases fuel economy. The company says that by using the modified ignition technology, an engine can achieve a drastic reduction in fuel consumption – up to 30 percent in some tests. Engines using microwave ignition systems are cleaner as a result, producing up to 80 percent fewer greenhouse gases.
Regardless of how you may feel about the Prius and the people that drive them (calm down…), Toyota is on to something with their hybrid technologies. The company went all-in on building increasingly advanced hybrid systems years ago and are now leading the charge as a result. Rather than focusing on killing off its line of gas-powered vehicles, Toyota has found ways to increase the fuel economy numbers in its current product line.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the number of supercars and hypercars that use hybrid technology to bump power output, generate more torque, and to help kill the notion that high performance equals terrible fuel economy. Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche, and Acura have all integrated some form of a hybrid system into their best cars by focusing on how the technology can make them go faster instead of just making them greener, which in this case is just a convenient byproduct of going hybrid. The result is a crop of cars that are unimaginably quick while achieving fuel economy numbers that aren’t all that far off those of “normal” vehicles. The best part of it all is that these cars still make all the great noises we’ve come to expect from a howling supercar, and if you didn’t know you were getting into a hybrid ahead of time, you’d be none the wiser after a ride in one.
The use of turbochargers and superchargers, technically known as forced induction, has grown over the past few decades as a way to decrease increase a vehicle’s power while maintaining fuel economy, thus allowing for smaller engines overall. We now see many cars, even those we’d consider to be high performance cars, powered by turbocharged four- and six-cylinder engines instead of eight or more. The sound is a bit different, but the speed is still there (case in point: Alfa Romeo). Combined with other forward-looking tech like Infiniti’s variable-compression system, the use of forced induction will continue to push advancements in fuel economy without making us give up power to get there.
The slow march of progress has caught up with the internal combustion engine in a big way. It’s not likely that we’ll see the gas-burners continue on indefinitely, but it’s fair to say that they have a place in the automotive industry for at least the foreseeable future. You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’ve reached “peak ICE”, but the advancements above show that the old way of producing horsepower still has its fans. With their help, we’ll continue seeing (and hearing) traditional engines for years to come.