Gas Engine Is Not About to Go


Looking at the low-emission, advanced-technology concept cars unveiled by the Big Three auto makers here last week, one could easily conclude that the demise of the venerable internal combustion engine is at hand.


Despite the emergence of electric-hybrid, fuel-cell and other advanced-technology prototypes, vehicles that burn gasoline and other hydrocarbons will probably dominate the nation’s roads for the next two decades--and perhaps much longer. In fact, the car of the future for most consumers is more likely to be just a cleaner version of today’s gas-gulping vehicles, rather than a high-tech green-mobile with an exotic Space Age propulsion system.

“The death of the internal combustion engine has been greatly exaggerated,” said David Cole, director of University of Michigan’s Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.


Yet, as the recent displays at auto shows in Detroit, Los Angeles and Tokyo indicate, auto companies are focusing substantial resources and capital in finding an alternative to Gottlieb Daimler’s 19th century invention.

Advanced-technology vehicles capable of getting 60 to 80 miles per gallon already are showing great promise and are likely to capture a significant minority share of the market as they are introduced in the next 10 to 15 years.

Prodded by regulators and environmentalists, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are acknowledging publicly for the first time that the technology is at hand to make less-polluting, more-efficient vehicles.

“No car company will be able to thrive in the next century depending solely on the combustion engine,” said GM Chairman John F. Smith Jr.

But no one has a crystal ball to tell what technology will win out. The best bet is that consumers will soon have a choice of advanced-technology vehicles from which to choose.

Electric vehicles will be joined by hybrids, which combine electric and combustion systems. Later, fuel-cell vehicles, which use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, will hit the market. Fuel cells are regarded as the best hope for supplanting the combustion engine.



Even some enthusiastic supporters of advanced-technology vehicles believe it will take 25 to 30 years for them to capture 25% of the new-car market, amounting to about 4 million vehicles at today’s sales rates. One reason is that auto makers will continue to improve gas- and diesel-burning engines to reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency.

All this activity puts the economically important auto industry at an important crossroads. As new engine technology is embraced and proved, the auto sector could undergo the biggest upheaval in its 100-year history, with the potential to disrupt communities where jobs are tied to fading or un-competitive technologies.

The prospects make Detroit executives shudder. Mass production of a single advanced-technology model calls for an investment of at least $1 billion. Success or failure carries huge consequences.

“A bet on the wrong technology could hurt financially and leave a company at a competitive disadvantage,” said Jim Hall, analyst for J.D. Power & Associates, an auto research and consulting firm.

Being left behind would be risky too. The $1-trillion worldwide auto industry is increasingly competitive, and even a small technological advantage can give a manufacturer a leg up.

“It takes a lot of guts to obsolete your own technology,” said Robert Purcell, head of GM’s advanced-technology vehicle program. But “the worst thing would be to have the paradigm shift on you.”


Judging from past technology and safety introductions, such as catalysts and air bags, phasing in advanced-technology vehicles is certain to be a painstaking and litigious process.

The auto makers are quick to point out a host of obstacles--affordability, fuel availability and delivery, and technology glitches--that could to slow the arrival of these new clean cars in showrooms.

The Big Three already are hedging their bets. Last week they displayed electric hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles that could be ready for production within three to six years. But none has made a production commitment.

“There’s a big difference between a prototype and a mass-production vehicle,” noted Jason Mark, transportation analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group.


The recent clean-car announcements are regarded by some observers as little more than publicity ploys designed to counter green-car introductions by rivals and to convince state and federal regulators that auto makers are committed to lowering vehicle emissions.

Toyota, for instance, has gotten widespread notice for its decision to begin sales in December of a gasoline-electric hybrid called the Prius. The $17,000 sedan is the first hybrid to be sold at the retail level. Though it is only being sold in Japan, Toyota plans to offer it in California in two to three years.


The Big Three revealed their clean-car concept vehicles just a month after an agreement on global warming was reached in Kyoto, Japan. The proposed treaty would require developed nations to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The agreement, which must be ratified by the U.S. Senate, could prompt tighter fuel-economy and emissions standards, because vehicles are a major source of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. The auto companies are most concerned about regulations that would mandate higher fuel-economy standards on light trucks, their most profitable vehicles.

“All these clean-car announcements are aimed at Washington,” said John McElroy, editor of Automotive Industries magazine. “They are saying: ‘Please don’t throw any more regulation at us.’ ”

Many environmentalists also believe the auto industry cannot be trusted to bring better, more-efficient vehicles to market without constant regulatory pressure. They argue that the best way to reduce greenhouse emissions is to increase federal fuel-economy standards for both cars and trucks.

“If left to its own devices, the American auto industry has proved time and again it will do nothing, or next to nothing, to make their vehicles less environmentally disastrous,” said Dan Becker, energy policy director for the Sierra Club.

But Andrew Card, president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn., a Big Three lobbying arm, said the display of alternative-fuel vehicles is evidence of the industry’s commitment to cleaner cars.


The auto industry hopes to persuade policymakers that more regulation would be counterproductive, he said, noting: “This shows the industry is proactive.”

John Dunlap, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, agreed, saying the auto makers have gotten religion on clean air and are making a good-faith effort to comply with the state’s stiff emissions regulations. “There has been a sea change in their attitudes,” he said.

The auto companies also are working closely with the federal government through the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a $1-billion research effort to develop affordable family sedans that get 80 mpg by 2004.

Vice President Al Gore last week praised the auto makers for their PNGV efforts and said the Clinton administration is proposing legislation that would grant incentives to business and individuals that build and buy the clean cars.

Auto makers say advanced-technology vehicles will only succeed if they are affordable and have the same performance as today’s cars. Many point to GM’s EV1 electric car as evidence. The vehicle has a range limitation of about 80 miles per charge but is priced about the same as an entry-level luxury car. Only 300 were sold in the first year.

The Big Three emphasize that none of their advanced-technology vehicles is yet competitive in cost with cars using internal combustion engines.


Chrysler’s sleek Dodge Intrepid ESX2 electric-diesel hybrid would cost $15,000 more to build than today’s gas-powered Intrepid sedan. That’s down from a price premium of $60,000 two years earlier but still more than most consumers would be willing to pay.

“Frankly, we don’t see putting this vehicle on the road until it’s competitively priced,” said Tom Gale, vice president of product development.

Even Toyota admits that the Prius hybrid costs nearly $35,000 to produce, meaning the company will recover less than half the cost at the $17,000 selling price.


GM is clearly doing the same with its EV1 electric coupe, which cost $350 million to develop. But GM sees the EV1 as a steppingstone to even more advanced-technology vehicles. The EV1’s electric drive system, for instance, is used in two hybrids and in a fuel-cell prototype now in development.

Purcell, who directs GM electric vehicle research, said the company will soon have a second-generation electric drive system that is half the cost, half the size and contains a third the parts of the original. “Our strategy is to drive the cost down,” he said.

Even so, it will be years before U.S. consumers see significant numbers of electrics, hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles in showrooms. That was clear in a walk around the floor of the North American International Auto Show.


While each of the Big Three had displays of future clean cars, their displays were dominated by the hulking pickup trucks, monster sport utility vehicles and other king-of-the-road vehicles popular today.

“You can’t underestimate the auto industry’s commitment to the internal combustion engine,” said Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They are committed to using it to burn every drop of oil they can.”