Killing Off ICE Slams Brakes on Eco Technology

With pressure growing on automakers to accelerate their evolution to EVs, plans for ICE development will certainly come to a close at some point but not quite yet.

For more than 100 years, gasoline and diesel engines have undergone a constant evolution to drive greater efficiencies. While it’s highly unlikely any automaker is going to dedicate triple-digit millions to ICE improvements, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to squeeze more productivity out of traditional engines.

Pedro Pacheco, an analyst with Gartner, explained that even after a century of development, there’s a lot more to be done to optimize the ICE. “We’re moving at a fast pace towards EVs but ICEs will still be around for the next 15 years in developed nations, and even longer in developing nations, so there’s a lot of opportunity there,” he said. “From the regulatory perspective, it’s about enabling the ICE to perform a lot better when integrated into a hybrid system.”

Automakers like Toyota have been optimizing their engines to confer higher thermo-efficiency levels in a hybrid system, something on which Pacheco said other automakers could also be concentrating. “Hybrids have to operate smoothly and overall performance needs to be up to consumer expectations. This has to happen in tandem with higher thermo-efficiency, which is not easy,” he said. “It brings in aspects of controlling noise and vibration during that transition from battery to gas, you need to minimize that difference, and that needs to be improved.”

IDC analyst Matt Arcaro agreed that while momentum around EVs is building, it’s happening very slowly, which means that ICEs are going to be around for another two decades, alongside all their counterparts produced over the past 100 years. “It’s going to be a combination of future solutions and solutions that still exist if we’re going to combat the climate crisis,” he said. “For all the lofty forecasts from EV makers, there’s a lot of questions as to whether the supply chain can support that, deployment of charging infrastructure, batteries, that all takes time and money.”

That means ICE will have to be around until the challenges around use of electric engines for applications in mining or ports or long-distance trucking get resolved. “The amount of evolution in the ICE will be directly tied to the investment made in it, rising fuel standards has forced engine builders to look at all components of the system to create a more efficient motor,” he said. “However, with the shift to EVs you are seeing that innovation go away.”

He sees the use of hybrid technology as a massive opportunity to cut down emissions. “By pairing a smaller ICE with a battery you’re able to derive much bigger value. You might not be net zero but you can contribute to other use cases,” he said.

Arcaro noted from an engineering perspective, there’s a big push to apply data models to individual motor components to produce stepwise gains in efficiency. “There is definitely more blood to squeeze out of the stone,” he said. Pacheco’s colleague Mike Ramsey pointed out improvements in cylinder heads or injectors, so fuel gets sprayed into the chamber in an ideal way is an important way to improve efficiency.

Like Arcaro and Pacheco, Ramsey said he thinks hybridization will play a key role in the evolution of the ICE. “That’s really the fastest way to get bang for your buck,” he said. “We’ve got better, cheaper batteries and you can get more energy dense batteries. Hybridization is probably going to be the single answer.”

He said he also expects to see more partnerships on joint engine development, explaining there have been a lot of signs that automakers are “pretty much done” pouring money into ICE development. “With all the money going into EVs and those platforms, my assumption is engine development is done,” he said. “There will be no major engines developed by anyone. It’s probably going to be done by third-party companies and making them incrementally better.”

Pacheco said another of optimization could running synthetic fuels, first by optimizing the purity of the fuel as compared to regular gasoline, and then refine the sensors in the combustion chamber to make that process is more efficient. “Optimization of simulations can also drive efficiencies,” he added. “By having better software and hardware you can find new areas of optimization. You can optimize the materials you can use for the engine, for example. Several automakers are looking at quantum computing for battery materials – there’s nothing to say you can’t do that for engines.”

All three analysts were convinced there is there a future for the ICE in a CO2 neutral society. “Honestly, I think the ICE already is pretty damn efficient. There are a lot of jokes that depending on where you are the air coming out of the tailpipe is cleaner than that coming into the intake,” Ramsey said. “That’s probably a touch apocryphal but not far from wrong.”

Ramsey said there is a process to continue making a better air/fuel mix, a challenge he says Bosch is a master at figuring out. If those refinements are paired with electrified turbochargers on a 48-volt battery system, automakers could develop a super-efficient gasoline engine built for use cases where a battery electric car doesn’t fit the bill. “The ICE is not going to actually leave our planet for the next 80 years. It’s going to continue to shrink and, really, the question is who is going to develop these engines?” Ramsey said. “Who will say, Hey, we’ll take over this development? That to me is what I don’t know.”

Pacheco also pointed out the concept of “carbon neutrality” when it comes to automobiles is largely a question of regulatory parameters. “A vehicle is never really CO2 neutral to begin with. It’s something that is very hard to achieve, you’ll always have some sort of a carbon footprint,” he said. “If you run an ICE on synthetic fuels, this could help bring the engine closer to carbon neutrality. It wouldn’t be totally carbon neutral but, in the end, even electric vehicles are not fully carbon neutral as most the charging electric doesn’t come from renewable sources.”

He said if regulations allow it, there is a possibility to make the ICE closer to carbon neutral, but pointed out that the trend today, in several countries, is that the regulators are not technology agnostic. “They’re saying by this date, we kill all ICEs, and that means it’s a dead end for the ICE in countries that adopt that legislation,” Pacheco said.


  1. Avatar Mike Hedge 22nd February 2022 @ 5:10 pm

    Great article; thanks. But aren’t we approaching the point where “fuel quality” is one of the last remaining areas for improvement? The last significant improvement is gasoline occurred in the mid-70s with the introduction of lead-free gasoline, and for diesel lower NOx in the mid-80s and mid-90s with low- sulfur fuel. What has the petroleum industry been doing since? It seems all the advances have come from the auto industry in reducing tailpipe emissions.

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