Being at End of ICE Age, Doesn’t Mean Anytime Soon

Alternative fuels are gaining popularity but combustion engines will still rule the roost for many years yet, Eric Volkman discovers.

Is the internal combustion engine (ICE) roaring towards extinction within decades? Witnessing the exponential growth of more sustainable alternatives, you might think it very well is. Non-ICEs are now affordable for a great many consumers and, encouraged by governments that want a, questionably, ‘greener’ future, they are becoming more popular. It’s clear that the autonomous future will include alternative-fuel cars and trucks. Their potential to supplant ICEs entirely, however, might be limited.

Electric vehicles, of course, are the current darlings of the alternative market. Some way down the popularity ladder is hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, into which Asian automakers have pumped capital and resources. “Toyota has long maintained that hydrogen fuel cell technology could be a zero-emission solution across a broad spectrum of vehicle types,” says Toyota North America brand communications manager Russ Koble.

According to Koble, Toyota has been deep into hydrogen for years, having begun its research into applications of the technology more than two decades ago. Its first effort in the technology, the Mirai, is still on the market. Yet, you won’t see too many around because they are only available in limited geographies. For example, in the US they can only be purchased in California. Koble says that Toyota sold just under 2,000 Mirais last year.

All in all, according to data compiled by, sales of hydrogen vehicles in the first five months of 2018 in the US market totaled 1,288. That was a robust 53% higher on a year-over-year basis. The Mirai is, relatively speaking, the most popular model but Honda’s Clarity isn’t far behind, with Hyundai’s Tucson a more distant number three.

The figures are much higher for EVs and plug-in hybrids. Of the two, pure EVs have the lead, with nearly 52,000 of them being sold in the January-May 2018 period – a 46% improvement. By the way, it’s important to note this includes cars from Toyota, which is also deeply involved in this segment. Both EVs and hybrids have numerous advantages over hydrogen. To name but two, they’re manufactured by nearly every significant automaker and, at this point, they’re far cheaper than hydrogen models. What also helps is the public-sector push from certain countries hoping to wean their populace off gasoline and diesel. One prominent example is mighty China, which has put the development of EVs and autonomous technology high on the priority list in its recent Made in China 2025 policy initiative. Considering that with China owns the vast bulk of the world’s essential ingredients to manufacture lithium-ion batteries, this hardly comes as a surprise.

However, if we zoom out we see that alternative-fuel vehicles still comprise a tiny percentage of the metal leaving the showroom. All told, the January-May sales figures for hydrogen cars, hybrids, and EVs combined amounted to barely over 1% of overall US auto sales. This doesn’t excite Robert Pearlstein, vice-president of global business development at tech research concern SRI International. He says that EVs, “are the subject of increased investment by a wide range of large companies, governments, universities and start-ups but vehicle consumers, in the main, will take time”. “I think EVs have the potential to achieve higher penetration in some markets and use cases as costs come down,” he adds. “The most compelling tipping point is their role in vehicle sharing fleets, for which they are well suited.”

Operators of such fleets have certainly taken notice. Two of the most prominent ride-sharing services, Uber and Lyft, are pushing hard to go green. Uber claims that it is involved in more than a dozen EV pilot programs.

Meanwhile, in what feels like a warm-up to the broader rollout of an extremely green fleet, Lyft has launched its Green Cities Initiative. A large part of this is a massive carbon offset program that the company promises will counter the emissions from all Lyft rides around the world. “This is a significant, multi-million dollar investment in 2018,” said a Lyft spokesperson. “It is an ongoing commitment, so the investment will grow as the company does. It is an intentional move to build into Lyft’s business a financial incentive to transition away from gasoline-powered vehicles.”

Which brings us back to those ICEs that still roar happily down the world’s roads. Over a century of innovation and refinement has made them highly efficient machines, and lately their impact on the environment has been greatly reduced. It will take quite some time to dislodge them with alternatives, no matter how many cool Teslas and practical Priuses share our motorways and no matter how many thousands of plug-in cars Uber and Lyft put on the streets.

Plus, as Pearlstein points out, “as alternatives enter the market, ICEs are also being improved and can offer a strong economic solution”.

“The auto industry is undergoing transformation but core technologies, business models, infrastructure, regulations and ecosystems tend to change incrementally,” he says. “The internal combustion engine accounts for the vast majority of personally owned and fleet operated vehicles today and will, likely, remain the dominant propulsion system for many years to come.”

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