California just announced that it would phase out the sale of new gas-powered street cars by 2035. The Volkswagen Group has set a similar schedule for itself. Ford has moved development of internal combustion engines to a “Legacy” department. Will ICE soon be a thing of the past?
Most people think yes. But I think there are two types of ICE cars that will thrive.
Even if one of them doesn’t even exist yet.
Let me lay out the background of why people like internal-combustion engines, and what the limtations of EVs are, and these exceptions will become clear as a Hellcat’s backfire.
- Why EVs?
Society will be smart to get rid of most internal combustion engines. There are about 1.5 billion ICE vehicles in the world right now. That’s 1.5 billion sources of the fossil fuel emissions that are going to turn Austin into a beach town. Switching from ICE to EV is going to be a big part of us saving our planet. It is a societal imperative.
The changeover might require some societal action. But for the most part, it’ll happen naturally. People want to drive EVs.
First of all: they’re cheaper. Right now, a small EV will go 4 miles per kWh. In America this means a cost of anywhere from 1 to 6 cents per mile. That is pretty cheap. How cheap? A gallon of gas costs around $5. That’ll get you 56 miles in a Prius. That same $5 will get you between 83 miles and 500 miles in a Tesla Model 3. And we’re not talking the TRX here – we’re talking about the Prius. Electricity is just cheaper than gasoline.
And it will only get cheaper. Sustainable energy sources, like solar and tidal hydro, are becoming more efficient and also more common. This will drive down the price of electricity. Hell, in a lot of places, people can put their car right next to the solar or wind or geothermal station that charges it. On the other side, diminishing supply is going to make gasoline more expensive. This without even touching on worldwide disincentives to reduce the emissions that drive climate change.
One of the big reasons that people buy ICE cars is because EVs are both expensive and scarce. Not many people can pay 100k for a Rivian, let alone wait 18 months for delivery. But that is changing rapidly. We are almost through the Chip Desert, we can see the other side. Right now, a brand-new Nissan Leaf or Chevy Bolt will cost you, with incentives, under twenty grand – less than a new Civic. And there are a ton of used EVs in my area that are even cheaper. And a ton that are more expensive – because we now have EV sports cars, EV luxury cars, and whatever the hell the new Hummer is. There are EV offroaders incoming and EV motorcycles all around. Gone are the days when an EV meant a Model X or a SmartCar and nothing in between. EVs will only become more common – and more affordable. They are not just here to stay – they are what’s next.
Now, there are a few things that ICE cars can do better than present-day EVs. They are more resistant to very low temperatures. Parking your car outside in a hard winter will drain an EV’s battery. So you might see ICE cars stick around longer in places that have hard winters. Or you might find that the energy it takes to stick a heater in your garage is less than the energy you’ll use by parking out in the snow.
But there are a bunch of things that EVs can do better than any ICE car. What things? In a nutshell: most things.
EVs are dead simple to use. Which is what most driver’s want. And they can be fast as hell in a straight line. Which is what a lot of driver’s want. They have low-end torque on tap. There’s no torque curve, there’s no turbo lag. Push button, recieve acceleration. They just go. They might not know it, but the average person’s ideal daily is an EV.
EVs are also better for most specialized purposes. Take off-roading. The automotive world has spent over a hundred years trying to better answer this one question: How do you get power from one source (the engine) to multiple places (the wheels)? How do you get it there reliably, without losing power along the way? How do you only get it there when needed? How do you get it only in the amount needed? This has resulted in an entire history of development of 4WD and AWD systems, from Badger-FWD’s Battleship in 1908, to the Audi Quattro and AMC Eagle, to Haldex, to the incredible variety you see today.
Then came quad-motor EVs, and the problem just went away. You no longer have a distance between the engine and the wheels. You have motors at the wheels. Four wheels? Four motors. Power delivery is instantaneous and there are no moving parts in between. Power can be sent to any combination of wheels, at any level, with corrections occurring multiple times per second. This is more effective than even the most advanced 4WD/AWD systems. It is also considerably simpler. It requires no moving parts, which in turn require no servicing or repair. It also doesn’t take up all the space underneath the car that eats up an off-roader’s ground clearance and requires all those strategically-placed rock plates. Whatever place ICE has in the future, it is not with off-roaders. There have been many generations of 4WD/AWD since the Battleship – but overnight the Dreadnought of EVs has rendered them all obsolete.
