The future of the internal combustion engine is..... a 1976 Opel Manta?

  • Jan. 4, 2016
  • Marcel Romijn

In recent years, electric mobility has taken flight spectacularly. As a result, expectations for the future of electric vehicles are sky-high as well. This poses the question: how will it end? Will electricity completely replace internal combustion, or will there be a place in the future for the good old internal combustion engine? At BRACE Automotive, we are involved in many branches of automotive propulsion: petrol engines, Diesel engines, alternative fuel, electric mobility, etc. And apart from our professional involvement many BRACE engineers really are petrolheads. That is exactly why questions like the one posed above sometimes incite passionate debates at our coffee machine. We wanted to share one opinion that interested most of us with all of you.

"In the spring of 2011 I was still studying automotive engineering. More precisely, I was studying my engineering passion: internal combustion engines. Imagine my surprise when a question I was asked was: “Will internal combustion engines still be relevant when you’re done with your studies?”

There I was, excited to be studying the internal combustion engines of the future, and suddenly the object of my studies was labelled a dying technology – a relic of the past. My answer was easy. After all, this was early 2011: the Nissan LEAF had only recently been introduced; Tesla had only just started turning heads; and there was not yet a global network of Tesla superchargers in place. “Yes, of course! Electric motors are nice, but they will not be a viable alternative to ‘real’ engines for many years to come!”

Now though, I’m not so sure. Working for BRACE Automotive in the past few years, I have seen technology progress. Few people in 2011 could have predicted the explosive rise of Tesla and the popularity of electric mobility in general. In just a couple of years, the world of automotive propulsion has changed significantly. For passenger cars today, electric power is a viable alternative to combustion power. Today, the answer I gave seems downright ignorant.

So has the internal combustion engine become irrelevant to the passenger car industry? Not yet, obviously. New combustion-powered cars still outnumber new electric ones by an overwhelming majority. The balance is definitely shifting, though. Now, more than ever before, even us petrol-heads can imagine ourselves owning an electric car as a daily driver. In 2011, who would have believed that? Still, though, we cringe at the thought of the internal combustion engine disappearing from our lives entirely…

I expect that in the next few decades, the electric car will come to outperform the combustion-powered car in every measurable way. To save the combustion engine, then, we will need to secure a place for it on our future roads. In a niche of its own, perhaps, where its existence is not solely dependent on measurable claims of efficiency, running cost, or performance. There may only be a future for the internal combustion engine, if we can focus on the one thing it can offer that electric motors can’t.

One evening in the spring of 2011, I was driving home in my beaten-up 1976 Opel Manta. It smelled of oil and petrol, the clutch was on its way out, the synchromesh in second gear was worn, it was almost impossible to start when cold, and it usually refused to idle when hot. Only I was able to keep it going. Occasionally – and to the delight of tailgaters, I imagine – the exhaust sounded a loud bang and spewed out a cloud of dark smoke. It was, by every measurable standard, a terrible example of the future of the internal combustion engine.
And still, the determined chortling and growling of the engine made that car feel alive to me, in a way that no electric motor could ever do. It needed me, and I needed it. In spite of all its flaws, I loved that car.

This, then, may be the future of the internal combustion engine. To deserve a place on our future roads, the combustion engine need not compete with the electric motor. After all, that is not a competition it could win anyway. Instead, it should continue to aim for our hearts, and imbue a rare selection of our cars with life. It should not strive to be more like an electric motor; smooth; silent; sterile. Instead, it should strive to be intentionally less like an electric motor, and more like a ‘real’ engine. It should – to a point – abandon the rational and the sensible, and have personality. It should make noise. It should require taming. It should be irrational. As well as being modern and clean and economical, it should be flawed."


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