Why 2017 will go down as the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine

By Peter Holley October 11 at 1:03 PM  washingtonpost.com

Electric vehicles no longer seem like a futuristic fever dream, but they remain a rarity on most American city streets, accounting for less than 1 percent of the nation’s auto sales, according to the automotive website Edmunds.com.

Yet, when future auto historians look back, they may pinpoint 2017 as the year electric vehicles went from a promising progressive fad to an industry-wide inevitability.

The tipping point, experts say, follows three developments, each rippling outward with economic and cultural consequences.

  1. China’s flexing: In addition to setting aggressive production quotas for EVs, China plans to scrap internal combustion engines entirely as soon as 2030. By taking a lead role in the shift to plug-ins, the world’s largest auto market is forcing the rest of the international community to follow in its footsteps.
  2. The debut of Tesla’s Model 3: The company’s first mass-market vehicle has ushered in an era of excitement about EVs because of the car’s slick design and starting price of around $35,000.
  3. Major automakers announce plans for an “all-electric future.” General Motors finished 2016 as the world’s third-largest automaker, meaning its decision to create 20 new electric vehicles by 2023 is bound to have an impact on the global marketplace. Volvo, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Ford have also announced EV plans in recent months.

“You really do feel like this electrification thing is suddenly very real,” Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com. “There’s a momentum we haven’t really seen before. It’s coming from other countries around the world and from big automakers, and that’s forcing everyone else to comply.”

The all-electric future is still years away, experts say. But as EV momentum builds, we’ve listed five ways in which EV adoption is expected to play out:

The future of Big Oil: 

Not so long ago, minuscule sales of EVs made it hard for Big Oil to take the threat of electric cars seriously. Now, thanks to growing demand in Asia and Europe, experts say, that’s beginning to change, even amid predictions that oil demand will continue growing in the developing world. The question facing experts is no longer whether EVs will take over, but when?

A Barclays’ analysis concluded that oil demand could be slashed by 3.5 million barrels per day worldwide in 2025. If electric vehicle penetration reaches 33 percent, oil demand could shrink by a whopping 9 million barrels per day by 2040, Barclays concluded. Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance puts the number at 8 million barrels by 2040, more than the “current combined production of Iran and Iraq,” they note.

Urging caution about the impact of EVs on the oil industry, John Eichberger, executive director of the Fuels Institute, said he doesn’t expect to see significant changes in demand for another 15 years or so. “We don’t know how fast EV sales will pick up, but what we do know is that no matter how fast they pick up, the inventory in the market will turn over more slowly, and this will delay the impact on liquid gallon demand,” he said.

Eichberger noted that even optimistic sales growth estimates conclude it will take until the 2030s for EV sales to reach as high as 16 percent of the nation’s market share. Once that happens, he said, it will take even longer for people to start selling their vehicles and buying new ones, leading to widespread EV adoption.

“It’s the vehicles on the road that will determine gasoline demand, not the vehicles being sold that day,” he said.

Gas stations will change or disappear: 

Some experts believe electric cars have sounded the death knell of the American gas station, but others aren’t so sure.  Earlier this year, John Abbott, Shell Oil’s business director, revealed that the energy giant is already adapting.

“We have a number of countries where we’re looking at having battery charging facilities,” he told the Financial Times. “If you are sitting charging your vehicle, you will want to have a coffee or something to eat.”

Until charging times drop dramatically and superchargers become widespread, wait times for EV charging at gas stations could turn those stations into “hospitality-type venues,” according to Guido Jouret, the ABB’s chief digital officer, who noted that many gas stations make more money selling soda and food than they do selling gas.

“The idea is that for hospitality-type venues — restaurants, gas stations, coffee shops — electric vehicle charging could be an attractive way for them to attract customers the way WiFi was a decade ago, when it caused a lot of people to hang out at Starbucks.”

Environmental impact: 

Depending on how electricity is produced in your region, plug-ins are from 30 percent to 80 percent lower in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Gina Coplon-Newfield, the director of the Sierra Club’s Electric Vehicles Initiative. If GM follows through on its plan to launch a new fleet of electric vehicles, Coplon-Newfield said, the reductions in carbon emissions and the improved air quality could be “hugely beneficial.”

