Does the internal combustion engine have a global expiration date?
For better or for worse, the internal combustion engine has transformed human society. It opened the world to fast and affordable travel, increased agricultural productivity and supported millions of jobs, creating a thriving middle class. It also enabled war machines such as tanks, warplanes, and nuclear missiles, caused widespread environmental destruction, and bestowed vast wealth on a gallery of rogue despots around the world.
Above: Electric vehicles, like Tesla’s Model Y, are here and ready to take over (Image: EVANNEX; Photo by Casey Murphy)
Today, after a century and a half, the end of the oil age is in sight and the transition to new energy and transportation systems will once again transform our civilization in unpredictable ways.
Signs of Big Oil’s impending demise are all around us. Sale of electric vehicles fly to Europe—in November, plug-in vehicles accounted for 16% of the overall car market in the UK, more than 20% in Germany and 80% in Norway. Battery prices continue to fall. According to research by BloombergNEF (via AlJazeera), the cost of a lithium-ion battery dropped by 87% between 2010 and 2019. For the first time, an electric vehicle manufacturer reported battery cost at the battery level below the much-discussed price of $100/kWh, which many consider to be the figure that will enable true price parity with legacy vehicles.
Electric vehicle pioneer Tesla has become the world’s most valuable automaker, although rivals like Toyota and Volkswagen are building several times as many cars a year (another bad omen for oil: Tesla recently replaced Occidental Petroleum in the S&P 500 index). The stock market success of TSLA has catalyzed a veritable feeding frenzy for shares of other electric vehicle companies. Not only start-up automakers, but also charging infrastructure providers and developers of esoteric EV-related technologies are attracting huge investments, enabling them to accelerate their programs and expand their offerings.
As energy analyst Ramez Naam pointed out in a recent episode of the Outrage and optimism podcast, the economic case for fossil fuels is diminishing as the cost of wind and solar energy fall. “None of this is happening as fast as we would like. But it is happening much faster than people in the industry, especially in the fossil fuel industry or the automotive industry, think it will. happen, and what is clear is that the internal combustion engine for ground transportation is dead, dead, dead, dead.
Above: Governments around the world are considering phasing out the internal combustion engine in a bid to go electric (Source: @AJLabs via car and driver)
How fast is the transition going to happen, exactly? In his 2015 book Own disturbance, Tony Seba predicted that “everything will be over by 2030” – a prediction that seemed a little crazy then, a little less so now. According to Seba, several converging technology trends – renewable energy, energy storage, electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles – will lead to the demise of existing oil and electric industries for the same reasons we have gone from sailing to steam, from horses to internal combustion – because the new technology is better and cheaper.
The switch to electric vehicles will not happen overnight, triggered by a “killer app” or a “tipping point”. Different markets around the world will go electric at different rates – Norway is almost there already, but in much of the developing world electric vehicles are just a distant rumour. As novelist William Gibson said in 2003, “The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.”
However, a growing number of countries and regions around the world are setting firm expiration dates (although it remains to be seen how firm they will remain as they approach). A recent article in Business Intern includes a timeline of who is going all-electric and when.
The world leader in electrification remains Norway, which plans to end the sale of new internal combustion cars and vans in 2025. In 2030, the UK, Germany, Iceland, India , Ireland, Israel, Slovenia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark are expected to join the fossil-free club. California should follow in 2035.
Of course, knowledgeable observers will take these sell-by dates with a certain amount of (lithium) salt. Policies announced by one political administration are often abandoned by the next – the tussle over environmental policy has continued at least since Reagan removed Carter’s solar panels from the roof of the White House. All plans for more than 10 years into the future make next to no sense – the leaders who announced them will be gone long before anyone needs to start planning for their implementation.
However, the key word here is momentum– government and industry leaders set these goals because that’s what their supporters want, and every change in policy, every advance in technology and every increase in consumer awareness has a multiplier effect that will strengthen everything that is happening, until the momentum towards a clean energy ecosystem becomes unstoppable.
Written by: Charles Morris