Oh, and it also applies to the ability to a regular street car to handle in bad weather. EVs will be safer on wet pavement and on ice. This will save countless lives, every year. This is the apotheosis of full-time 4WD.
But most importantly, EVs are simply less complex than current vehicles. This might seem wrong to you. It is absolutely true. The internal combustion engine is complicated. A modern, reliable, fuel efficient engine is wildly complicated. It has a bunch of systems and subsystems. It has a bunch of moving parts. It requires lubrication and cooling. You fill it with a corrosive liquid and you keep filling it. It spins a thousand of rotations per minute, for tens of thousands of hours. It is literally a vessel for containing controlled explosions. And a lot of them are made by Kia!
A battery, however, has no moving parts. And an electrical motor spinning a shaft is pretty damn simple.
But what’s most complicated of all is having both systems, mechanical and electrical, operating in tandem. A modern car has an ICE engine making the power, but a ton of electrical stuff going on. Touchscreens and traction control. Air conditioners and butt-heating seats. All kinds of engine and fuel monitoring. Sensors. Processors. Tuning. Learning how to tune. And some big ape stepping on a pedal and twisting a wheel.
Perhaps a pure EV is not be as simple as the pure mechanical cars of old. But those cars haven’t existed in 30 years. A pure EV will end up being simpler and more reliable than any present-day ICE car. So long as the wiring harness doesn’t come from JLR.
There are other little benefits to EVs If you don’t need an engine, you don’t need that big heavy thing underneath the hood. EVs have trunks and frunks like mid-engined sports cars. And: they’re gigantic. The new F-150 Lightning is a full-size pickup that also has a full-sized trunk!
I won’t belabor the myriad ways it may be useful to have the Hummer’s 200kWh battery-on-wheels around. I will say that the coming of EVs will revolutionize RVs – and vanlife – exponentially.
And remember when I talked about cold-weather EVs? It’s also worth noting that EVs don’t suffer efficiency reduction at high altitiudes the way that ICE cars do. So if you live in Leadville, a cold Colorado winter might still be less of a problem than the thin mountaintop air. Consumers will have the opportunity to balance pros and cons – and the vast, vast majority of consumers will find the balance tipped towards EVs.
For the average person – the average driver, the average commuter, anybody – an electric vehicle will be preferable to a gas-powered vehicle. Government can step in to help make them cheaper, or to bolster supply. But it won’t have to do anything to support the demand. The market will shift all by its lonesome. EVs will come, and ICE will go away.
2. Alright then – why ICE?
Let’s be honest here. I’ve been talking about the average driver. I’ve been talking about commuters and getting from points A to B. What about the driving enthusiast? Are you a petrolhead? Is your ring tone the exhaust note from an LFA? Do you drive a sports car? A hot hatch? An E93 M3? An E30 M3? Do you check the cost of a GT4RS on BaT and compare it to what you could sell a kidney for on eBay? Would you fly a flag that proclaims your enthusiasm for manual transmissions if you didn’t think it would lead to conversations?
Do you, in short, love to drive?
Right now, there is one thing that ICE cars can do far better than any EV: BE FUN TO DRIVE.
For one thing, most EVs have not been designed to be fun to drive. They’ve been designed to be efficient, safe, and reliable. As it is, they often miss… 2 out of 3 of those. (Sorry, Elon.) It’s only in the last few years that Porsche has taken the first steps towards making EVs that are fun to drive with their Taycan. They’re promising first steps – but they are still a long ways away.
For another: EVs are heavy. You want your sports cars to be nimble. You want them to be light. A Taycan Turbo S weighs 5,100 pounds. That is two thousand pounds more than a Weissach’d GT3. That’s almost two GR 86s. That is three track-only Miatas in a trenchcoat! A Lotus Elise can weigh as little as 1,580 pounds. That is 220 pounds less than just the battery of an F-150 Lightning. They may be fast in a straight line, but in the corners they are pachyderms. A pachydrem does not get more graceful at two hundred miles an hour. Not even Andreas Preuninger can tune an elephant into a GT.