“We’ve seen customers rave about cars like the Chevy Bolt and Volt,” she said. “Right now only a few thousand a month are being sold, so GM can significantly ramp up their production, and that’s going to have a significant impact on the market for consumers, the climate and public health.”

How significant?

If GM’s 2016 U.S. sales — more than 3 million vehicles — were converted to EVs, the country would benefit in the following ways, according to an analysis provided by the Sierra Club:

  • 6.5 million tons, or 13 billion pounds, of GHGs reduced annually.
  • 35.6 million barrels of petroleum reduced annually, creating less of a dependency on foreign oil, further boosting demand on domestic electricity and keeping oil money spent in-state.
  • 164.5 million pounds of carbon monoxide reduced annually.
  • 11 million pounds of nitrogen oxides reduced annually, harmful to respiratory health and creates smog.
  • 1 million pounds of particulate matter reduced annually.
  • 9 million pounds of volatile organic compounds reduced annually.

The evolving future of auto mechanics:

  • One of the primary reasons that auto owners visit a mechanic is for an oil change, which raises a question: What happens when vehicles no longer rely on oil? It’s not that electric vehicles won’t require maintenance (they still have brakes, tires and windshield wipers, after all), but their engines are far simpler, experts say.
  • “Basically these things don’t break,” Tony Seba, a clean energy expert and the founder of RethinkX, a think tank that forecasts changes in the transportation industry. “They have 20 moving parts, as opposed to 2,000 in the internal combustion engine, and even those 20 are electromagnetic, which means they don’t touch and don’t break down and, therefore, are far cheaper to maintain.”
  • Seba pointed out that there are thousands of department store and dealer repair locations — as well as about 70,000 mom-and-pop repair shops — that will be significantly affected by a decline in business.

Powering the grid: 

We tend to think of EVs as consumers of electricity, but some experts believe they’ll be more like “mobile energy storage units,” as Forbes recently noted. Widespread adoption, experts say, may allow vehicles to transfer energy back to the grid when costs and demand are high and charge the battery when demand has waned.

The proposal would allow car owners and cities to lower costs. “Imagine it’s a hot day, and you’ve agreed that in exchange for allowing the grid to sip a bit of your car’s energy, maybe you earn points or receive a monetary benefit,” Jouret said. “The utility can sip the battery juice and take a little bit from all sources and spread it around.”

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So it will be coal powered cars. We have lots of coal.

I must say that I am not as educated as I would like to be about the entire EV proposal. I have a lot of questions. Some of the most obvious below
1. How long does it take to charge a vehicle? I can fill up my vehicle in about 10 minutes and go 500 miles at interstate speeds. I average 35-40K miles a year.
2. What is the cost to convert a commercial gas station to electric charging station?
3. Can the current electric grid handle the additional load of conversion to all EV’s?
4. If additional power plants will be needed to supply the increased elctricity needed, how long will it take to get the permits and studies done so that the plants can be built? I assume the plants will still require some type of fuel-nat gas, oil, coal, etc.
5. Without subsidies, how much money does the car manufacturer lose on each vehicle?
6. Can you get dual exhausts that still make that rumble that all of us old guys love? JK

LOL!  1. Depends on how much of the battery capacity has been discharged and the type of charger.  Most charging is done at home on batteries that are not highly discharged.  80+% of driving is around town, not long distance travel.  2. You don't convert, you just add the charging station.  Most will not be added at service stations.  They will be added at restaurants, coffee shops, fast food franchises, etc.  The kinds of place you stop anyway on a trip.  Fast charging capacity and clean restrooms will get any business a crowd.  3.  Good question but hard to answer because electric demand for charging car batteries will ramp up over time.  Hint: so will new electrical generation capacity.  4. Permits for clean burning, dual cycle natural gas plants are already in the pipeline as coal fired plants become too expensive to run.  Hint:  the problem with coal goes beyond the cost to generate electricity.  What do you do with all the ash that is contaminated with heavy metals and arsenic?  There is a cost to dispose of it but wherever you put it, it's still poison.  5.  EV costs are coming down so fast that there should be no need for any subsidies or tax breaks by around 2020 according to a number of major auto manufacturers.  I expect the major auto companies will make about the same profit on an EV as they do on a passenger car today.  6.  You can get all the exhaust rumble you want and be able to customize the sound far beyond what a combustion engine can produce.  Of course, it will cost you extra.  :-)

