Why You Can’t Write Off Internal Combustion Engines Just Yet

Why You Can’t Write Off Internal Combustion Engines Just Yet

Guest Commentary March 2019 Internal Combustion Engines QuEST Global

SHERRY C KUNJACHAN is Strategic Initiatives Leader – Automotive Engineering Services at QuEST Global

Several reports and findings indicate that the global advent of electric motors will power vehicles in the future. However, experts have reservations about how quickly the transition will happen and also believe that internal combustion engine (ICE) will continue to run a large percentage of vehicles in the coming years. With greenhouse gas emissions and constant pressure to improve air quality, would ICE still remain the power horse of our future transportation? With fuel-economy norms and standards getting stringent by the day, these engines may not be the same anymore.


It is estimated that approximately two billion ICEs are in use around the world, not only to run cars but also trucks, trains, ships and more. Current debates are focussed on whether EVs will be able to outpace and prove more valuable than ICEs on every dimension of utility across all classes of vehicles.

The challenge before EVs is daunting. Fuelled by a century of robust R&D, ICEs are not only continually surpassing efficiency benchmarks, but also reducing harmful emissions. However, since fossil fuel is limited and contributes to emissions, there is a pressing need for identifying an alternate solution. Among all the options, electric is the most popular alternative in the market.

Electric vehicles are witnessing an upward trend in all major markets. In 2017, more than one million EVs were added globally. This growth is led by China, followed by Europe and the US. Even India is emerging as a major market, with its national e-mobility programme looking to electrify 30 % of its vehicles by 2030. However, the battery alone in an electric car can cost thousands of dollars and will continue to remain higher for some time.


Electric has always been the alternative to ICE, thanks to the global push towards reducing carbon footprint. While EVs stand a strong chance, there is a larger picture that one needs to see. To start with, charging points will have to be prevalent outside as well as inside, along with the availability of charging points in every parking space, both private and public. For fossil fuel, refuelling is a fast and efficient process, which can be executed at predetermined intervals via fuel stations serving thousands of vehicles. But since it is estimated that about 10-25 % of vehicles on roads would be electric by 2030, what efforts are being undertaken towards building such charging infrastructure? Considering the usage of electric cars for daily commute, owning home chargers becomes mandatory. The logistics of installing and maintaining these charging stations would again pose its own problems.

As people start to drive EVs outside their daily commute and over long distances, the need for a large-scale charging network becomes even more evident. Although investments are being put in place to develop this, there are still several challenges that need to be addressed, including that of grid connections. Despite the ongoing research to reduce the vehicle’s recharging time, the current battery technology is unable to safely recharge an EV battery within even double the time it takes to fill a car’s fuel tank completely. For example, to go from 20 % to 80 % charge on a Tesla at a super charging station would require about 20 to 30 min; while it would take more than 90 min to reach 100 %. Hence, while electric motors provide ground-breaking performance to electric vehicles, their widespread adoption would be a challenge unless a technique is available to efficiently refuel vehicles at rates similar to the time it takes to fill petrol.

Conventional EVs use lithium-ion batteries; the manufacturing process for which produces significantly higher carbon footprint as compared to ICEs. A far more viable alternative to an EV with a lithium-ion fuel cell would be an EV that runs on hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen fuel cells have the liberty of running without the need for staying put in a charging station every time the battery runs out in a conventional lithium-ion battery EV. It simply needs a refill, which typically takes as much time as it does to fill the tank of a combustion engine truck.


Both battery-powered EVs and fuel cell EVs work using electricity to operate electric motors for providing traction. Using currently available technologies, the efficiency achieved by charging batteries and using it to power electric motors is more efficient than generating hydrogen and using fuel cells to generate electricity. However, the battery’s disadvantage is that as the range increases the power requirement increases, the weight of the battery increases and this finally reduces the battery’s overall efficiency.


An important trend both globally and in India is the coexistence of powertrain technologies. It’s a given that ICEs will continue to be the mainstream solution for freight and passenger vehicles. As far as combustion engines are concerned, the key to making them more eco-friendly lies in synthetic or carbon-neutral fuels, whose manufacturing process captures CO2. Thus, the greenhouse gas becomes a raw material, from which gasoline, diesel, and substitute natural gas can be produced with the help of electricity from renewable sources. Synthetic fuels are made solely with the help of renewable energy. In a first stage, hydrogen is produced from water. Carbon is added to this to produce a liquid fuel. This carbon can be recycled from industrial processes or even captured from the air using filters. Combining CO2 and H2 subsequently results in synthetic fuel, which can be gasoline, diesel, gas, or even kerosene.

According to experts, the contribution of the European car fleet by 2050 with the use of synthetic fuels as a scheduled supplement to electrification could save up to 2.8 GT of CO2, or three times Germany’s carbon-dioxide emissions in 2016!

However, in order for CO2 recycling systems to operate efficiently, the gas has to be captured and concentrated from sources such as factories and power stations or extracted from the air using sophisticated and expensive techniques. Going forward, a production ramp-up and favourable electricity prices could help synthetic fuels become significantly cheaper.


The ICE has been in use for more than a century now. Sophisticated technological advancements such as iStream, direct fuel injection or variable displacement will be a requisite for automakers, who seek to get the most out of the automotive technology before its sale is curtailed over the next few decades. Mazda recently announced an innovation in its gasoline engine, which will increase its efficiency by 20 % to 30 %. Vehicles equipped with this technology are scheduled to hit the market this year.

However, full EVs are still quite expensive. Without subsidies and incentives, the cost benefit that can be achieved by reducing operating costs to match the increased initial investment, does not make commercial sense for an average automobile owner. EVs that are commercially available right now prove that it is a viable means of transport. It is certain that electric motors, batteries, fuel cells, etc. are going to play a key role in the development of futuristic vehicles, including cars and trucks. Be it using batteries or by using fuel cells, the advancement of technology in the area of power storage will definitely drive the trend of EVs.

Experts believe that the future is electric, but they don’t discount the fact that investing in more efficient ICE vehicles is critical to meeting climate change goals as well. It will take some time before the industry witnesses an end of ICE.