The end of the internal combustion engine? – Great Science Moments

Dr Karl: Hello, Dr. Karl here.

Now I was a motorhead before I even knew how to drive. I spent hours burning on the winding country roads behind Wollongong, sometimes instead of going to my university lectures. I’ve tested 4x4s across 15 of Australia’s 17 deserts. I love to drive, but I don’t let exhaust smoke blind me to its environmental impact.

I wrote my first story about climate change in 1981. Back then it was called the greenhouse effect.

Which is why I was delighted to read the recent headline, “Daimler abandons the development of internal combustion engines to focus on electric vehicles”.

Now, for me, the key word is “development”.

In the 1990s, the internal combustion engine reached incredible heights, thanks to a mixture of environmental concerns and cheap computer technology. Just look at the difference between a small car from 1970 and a big station wagon from 1995 to see the change.

The new engine had about three to four times more power, and the new car body weighed twice as much, which provided much better safety (both active and passive). Now, you’d think that with all that extra power and weight, the 1995 vehicle would be a big gas guzzler. But no – its fuel economy was around 20% better – while its engine emissions were around 80% lower!

This is what “development” means. But European automakers are stopping development work on the internal combustion engine.

And it’s not just Daimler (maker of Mercedes-Benz) that is shifting its vast resources from the internal combustion engine to the electric vehicle. Volvo and VW have also announced that they are putting all their future intellectual development into the electric car.

Whenever we switch to electric vehicles, the subject of range anxiety always comes up. But the fear of running out of charge before reaching your destination won’t hamper electric cars for long. Just as this did not hold back the first users of the internal combustion engine.

In 1888, Bertha Benz (as in Mercedes Benz) took the world’s first road trip by car – 100 kilometers to visit her mother. It took him a whole day. And like many road trips, there were ups and downs. For one thing, there were no roads for cars, only for carts and horse-drawn carriages.

There were no gas stations either. Why would there be, if there were no cars. So Bertha had to drive from chemist to chemist, to buy all their stock of benzene, to use as fuel. Back then, chemists stocked benzene as a cleaning agent for clothes. Most of the chemists didn’t want to sell her all their stock, because they wouldn’t have any left for their regular customers – but she was adamant and obviously persuasive.

Bertha’s No. 3 Powerwagon had no gas tank—just a large bowl; no oil pump (so she just poured oil into the top of the engine) and no sealed radiator (so she stopped at every town and sank to refuel). The drive chain broke (so she asked a blacksmith to fix it), the brakes wore out (so she invented the world’s first car brake linings, covering the wooden brake blocks with leather), and she fixed the wiring by wrapping it inside her garter belt. She was the midwife for the birth of the automobile, in 1888.

But this latest news from Europe suggests that the internal combustion engine, as a power source for motor vehicles, is on its deathbed – after only a century and a half.

I read an article about the demise of the fossil fuel car – or “burners”, as they are known in the trade – in the highly respected German motoring magazine, “Auto Motor Und Sport”. Germans love their cars. They invented the automobile, their drivers pass a much tougher driving test than ours, and some highways have no speed limit. This journal has the motto, “Gasoline in their blood”. Fortnightly, the newspaper provides a high-quality, up-to-date market summary that includes critical analysis, observation of the latest trends, service tips and environmental topics.

So if anything happens in the automotive industry, it will be in this magazine.

Recently, some 13,000 of its readers voted on the issue, “Do car manufacturers really have to stop developing combustion engines? Now remember that this is a sample of the total number of heads of gasoline. And of course, about 30% voted “No”. But even more exciting, 44% voted for “Yes. The time of the burners is over. End of story.”

So this is it. It is time for us to make way for the fully electric car. And it has benefits that well and truly outweigh any range anxiety.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a clear victory. But switching to electric cars will also lead to fewer deaths from air pollution – in 2015 more than 2,000 Australians died from particulate pollution – mostly from cars.

And electric cars have another advantage. There is the beautiful coincidence that 20 kWh in a car battery will either run your car for 100 km or run your house for a day.

We are therefore heading towards a time when the car will not only provide transport, but will spend the rest of its time plugged into the grid, storing or supplying electricity.

I will always have a soft spot for my engravers, but they will live on in my memories, my photo albums and the pages of history, where they belong.

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