Thanks Skip. I thought you might have an answer for the pipes. I stop at Buccees quite often. I haven’t counted, but I’m guessing some of them have maybe 75-80+ gas pumps and its not unusual to have to wait to fill up weekend or week day. I dont know the range on a battery, but if it’s 150-200 miles, those little trips in Texas are gonna take a lot longer than they will with a V8 when you have to shut down for however long it takes to charge batteries. I wonder how many batteries it takes to power an 18 wheeler hauling freight across the USA? How much do those batteries weigh since that would reduce the amount of freight the truck could haul? A run of the mill chain restaurant may have 40-50 cars on any lunch or evening period. The prices I have seen for the charging stations run from $5K to $50K for the fast chargers. Those hambugers are gonna go way up in price if they put in chargers plus have to spring for the juice. Seems like we hear about brown outs during summer due to the extra load on the elec grid. If we try to charge all vehicles, I really dont think the current grid can handle a lot more strain. So, there will have to be a huge outlay of cash for that. I guess that cost will probably be passed on to the consumer. Converting an internal combustion engine to runon nat gas is easily doable and quite inexpensive compared to the cost of doing away with them and upgrading the power generation as well as the entire grid. It seems like an extra wasted step if we burn gas to generate elec to power the EV when we could just run the current vehicles on nat gas. As you can probably guess I am against the EV for anything other than short hops in town. I just don’t see the EV taking over anytime soon. Certainly not in my lifetime.

You're welcome, RSV.  Current mileage ranges on a full charge are in the range of 220 to 310 miles for the Tesla 3.  The one that goes 310 costs more but if that's what someone needs, it's available.  Makes a trip from Shreveport to DFW no problem.  Although Tesla's 18 wheeler is still in development, Cummins has an EV version for 2019 delivery.  18 wheelers actually have an advantage in that they can carry more weight, so more battery capacity.  The charging stations will be a loss leader.  Just as many truck stops make more money off the things they sell other than gas.  I'm not worried about the grid or the generation capacity as EV use will ramp up incrementally and so will generation.  I don't know current costs for charging stations but I think they are cheaper and more easily accommodated in existing buildings/parking lots that CNG,  Battery technology is unlikely to go into a slump.  It has evolved steadily and should continue to do so.  EVs don't have to be long haul capable to capture 80+% of the market.  I'm 65 and suspect that my next vehicle will be electric in about 4 to 5 years.  I'll still have my Ford pickup to haul my boat and go hunting but that will be less than 45 days a year.

Hey Skip, I guess the ash problem from coal depends on where it's burned and what kind of coal was burned.  I worked at some plants in E. Texas and they sold their ash for road construction and a concrete additive.  

I think the biggest problem we have today is the Grid.  Today's new demands placed on it by solar and wind have made it unreliable in some areas.  Some power producers have been forced to pay someone to buy their MW's when there was too much wind blowing.  Other's have to scramble to find enough power as clouds pass over solar panels. 

A storm moving through a thousand unit wind farm can ramp up to producing more power than two Nuke's in a mater of minuets.  What do you do with all that power?  Somebody has to shut down.  Cost a lot to shut down a unit, especially a coal unit. 

Deregulation has helped bring us to this point, the power producer doesn't have control of his lines anymore and the thing about electricity is that it has to used the moment it's made, can't store it like gas. Going to EV's will help balance the grid and provide more stability.  I think we should burn more NG to produce electric power, it will be more efficient than fueling our fleet of cars with NG. 

A good read about the state of our electrical system is "The Grid" by Gretchen Bakke.  

