The fate of internal combustion engines in California came squarely under the scanner during an entertaining debate at the Silicon Valley Energy Summit (SVES) held at Stanford University in June. Jeffery Ball, energy writer at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy, moderated the Oxford-style debate on the statement ‘Internal Combustion Engines have no Future in California.
“Once upon a time everyone had gas lamps. Then came the electric lamps,” said Mark Platshon, senior advisor with BMW i-Ventures fund, opening the discussion. “In the span of 10 years, cheaper and better won,” he said.
The internal combustion engine (ICE) has driven development since the early 1900s, but at the hefty price of guzzling oil and emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs). Governor Brown recently issued an order to reduce GHG emissions in California by 40% by the year 2030. This number may seem near impossible, but it is California we’re talking about, where electric vehicles have come to mean business in the past few years.
The Golden State is the single largest auto market in the US. About 11% of all cars and 40% of all plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles are sold in California. But electric cars are only a small part of the transportation story.
“Internal combustion engines are used in many [off-road] applications today like ships, airplanes, generators and military,” said John Boesel, president and CEO of CALSTART, a national organization dedicated to the growth of the clean transportation industry. Boesel contended the future lies in using low-carbon fuels with internal combustion engines.
Hybrid vehicles have been leading the movement from all combustion to all-electric. Toyota Prius has long been a darling in the California hybrid market, its sales only slipping now with the advent of the Tesla Model S. Unfazed however, Justin Ward, general manager of Toyota’s powertrain system control department, reasoned the future is in optimizing the hybrid’s internal combustion engine with new technology, and drive the saved energy to power the electric engine in hybrid vehicles. “People do not want to compromise on range,” said Ward. He also stressed the idea of using biofuels and alternative fuels.
“But hybrids are showing what we can do with an electric motor, instead of what we can do with an internal combustion engine,” insisted Drew Baglino, who leads the engineering effort for Tesla’s new energy division and system architecture group, where his goal is to develop low-cost, efficient, scalable and easily deployable grid-tied batteries.
Indeed, hybrids are a great temporary solution until we get full electric transportation. “Freightliner, the super truck uses less than a half tank of gas, you know why?” asked Baglino. “Because it has an electric motor in it. There’s no range anxiety any more; electricity is everywhere.”
The Oxford-style debate began and ended with an audience poll on the statement. At the end of the parley, majority of the audience voted pro-combustion engine, but more people changed their vote to pro-electric, which Jeffery Ball called “probably, the most important result” of the discussion. Proponents of the electric engine were able to sway more people to their side, but most listeners remained skeptical. The tussle between the internal combustion engine and the electric engine will continue on the proverbial road, but better and cheaper usually does win. As batteries improve, role of the internal combustion engine will diminish over time. “We’re in a world of plenty – with plenty of electricity,” said Platshon. “Let’s overhaul the way we do energy, distribution, and transportation.”
There’s great hope for a future with clean machines. As Baglino put it, “Imagine the future you want. If you imagine it, it will come.”