Why the Combustion Engine is Doomed, Regardless of Fuel or Electric Aids

Globalization and global warming help to explain why combustion engines are doomed 10 photos
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The globalized world showed us how connected we are in the most educational and cruel ways possible. If one country faces a disaster, a contagious disease, an industry disruption, or war, all others will be affected. Few have realized this also kills combustion engines for good, regardless of the fuel they burn or if they are helped by electric motors or not.
If each country had its own car company and was more isolated, things could be different. They could follow local interests and legislation and keep business as usual. That’s the case only in North Korea, Iran, and soon in Russia. All others countries depend on massive automakers with headquarters in the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, and South Korea. They are the ones who call the shots on which vehicles will be sold in most of the world.

The only exception may be India. With more than 1 billion people and its own carmakers (Tata and Mahindra), it may decide to keep combustion engines alive in its home market and expand to countries that cannot afford EVs. However, that depends on whether developing them makes financial sense. It only will if they sell enough of them. Affordability is the main argument to keep combustion engines afloat, and it is not enough. We’ll get there in a bit.

Although we have these five major regions with the most powerful carmakers, only three of them really decide where the automotive world should head to: China, the U.S., and Europe. Japan and South Korea do have large carmakers – some of which are pretty reluctant about EVs at their current stage – but they do not have enough internal demand to keep their companies as big and strong as they currently are. Most of their focus is on export or local production in one of these three regions we mentioned.

While people prefer to consider them as equals, the relevance between these three regions is pretty unbalanced. Some are still waiting for Chinese cars to invade the U.S. without realizing they do not have to: China is the country that buys more vehicles in the world, with a growth rate that the other two cannot match.

The U.S. will eventually get Chinese cars, but that is not a priority for their manufacturers: they already have plenty of customers to please. Just check how BMW maximized the front grilles of its cars because Chinese customers love them that way. Americans or Europeans who are not that fond of this characteristic will just have to put up with it. That shows how crucial China now is for the automotive industry.

Summing up, what these three massive markets decide to buy is what all others will end up getting sooner or later. All major carmakers are focused on selling well in them. For any fan of combustion engines, the bad news is that all three are focused on electric cars.

EVs have become a priority for two reasons: GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and oil scarcity. Human activity emits massive loads of carbon, methane, and other gasses and pollutants that worsen the greenhouse effect. Most of these excessive emissions come from burning fossil fuels, which have limited reserves. Keep in mind that the automotive industry was already looking for alternatives because the oil will not last forever.

To be fair, the risk of oil fields going dry merged with governments’ concerns about the ICE in big cities, especially governments that champion universal healthcare systems. The pollution effects on their inhabitants increased health costs. China pursued NEVs (new energy vehicles) to clean the skies of its megalopolises and prevent respiratory issues in the population. CARB has more stringent rules than federal ones because of smog in California.

Assuming that the issue with combustion engines is only related to carbon emissions is a big mistake that some of their advocates want to spread as an absolute truth. Just check what the VDMA (Mechanical Engineering Industry Association) said in Germany. According to its president, Karl Haeusgen, the problem is fossil fuels.

What he failed to mention is that you’ll still have nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, ozone, and other pollutants with any engine. It’s intrinsic to how they work, regardless of what they burn. We have already mentioned that when we discussed another desperate attempt to stick with combustion engines: making them burn hydrogen, which could only work for racing, as my friend Benny Kirk wrote a while ago.

What governments needed was a minimally viable alternative. When Tesla started selling the Roadster, and Nissan took that concept to mass-production with the LEAF, they proved companies could sell vehicles powered by batteries. Before that, automakers were studying the idea of fuel cells because they did not believe people would accept low ranges, higher weight, and spending a lot of time charging. Yet, people did, hopeful that technological advances would improve things. Luckily, that has been the case until now.

The hype around Tesla, the concerns about global warming, the pollution risks ICEs bring, and the outcry against traditional cars led politicians to create legislation that slowly turned the combustion engine into something impractical and highlighted how obsolete it is. You could only keep on selling it if it met increasingly more difficult and eventually impossible requirements. In some cities, even the cleanest combustion-engined vehicles cannot circulate in some areas. To do so, your car needed to be electric.

Combustion engines are extremely expensive to conceive from the ground up, which explains why some engine families are decades old. Automakers have to recover that investment by using these mills for as long as possible. Emission rules make them more expensive.

Carburetors had to die because of that: fuel injections made engines cleaner. They soon needed catalyzers, EGR, sensors, particle filters, and a myriad of other components to meet legal requirements. We will not even mention the investments in mass reduction and aerodynamics to make vehicles more efficient. That’s all due to regulations. It will eventually be cheaper to just put an electric motor to move automobiles and feed them with electricity in a way that makes sense.

While rich countries and regions already know they will kill the combustion engine by 2035, 2040, or a bit later, some ICE advocates had hopes that developing countries would keep them alive. That’s not what we are seeing. Some automakers are simply closing factories, and Ford is a good example after it decided to shut down its Indian and Brazilian plants.

Those that do not want to get rid of their investments in these countries are trying to find alternatives to keep them open. In Brazil, most are betting on ethanol by developing hybrids that run on this renewable fuel. There are multiple reasons for that to be a temporary patch, not a solution.

All carmakers are moving to dedicated electric architectures. That makes the challenge of local branches in emerging countries even more difficult than just developing new engines or convincing local governments to ease legal requirements on the current ones for them to survive. In short, they will need to develop platforms than can still use them.

Some of these countries had engineering centers, but most of them have already been closed or transferred to China, the U.S., or Europe. The ones that remain active will have to justify the investments in places where market size may not be worth it and instabilities are constant.

To make matters worse, these local branches cannot take care of everything on their own. To keep selling engines, they need strong suppliers. Most of these companies also have headquarters abroad and are already eyeing what to sell to electric cars. Spark plugs, cables, pistons, valves, belts, you name it: these things may vanish if the suppliers do not have enough customers. Either that or the price of these components will increase due to a lower production scale, making combustion engines more expensive. That’s when the affordability excuse implodes.

This scenario shows how difficult it will be to stretch the life of current engine projects for as long as possible anywhere in the world. The last nail in the coffin of combustion engines is that most OEM local branches cannot count solely on the internal demand of emerging countries for these cars. Most of them, such as Mexico, are export platforms to rich markets, and the truth is that these developed countries do not want combustion engines anymore.

The gymnastics engineers and executives are doing to keep them in production is amazing. However, there is nothing you can do to convince customers to remain interested and forgiving of all the downsides engines have. To make matters worse for combustion engines, any increase in fuel prices drives even more people toward electric vehicles. The sooner automotive professionals realize this worldwide, the earlier and better they can prepare for the inevitable. As long as cars are still around and personal transportation is ensured, we should just welcome the change and prepare for it. It will happen, regardless of personal preferences.
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About the author: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
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Motoring writer since 1998, Gustavo wants to write relevant stories about cars and their shift to a sustainable future.
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