Hey, Max.  IMO the solution is storage.  As batter technology advances it will smooth out the high and lows in generation output.  I am aware of the uses of coal ash you mention from my days in the construction business.  I've been out of that line of work for a long time but I now wonder what else was going into the concrete mix with the ash.  I haven't looked at the control aspects of individual wind turbine units but suspect that the blades may be feathered like an airplane prop in emergency situations.  Bottom line is I believe in the advance of technology and think many current drawbacks or limitations to renewable energy will be solved in the not too distant future.  It will be interesting to see how Tesla fares with their battery farms in Australia and Puerto Rico.  I think battery technology is getting a lot of attention and funding.  Already new processes are being announced almost weekly.  Those new processes must prove to be economic and safe but if they keep coming at this rate, some are bound to find a place in the energy net.

Skip, yes battery tech will help but the way our elect. machines work, the system has to be constant.  A sink deposit to absorb power spikes will have to be big, and where do you build it?  A million cars plugged in will hardly notice anything, except an increase of a volt or two if a spike comes along.  Of course, the million cars plugged in was feeding the grid at the moment of the spike, but the technology of the system converts power out to power storage. 

The fleet of EV cars in the system will be a big part of making it all work.  Our transportation will become a big piece of the pie, helping our energy in the future.

Oh, and if anyone hasn't noticed yet, there will be very few of us by 2028 that will own an automobile of any kind.  Why would you?  You schedule for a ride and a car shows up without a driver.  You tell the car where you want to go, and it says, "please buckle up".   No car payments, no insurance,  no gas, no license, and a lot better driver than any human... how much?  $10 to $20 day.   Cheaper if car share.  

But will it pull my boat?  LOL.  Max, I generally agree with your assessment that a goodly portion of younger, urban dwellers will prefer life styles sans auto.  There are pretty cool places to live and play where parking a car is a pain, an expense or not viable.  I was lucky on my last trip to the Garden District in NO to find a parking spot.  And my car remained in that spot the entire trip without moving.  Love the streetcars - don't call them trolleys.  It is certain that society will change however I think the major changes will be urban/suburban.  We'll have to see how Etrucks evolve and whether they are practical for all the various personal uses of rural life.

I expect my next house will have a Tesla Powerwall or some similar residential battery system paired with solar cells.

Yes, electric cars have a future. So do driverless cars. Hell, who would have used Uber 10 years ago. I remember when my high tech son said, Dad just Uber and get in the car with a stranger. Now I use Uber and Lyft all the time. Not sure why this is a big discussion because it seems pretty obvious to me.

Lyft is now active in Shreveport.  I just downloaded their app.  In New Orleans while out on the town having a food and drink experience, Uber is the only way to go. 

Skip, you might be able to use your boat as a worm bed, if you still have it by 2028 because you'll be having a lot more fun with your Virtual Fishing system located in your living room.  Fish anywhere, anytime, and land that big one from your favorite easy chair.  You'll never have smelly fish hands again...

There's a big change coming to the way we get around.  It's hard for me to imagine climbing into a driverless car and riding to the store or going fishing, but that's where we're headed.  I can own that car, but more than likely, there will be fleets of renters that will be cheaper to use.  Rural living will not be much different from urban.  Most of us have our everyday schedules and programming a ride will become common place.  Most of us in rural areas will still hold on to our cars and trucks, but when we have to replace those vehicles, we'll be older (or not on Earth anymore) and many of us will give up our love affair with the auto.  The ride to work will be part of your work day.  Instead of driving and cussing slow pokes, we'll be looking over our email or on the phone.  

Etrucks will be some of the first renters.  I own a truck now, but I need three trucks.  A little one, a mid-sized one, and a big one.  Yes, I can rent those vehicles today, but it's a hassle.  I'm also "forced" to purchase a big truck and use it for all my needs.  When the day comes that I can press an app on my phone and the truck that I need that day drives up, no paperwork, no changing out hitches, and no worries about the darn thing breaking down, then maybe I'll get hip and fall in line with the other sheep. 


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