Electric vehicles may have the appearance of being a recent development, but in fact they have just as long a history as those powered by gasoline. Electric vehicles can be traced as far back as the mid-19th century, and by the beginning of the 20th century, electricity-powered vehicles were often the automobile of choice compared to either steam- or gas-powered alternatives. It wasn’t until Henry Ford’s development of the Model-T and the assembly line in 1908 that gasoline-powered vehicles began to take over as a cheaper and more preferred method of transport.
The battle between gasoline and electrified powertrains continues to this day, with the major impetus now being environmental considerations. The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that in 2016 about 23% of all greenhouse gases (GHG) in America originated from light-duty vehicles and medium- to heavy-duty trucks. Canadian figures are considered similar to the US, and globally about 15% of all GHG emissions come from transportation (this particular figure includes airplanes and ships).
It’s clear that the impacts of our changing climate cannot be mitigated without significant reductions in GHG emissions from personal transportation. To address this, automakers have directed their attention toward powertrains—currently, those are gas, electric, and hydrogen.
Electric: Advancing at light speed
While battery electric vehicles appear at first glance to have the upper hand given that they do not directly produce emissions, they still face some of the same challenges today as they faced over a century ago when compared to gas.
The two most pressing challenges are driving range and charging infrastructure. Early modern EVs such as the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV had driving ranges of a little over 100 km and the lack of available charging stations restricted them to being little more than short-haul city vehicles or secondary cars in a suburban driveway. Newer EVs—such as the Chevrolet Bolt, Tesla Model S, Hyundai Kona EV and the second-generation Nissan Leaf—offer ranges of up to 400 km on a single charge and have made significant strides toward removing range anxiety.
Additionally, EV charging infrastructure continues to grow in density and expand in reach thanks to a combination of both government advocacy and private investment. It’s now possible for longer-range EVs to travel across the country through the strategic placement of charging stations; and development of even wider and more comprehensive charging infrastructure is continuing.
Gasoline: Squeezing every last drop
Despite the EV evolution, it would be wrong to suggest the gasoline-powered engine is on its way out. With billions of dollars of R&D money still being invested into making a century-old technology as efficient as it can be, the internal-combustion engine may still have a place for many years to come.
In many cases, it begins by putting new vehicles on a diet.
In 2015 Ford made significant headlines when they launched their 13th generation F-150 pickup and announced that they had used “military-grade” aluminum for the truck body instead of steel. The switch reduced its overall weight by 750 lb compared to the previous version, improving fuel economy as a result. Use of lightweight materials has increased across the industry, since efficiency gains benefit not only gasoline models, but also any electric models that share the same platform.
Engine performance has also been the subject of significant R&D. Thermal efficiency is often seen as an area for improvement since even the most thermally efficient engines such as those found in the Toyota Prius or Hyundai Ioniq are only rated slightly above 40%. With so much heat loss, any improvement in retaining heat and using less energy would work toward the reduction of fuel consumption and carbon emissions overall.
Another exciting development to keep an eye on comes from Mazda as they get set to launch their SkyActiv-X engine within the next year. The holy grail of gasoline technology has been finding a way to combine the efficiency of compression engines that are fuelled by diesel gasoline, but generate more harmful particulates in their exhaust, with the higher burn rate but lower fuel economy of the internal combustion engine. SkyActiv-X has found a way to combine these two methods and early testing has proven to be very positive.
Hydrogen: Not just vaporware
Though most of the public’s attention is on gasoline and electric powertrains, a third propulsion technology continues to receive R&D funding and is in fact the preferred choice of certain auto industry executives.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology offers an appealing combination of zero-emission driving and quick fuelling times. Hydrogen storage tanks on FCEV vehicles can be filled in about 3–4 minutes and typically offer a driving range of about 500 km as seen in current FCEV vehicles such as the Hyundai Tuscon FCEV and the Toyota Mirai (not available in Canada). The blending of hydrogen gas and oxygen within the fuel cell creates an electric charge to propel the vehicle with only water vapour (H2O) coming out of the tailpipe.
The appeal of FCEV technology is tempered by various factors, most notably among them being an almost non-existent infrastructure network of hydrogen fuelling stations. Developing the infrastructure could be accelerated through greater FCEV interest, but interest depends on available infrastructure thus creating a classic chicken-or-egg scenario. However, it would be unwise to completely rule out the possibility given the unique combination of advantages fuel cell technology has over its two competitors.
There isn’t enough evidence to determine which, if any, of the three competing propulsion technologies today will prevail over the others in the next decade or two. Given their individual contribution to the long-term goal of reducing GHG emissions from personal automotive transportation, it is beside the point to declare a victor amongst them—rather, it is the consumers and the environment who are the ultimate winners.
By: Eric Novak
Eric Novak is an automotive and environmental journalist and is the co-creator of the Canadian Green Car Award. He also runs a media, marketing and communications company and teaches part time at Seneca College in the Faculty of Business. Eric loves to search out great stories about the world we live in and proudly considers himself to be a glass is half-full kind of guy.