Thirdly: EVs are quiet. They don’t make any noise at all. That little hum your neighbor’s E-Tron makes? That comes out of little speakers, so you have some inlking when you’re neighbor’s backing out of the driveway without looking. Whereas ICE engines can make beautiful noises. Melodious. Roaring. Musical. Beautiful if you’re the one driving. Beautiful if you’re just outside and listening. People will spend a lot of money to get the right exhaust note from their car – and a lot of time to choose the one they want. It is generally considered that Porsche brought back the flat-six for the Cayman/Boxster GTS4.0 solely because the flat-four, though better performing, sounded like a Subaru. I really don’t care much about exhaust notes – and yet, when I first heard an LFA at Lime Rock, I lost my god damn mind.
And, fourthly: ICE cars are harder. The engine can throw something, or blow something, or burst something. Ask an EVO-9 owner: the engine can just blow up. They have to be cared for. Treated well. Listened to. They’re like caring for a living thing. A complex thing. A dangerous thing. And this is doubly, triply true if you’re driving a manual – which, by definition, EVs cannot have.
EVs can’t have a manual transmission because EVs can’t have a transmission. Remember what I said about how EVs don’t have to transmit power from an engine to the wheels? See that word ‘transmit’ there? Yep: no engine, no tranny. You can put a clutch pedal in an EV. You can straight-pipe it while you’re at it. Hell, make Jiffy Lube give you an oil change every 5,000 miles. It won’t be an affectation; my dude, it’ll just be sad.
The apotheosis of the modern Driver’s Car takes all four of these into account, and mates a high-revving naturally-aspirated engine with a lightweight chassis and a manual transmission. The 992 GT3. Some 2000s Ferraris – 612 Scagliettis, 599 Fioranos. A handful of Lamborghinis from the Unreliable Era. The RX-8 Rotary. The Honda S2000, the Integra Type R, the Toyota Mister Two. The Aston Martin Valkyrie, promising a swan song for internal combustion with redline at 11,000 RPM. And I feel like I’m forgetting one. What’s the answer, again?
However. Ahh, however. Most car enthusiasts are of the opinion that cars – ICE cars – have been getting less fun to drive all by their lonesome.
The big reason is: safety standards. A Miura did not have airbags. A Countach did not have crumple zones. An Urraco clearly was not designed with pedestrian impact safety in mind. Whereas an Aventador is pretty much as safe as a Corolla. (Arguably safer – because I would do things in a Corolla that I wouldn’t even do in the same parking lot as a Lamborghini.)
The second reason is: electronics. A 930 was as analog as a wheelbarrow. The 964 introduced ABS, power steering, the Tiptronic. The 996 brought water-cooling, an integrated dry sump, VVT. The current generation, 992, is about as complicated as a rocket ship that can do brain surgery. Among its available options are: active suspension management; dynamic chassis control; GPS-integrated front axle lift system; active exhaust management; rear axle steering; automatic headlights that alone are backed with more computing power than the Apollo missions; 360-degree cameras; parking assist; lane change assist; lane keep assist; night vision assist; traffic sign recognition; adaptive cruise control; and a full virtual heads-up display. It won’t make you breakfast but I assume that option is coming soon… so long as you don’t mind waffles that cost seven thousand dollars and come with deviated stitching.
Which brings us to the third reason: driver’s preference. Most people don’t want to drive over a nickel and tell what year it was minted. They want a car that is comfortable. They want a car with conveniences, from mandated ones like airbags, to common ones like air conditioning, to luxuries like air fresheners (Porsche ionizer: OEM, $350). They might want a car that is fun at the track – but they also want it to be safe and comfortable around town.
It is worth pointing out that the average person buying a fancy sports car is not a person in their 20s with a need for speed. It is a guy in his 70s who got the dealer’s discount because he owns the dealership. He has wanted to own a luxury sports car all his life. But he does not want to end his life because he hit a puddle while going Mach 3. And he doesn’t want to need a cortisone injection because the sport-tuned suspension turned his coccyx into soft-serve. Honestly what he really wants is a Lincoln Continental. He just doesn’t want to admit it. He wants to know that his car could rip up the track if he wanted to – and for everyone who sees him to know it too.
