Mercedes tells the story of Bertha Benz

End of the internal combustion engine?

14 October 2019
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, our Julius Sumner Miller Fellow, considers the end of internal combustion engines
I’ve been a motorhead ever since I was legally allowed to drive. Often I would drive for hours on the winding country roads behind Wollongong, instead of going to my university lectures. I have test driven 4WDs through 15 of the 17 deserts of Australia. I *love* driving.
Daimler car advert

I’m also very aware of climate change. I wrote my first story on it back in 1981 (back then it was called the greenhouse effect).

That’s why I was thrilled to read the headline, ‘Daimler abandons internal combustion engine development to focus on electric vehicles’. Daimler is a car, truck, bus and motorcycle manufacturer, and owns numerous brands including Mercedes-Benz.  

The key word is ‘development’.

In the 1990s, the internal combustion engine was developed to incredible heights, thanks to a mixture of environmental concerns and cheap computer technology. I drove a small 1,400 cc Japanese car for quarter of a century, before I swapped it for a large 3,800 cc Australian-made station wagon in 1996. The engine had about 3.5 times more power, while the car body was twice the weight and provided much better safety (both active and passive). Yet – and I was absolutely astonished by this – the fuel economy was about 20% better, while the engine emissions were about 80% lower!

This is what ‘development’ means.

But it is not just Daimler that is switching its vast resources from the internal combustion engine to the electric vehicle. Volvo and VW have also announced that they are putting all their future intellectual development into the electric vehicle.

The headline ran, ‘VW: 2040 last burner from the band’. One word in the headline really caught my eye – ‘burner’. Fossil fuels get converted into energy by burning. In Australia, the car emissions standards are high, and we have the advantage of a small population in a big country. Even so, in the cities of Sydney and Melbourne, the estimated number of fine particle pollution deaths in 2015 was over 2,200.

I read this exciting story in the well-respected German motor magazine, ‘Auto Motor Und Sport’. Germans love their cars. They invented the motorcar, in 1888 Bertha Benz undertook the first ever road trip in a car, their drivers have to go through a far more rigorous driving test than ours, and there is no speed limit on the autobahn. This journal has the motto, ‘Petrol in their blood’. Every fortnight, this journal gives a high-quality up-to-date market summary that includes critical analysis, observation of the latest trends, service tips, and environmental topics.

Some 13,000 readers voted to answer the question, ‘Should automakers really stop developing combustion engines?’ Some 30% voted ‘No’, but 44% voted for ‘Yes. The time of the burners is over. End of story.’

But besides fewer deaths from air pollution and lower greenhouse emissions, electric cars have another advantage. There is a nice coincidence that 20 kWh (kilowatt hours) will either run your car for 100 km, or run your house for a day. We are heading for a time when the car will not only provide transport, but will spend the rest of its time plugged into the grid, either storing or delivering electricity.