It’s 1885 All Over Again

Once again we are searching through numerous possibilities for the best powertrain for tomorrow’s cars.


More than a century ago, the creators of the new automotive industry tried out every powertrain they could invent and decided the gasoline-fueled, internal-combustion engine worked best.

Electric motors, steam engines and other ideas were tossed aside. For the next 100 years, auto makers around the world poured their research efforts into perfecting the IC engine and manufacturing methods to build it precisely and inexpensively.

That focus worked a miracle, giving us reliable and affordable personal transportation.

Now, once again, we are searching through numerous possibilities for the best powertrain for tomorrow’s cars. It’s 1885 again, and it may take 25 years before we discover the best way to power our automobiles in this new world.

IC gasoline engines continue to advance and downsize with technologies such as direct injection and turbocharging. Volkswagen says it even will have a car with a 2-cyl. engine, but not for the U.S. The tiny Tata Nano already is powered by a 2-cyl. engine.

Even more advanced technologies such as homogeneous charge compression ignition are waiting in the wings to further improve the IC engine’s efficiency.

Diesels continue to improve. They already are more efficient than gasoline IC engines. Now they can be as clean, or cleaner. Diesels power about half the new cars in Europe, and they are not going away anytime soon, even though they are struggling to get a toehold in the U.S.

Auto makers again are experimenting with compressed natural gas. It’s used widely outside the U.S., and General Motors recently announced it is rolling out CNG and liquefied-petroleum gas alternatives to the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana fullsize vans. Honda offers a CNG version of the Civic.

A number of battery powered electric cars will hit the U.S. market late this year and next, along with extended-range electric vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt.

Plug-in HEVs will arrive soon, as well, along with a growing number of conventional HEVs.

And a number of auto makers continue to develop electric vehicles driven by hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Auto makers are looking at everything but steam, and someone probably will come up with a new Stanley Steamer before it’s over.

Wouldn’t the industry get better results without this division of research? Spreading out money and resources weakens the effort.

Imagine if all of the efforts in Asia, Europe and the U.S. could be focused on developing just one replacement for the IC engine.

Unfortunately that can’t happen. No auto maker yet knows which strategy is best or what the driving public will accept. So the industry is stuck dividing research and development among half a dozen possibilities.

Engineers know that having one type of powertrain is better than having many different ones, because it provides better economies of scale and makes manufacturing and vehicle maintenance simpler.

But there is nothing we can do. The division of resources in the search for new power systems can’t be stopped. We only can hope the winner ultimately turns out to be as reliable, affordable and durable as the IC engine.

— Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.

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