And finally, the fourth reason is: engine output. The Lamborghini 350 GT had a roaring 3.5L V12 engine that made 280 horsepower at the crank and 240 pound-feet of torque. That’s considerably less than Mercedes-AMG’s new engine, which makes 416hp and 396lbft out of 2 liters and only four cylinders. That legendary Lambo got to 60 in 6.8 seconds. For comparison, the quickest car in the world, a 992 Turbo S, will get to 60 in 2.2 seconds. 6.8 is slower than a lot of pickups trucks. It could get taken to Gapplebee’s by a mid-trim Camry.
Now, you can apply all this efficiency to larger engines. If you can get all that power out of a modern inline-four, what can you get out of a modern V12? Well, that quickest car in the world that I mentioned? Yeah, it’s a 6-cylinder. It turns out that the biggest limitation for vehicle acceleration (or top speed) isn’t the engine. It’s the tires. It’s aerodynamics. It’s making sure the vehicle can handle all that power wihout taking off and heading for the ionosphere. It’s making sure the transmission can handle all that torque without breaking in half, and that the enging can hold revs long enough to launch without eating itself. Adding six more cylinders would only do so much – and it would add weight and volume, which could even serve to slow you down.
There’s a similar dynamic at play with revs and gearing. Driving enthusiasts want a car which they can rev out. They want to have fun rowing gears. The power of the engines becomes a problem. You can’t rev out a powerful engine on a public road. On the new Cayman/Boxster GTS4.0, the top of first gear is 49 miles per hour. The top of second gear? 85. If I ever topped out in second I would lose my license. I’d live in first gear. I would shift about as often in the 6MT as in the automatic.
So, to recap: A modern driver wants their car to be a stripped-down track-day monster and also a luxury GT car. They want their car to be fast off the line and high-revving but also to be fun to wind out on back roads. They want it to have all the feeling of an analog car from a previous era – but deep down they know that if they drove such a car they would immediately kill themselves and so they want it to have every possible driver-assist technology hidden just out of sight.
It is absolutely incredible that there are so many cars which provide all or most of what these people want. A GT3 Touring with a manual will do 60mph in under 3 seconds, all while being more comfortable than my Civic, more luxurious than any car that would ever park next to my Civic, and more fun to drive on the street than my Civic. It is nothing short of a wonder. And there are dozens of cars which might prodive more in one area while sacrificing in another. But they all do make sacrifices. Because they want to be track cars, touring cars, and commuter cars, all at the same time.
One might surmise that what most people want is a light high-revving sports car… that is also a heavy, comfortable EV.
3. The Future Of ICE On The Track
There is no future for ICE in street cars. Zero. Zilch. They are going the way of the dodo. Hell, if there were enough batteries to go around right now, it would be gone already. One day I’ll tell my kids about how we use to fill our cars with gasoline!
But there is a future for ICE in track cars. So that people can wind out a high-revving engine. So that people can listen to the wail and the roar. There will be new track-only ICE cars made for as long as their are people to drive them. And people will buy them. Because track days are fun.
I firmly expect that track-only cars will excempt from the impending bans on new ICE automobiles. Because they won’t be street-legal, they’ll be exempted from a street car’s safety and emissions standards, too. These are just big go-karts. Who cares if they get 5 miles per gallon when they only go 50 miles a week?
They won’t be able to leave the race track, but on the track – oh, baby. They’ll make an Elise look like a G-class. They’ll make a GT2 look like a GTO. There’s a future for ICE, and it is in the hands of Caterham, Donkervoort, and Ariel. (And the Cobra and the Bull and the Dancing Horse – just so long as they can make a buck while doing it.)
Some car-guys loudly proclaim that Now! is the time to buy an ICE sports car, because they will not be made ever again. I would clarify: street-legal ICE sports cars will soon disappear. Track-only sports cars will be made forever. And they will get better.
