The Beginning of the End – Is the Automotive Age, As We Have Known It, Over?

By Alex Ricciuti

05.22.2008

I hope not to be one who readily assumes a grievous tone as they portend of a dire future only to drop whatever the current subject may be on a dime for a new paradigm every time the headlines change. Remember how in the 70s we were running out of oil? Now, as the planet warms, we can’t run out of it fast enough. But with oil at 122 dollars a barrel and rising and our dwindling oil supplies having the potential to send the global economy into a tailspin, it’s obvious that game-changing events are quickly closing upon us.

The current crisis does not necessarily spell the end of the automotive age as we know it, not yet, but it just may be the beginning of the end. And one has to say, finally! As much as I enjoy the rush of a gasoline powered acceleration, you have to ask yourself why, with all the technological advances we’ve had since 1885 (and from first flight to the moon within 66 of those years), is humanity still stuck with this primitive propulsion system we’ve had for over 120 years? Namely, the internal combustion engine.

Even before the food crisis, we had ample science telling us the agricultural math just didn’t add up for growing bio-fuels such as ethanol or bio-diesel. We couldn’t possible make anything beyond a single-digit percentage dent in our use of fossil fuels. The EU has a proposal to have bio-fuels make up 10 percent of supplies by 2020 but the European Environment Agency has asked the EU to suspend the plan fearing it may cause unintended consequences in food supplies and won’t do much to address the rising emissions which are the cause of global warming. Bio-fuels emit less CO2 than carbon-based fuels, but their use alone, with all their limitations and our ever growing total emissions, wouldn’t have much of an impact on global warming.

So what are the alternatives? Hydrogen? Battery-Electric? A giant windmill on the roof of your car? Well, actually, all of those technologies are electric propulsion. Hydrogen-powered cars convert the energy into electricity to drive the car and batteries simply store electricity from an outside source. Even the windmill would have to deliver power to a battery unless you were into funky transmission systems. So, the only question is how we produce the electricity that will power those cars. Solar and wind are as environmentally friendly as we can get and the only drawback seems to be our own unwillingness to invest in these technologies.

The main limitation in this regard is the ability of batteries to store enough energy to power a car for 500 kilometers or so and have re-charging be as quick and convenient as gassing up a car is today. But improvements in battery technology are coming along, however slowly. Tesla Motors, the California start-up making an electric roadster claims the car can run up to 400km on a single charge. You will have to give up the rush of a rumbling engine for the low-key, baritone droning sound of and electric acceleration with tons of torque. And you’ll be giving up the horsepower and the romance that comes with it. But so what? I mean, riding a horse is fun but I’m not going to be using one to get to work.

The good news is that you don’t have to give up the concept of an automobile. We can still live in a world that affords you the comfort, convenience, mobility and enjoyment of your own set of wheels. It will just be powered with technology from the 21st century instead of the 19th.

Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer and automotive journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He writes frequently for Automotive News Europe. He also blogs on all things automotive at eurocarguy.blogspot.com.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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5 Comments

  1. Is the automotive age over? As in is the internal combustion engine rapidily approaching dodo status?

    Hell no!

    Sure the internal combustion engine is over a century old but it’s only in the last twenty years that we’ve seen rapid enhancement of the concept….and we’ve barely begun to explore things like direct injection petrol engines and even more novel injection systems such as LPG/CNG catalyst injection into diesel engines.

    The trick is overcoming the customer paradigm of more cubic inches is better….there are four cylinder engines out there now that are far more capable than many old school V8’s – even Holden is investigating the development of a turbo 4 cyl engine to go under the hood of the Commodore (Pontiac G8).

    Then there’s the fuel alternatives. Not just biofuels but compressed natural gas (an oil field waste product!!) which Oz certainly has in abundance.

    The hybrid concept will also ensure the future of the ICE especially in long distance road & rail transport…..sure many of us might be commuting in small electrics but these hybrids will always have their place.

  2. I am trying to tell anybody who will listen, its not that I like paying more, but this has blasted open the R&D doors of auto manufacturing.
    Finally we will be seeing new tech that was ignored for so long.
    The diesel is fianally coming to America…although late.
    AND, the sky will suddenly see advances as well. Do you realize that travel from NY to LA takes the same amount of time today as it did in 1969?
    OK…so the electronics have improved as has safety and such, but really, time has remained the same.
    Soon this will change as well.
    Thank you big oil!

  3. You know the artificially controlled price of oil these days is having quite an impact on things but I wouldn’t write off Gas based engines for the next 20 years or so.
    Lets start by getting control of the input costs which are manipulated by profit focused carnival kings. Lets legislate the development of additional production facilities. These guys are not going to spend a dollar increasing gasoline/diesel production so that the price will subsequently drop, just think about that for a second.
    Who is making all the money and why?

  4. I don’t know whenit will happen but gasoline will go away in the next 100 years. Not only are we running out of oil, we’re cooking in our CO2 cauldron, so something’s got to give. Hopefully, it will be the internal combustion engine, not human life.

  5. There will still be plenty of fast cars around, whatever they’re powered by.

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