Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Whatever happened to Internal Combustion?

Way back in 1960's the SF author Arthur C. Clarke dismissed the internal combustion engine as an absurd power system needing petrol, water and oil pumped to it in sequence. Perhaps, at last, the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine has been glimpsed.

Lets fast forward to 2030 where the Top Gear 24hr news service is covering the end of an era - the end of production of the last internal combustion powered private car, the Rolls Royce Lucifer. Over to Jeremy in the studio.

"In the same way that wet film photography hung on after most of us had junked our pre-digital cameras, so has the petrol engine. But today the car maker for Princes and Arab sheiks has finally closed its petrol engine product line.

"For those of you who've never experienced a petrol powered car let's take a look at what made those old cars tick. Let's look inside this Audi from 2005.

"And how weird! Three pedals. Throttle, brake and, wait for it, something called a clutch! Missing completely from modern vehicles the clutch was used because the driver had to disconnect the engine from the transmission in order to change gear. Amazing, isn't it. But these petrol engines could really only produce a decent amount of power when turning at one speed - usually around 3000 revs per minute. That's ok when you are travelling down the motorway but to accelerate you have to cycle through as many as 5 different gears. This was done by pressing on the clutch with one foot while simultaneously waggling the gear selector.

"And don't even think about starting the car off on a slope where you had to include another lever, the handbrake, into the ballet.      

"Look at all these dials, as well as speed and fuel level (somewhat like a normal range readout) we have engine revolutions, water temperature, oil temperature, oil pressure. The dashboard might be in a second world war fighter plane.

"So what is it about these petrol engines? This huge, noisy lump weighs over a 150 kgs yet generates only 75KW (100 hp) and then only in short bursts. An electric motor to propel the same car will fit in a small suitcase. But why IS the petrol engine so inefficient?  Well, it's very heavy and consumes a lot of power just moving itself around. Much of the energy is being turned into heat which must be contained and disposed of. And lots of power is lost in the gearbox.

"What is the petrol engine powered car like to drive? With all this weight stuck out in front it's fine in a straight line but cornering was a challenge. Couple that with the need to be constantly manipulating the gear selector and the three foot pedals driving was not a relaxing experience.

"Finally, though, we come to the craziest thing of all. The fuel. A toxic, highly inflammable liquid which was stored in a tank kept as far separated from that snarling red-hot engine as the car's size permitted. Each litre being refined from crude oil, which process alone uses sufficient energy to propel a normal electric car much the same distance.

"And worst of all you had to drive the car to a special 'gas station' to refuel the thing. Just imagine not being able to recharge at home as with a normal electric vehicle! What would it be like if you had to take your phone, every week, to a special place to refill it?

"Finally, hidden beneath all these obvious problems we have the environmental issues. Turning oil into petrol uses energy and creates carbon, and so does delivering oil it. Huge amounts of it. That's before we even get to burn the stuff inside the engine.

"So, if the petrol engine was so crap why did it last so long? Well the point is some pretty big companies made a lot of money selling fuel for the things. Just like tobacco production the fact that the product was dangerous and made no sense made no difference. The tobacco companies were in business and they had the money to buy lots of influence and propaganda. Just like the oil companies.

"The 2015 VW toxic gasses and CO2 emissions revelations was the tipping point. The company that had made the petrol engine drivable turned its attention, seriously, to electric vehicles. Germany already had large amounts of renewable energy but was still burning petrol and diesel. Suddenly all that changed.

"The early advocates of electric vehicles, Tesla, Nissan and Toyota had a new, highly competent competitor. And electric vehicles got a whole lot better.

"Of course, a few reactionaries hung on to the old ways and eventually, as electric vehicles fell in price and became the majority, it became a mark of status to be driven around in an expensive, polluting and downright inefficient vehicle. Being chauffeured around in a Bentley or a Rolls Royce became a bit like being the King in his Coronation coach.

"But finally even this market became unsustainable. And so in 2030 we say goodbye to the internal combustion engine. Now fit only for the hobbyist and the museum.  

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