Sure you could buy a GT500 and know that, in 30 years, you’ll still have fun with it at Lime Rock. But in 30 years there will be a GT5000 that you can make on a 3D printer, which weighs less, revs higher, and has just generally been patched more than Fallout: New Vegas. And I expect you will not want to race your old street-legal race car when such track-only race cars are available. At the most it’ll be a curiosity, whereas strapping into a track-only Lotus Egregious will be more fun than a Hitachi – and higher RPM.
There are may ways in which tracking ICE cars will be more fun than tracking an EV ever will be. There are many other ways where EVs will catch up – it’ll just take some time. But no matter what, people are surprisingly eager to embrace inefficient older technologies even when more efficient modern technologies are available.
Don’t believe me? Look at wristwatches. There are millions of luxury wristwatches made per year. The vast majority of these are mechanical. A mechanical watch is obsolete. Full stop. A $50,000 mechanical movement does not keep time as well as a $5 quartz movement. It will also require hundreds if not thousands of dollars of maintenance (and regularly, too) – whereas a quartz movement will require the occasional new battery, maybe. There are solid gold quartz watches. They look more luxurious than most luxury mechanical watches, which are cased in stainless steel. People do not want them. People want what their parents wanted – whether their parents got it, whether their parents did not. People like complex mechanical things because complex mechanical things are cool. People spend over a billion dollars a year on mechanical wristwatches. And mechanical wristwatches don’t make you feel like Ares, God Of War when you mash the gas pedal on a straight. Given the opportunity, people will buy ICE cars until the end of time.
4. The Future Of ICE On The Street
But wait. I’ve said that there’s no future for ICE in street cars. What gives?
But I’ve also said that people want their cars to be everything. They want their sports cars to be Grand Tourers. They want their light fast cars to be big and heavy. And they want to be able to drive their track-day cars around town. Because peacocking.
They might not realize it, but what they want is for their car to be EVs and ICE at the same time. The best of both worlds.
But wait – don’t those already exist? Aren’t those just hybrids?
No, no. That’s a single drivetrain with both ICE and EV components. It is not the best of both worlds; at best it’s an elegant compromise, useful to us in this period of transition. And at worst – and to most enthusiasts – it fucking sucks.
The second type of future ICE car will be a car that has both an EV and an ICE drive train, independently.
Let’s think of a hypothetical spors car. Imagine your favorite car – Bugatti, McLaren, Dusenberg, Bug-Eye Spirte. Under the hood, or mid-, or rear-, there’ll be an ICE engine. A monster. Revving to 10,000? Revving to fucking 20? V8? V12? I-12? W-16? The future belongs to the hobbyists. Their engined will be maginative. Baroque. Beautiful and wonderful and dumb. They’re gonna get real weird with it. I absolutely cannot wait.
And at the front axle there’ll be a little motor. And wherever the ICE engine isn’t – under the hood, inside the trunk – there’ll be a battery.
When you’re out on the street, you will drive in EV Mode. You probably won’t be fast. You’ll just be pretty as hell as you cruise around town or drive on over to the track. People will see you. They just won’t hear you, because turning on an ICE engine on the street will be against the law.
And when, if ever, you get to the track, you’ll flip the switch over to ICE Mode. And the electrical motor will go silent. And that archaic internal combustion engine will roar to life – in the little game-preserve of its endangered species, where emissions restrictions are suspended, and ICE engines can sing louder than ever before.
I expect that the height of technology and luxury in such vehicles will be the disconnectable eletric motor and battery. Those things are heavy! You don’t want to drag them around the track if you don’t need to. So they’ll be removable. EV Mode over to the track; pop out the battery and even the motor; put in a few gallons of 105 Octane; and roar.
(Call it a… plug-out hybrid?)
That is the future of the ICE engine – to be used sometimes at the track, and often to remind people on the street that you could use it at the track if you wanted to. Which is what the vast majority of supercars are used for now. Their drivers will notice no change at all – except out on the street, they won’t have to worry about MPG.
The environment will get its emissions reduction. The gods will get their revs. The average driver will get an EV – and petrolheads, we will get our ICE.