Cold as ICE: Internal Combustion vs The World Pt.1

By Baraza JM

Electric vehicles, commonly referred to as EVs; but more specifically battery electric vehicles (BEVs, but we’ll refer to them as EVs henceforth) have had a rather colorful history. The technology is acting like a startup, displaying startup excitement and aspirational fervor while facing startup teething problems; but electric mobility is as old as internal combustion.

And that is why EVs are still at the startup stage more than a century after inception: because of internal combustion.

Oddly enough, back then in the late 19th century, electric power was preferred over petroleum power for the same reasons they are being touted today: quieter, smoother, more comfortable, and lack of drivetrain complexity; but they suffered the same shortcomings they are being derided for today: Henry Ford’s gasoline cars were cheaper to produce, there was a notable lack of convenient and sustainable support infrastructure and range anxiety stemming from stunted technological developments surrounding energy storage was a clear and present difficulty. The batteries weren’t up to scratch in other words, and there were few charging points.

Oddly enough, back then in the late 19th century, electric power was preferred over petroleum power for the same reasons they are being touted today

Does this imply that for more than 130 years there has been no development in electric propulsion? Yes and no. Yes, because of the scenario outlined in the preceding paragraph, and no because of Tesla and the Chinese automotive industry.

It is clear that internal combustion trounced electromotive mobility, and oddly enough, the situation persists this deep into the 21st century where the need for alternative, non-oil-based power sources for locomotion has been impressed upon us based on two key factors: dwindling reserves of crude oil – which is a geopolitical flash point that may have fueled a war or two – and the fact that global warming has escalated in status to almost becoming an extinction-level event.

With that being said, it therefore followed that EVs suddenly came to the fore of the public consciousness and this is where things took an interesting turn. It was clear that despite its age but because of its history, the technology was long in the tooth but nascent in development. It simply wasn’t ready, and to some extent still isn’t.

This unusual characteristic had the effect of splitting the motoring public right down the middle. On one hand, we had the proponents who believed the time for change was nigh and internal combustion had to be put to rest at whatever cost; and on the other we had the opponents who believed this cost didn’t make any sense at all and that electric propulsion never caught on because it is detestable and that hasn’t changed yet.

Both sides are right and both sides are wrong, but not for the reasons you’d think.

Pro-electric Push: An Agenda?

It does arouse suspicion how forcefully EVs are being forced upon motorists. Electric vehicles do offer a viable alternative to internal combustion – again for the original reasons: they are smoother, quieter, more comfortable, less complex, and electrified torque is more instantaneous than burnt torque, no matter the number of cubic inches or turbo population attached. However, does anybody remember the horse; that friendly, handsome, and idealistic means of mobility that preceded the motor vehicle? The horse quickly sunk into irrelevance because cars simply made more sense from a practicality, usability, and maintenance point of view. It simply faded out in favor of the automobile in a natural segue from this to that.

So why is there a need to deploy walls of texts, charts, figures, statistics and where diplomacy fails, brutal legislation to phase out internal combustion? Why is there a need to force people out of petrol and diesel, rather than let electric propulsion evolve its way into superiority just like internal combustion did 100 years ago? Most importantly, why is there a complete disregard for alternative sources of motive force just to let electricity have its time in the light? These might sound like the ingredients of a conspiracy theory stew, but they are questions that need answering. We will get to alternative fuels in a moment…

Anti-electric Stance: Lawless Luddites?

Henry Ford revolutionized the automotive industry through the conception of the factory line, thus bringing to reality mass production and the economies of scale, and the industry has never looked back since.

The motor vehicle was democratized and thus entered a very special and unique relationship between man and machine that has lasted exactly a century. Of all of man’s inventions, creations and technological innovations, none can claim to have entered his psyche, his life, his work and his ability while at the same time drawing affinity, affection and dependence as much as the motor vehicle, except maybe for the smartphone.

The smartphone may be an extension of his right arm, but the connection has never been personalized. People don’t give their smartphones nicknames and refer to them as “she”. Smartphones are not considered family members in certain circumstances, nor do they draw as much emotion and fanfare when bought or sold compared to motor vehicles.

We do not have an entire award-winning TV series with GDP-sized budgets dedicated to the joys of mobile telephony. We do not have world championships, nor entertaining brand wars, or heated opinions (yes, yes, I know about iPhone vs Samsung but this will never be as romantic as Ford vs Ferrari at Le Mans), and… ahem…. Despite claims to the contrary, a mobile phone will not attract a partner as fast as a car will.

What is it about cars that got us here and why has it elicited so much division that we have to have laws to get people out of one technology and into another? It all boils down to the senses…

Phones are nothing more than an oblong slab of glass and plastic. Anything beyond that goes down to the content within that phone, so it is almost safe to say, on the surface, all smartphones are the same. They make and receive calls, they send and receive messages, they browse the internet and they play host to a variety of apps.

The motor vehicle is a different kettle of fish. It attacks all the senses relentlessly. Car design may have become a bit generic lately but there is still variety; if not for the designer’s desire to wow his audience, then out of necessity: I mean, a convertible Sunday driver, a daily limousine, and a getaway off-roader all look different. Cars have engines in different layouts – I, V and W, rotary among others – in different stages of tune, running different fuels and with different exhaust systems, so they do provide a myriad of sounds ranging from the cloying clatter to the soulfully sonorous. They tickle our tactile receptors with crystal gearshifts, lambskin dashboards, carbon fiber steering wheels, leather seats, Alcantara headliners to name just but a few.

There is the smell of half-burnt petrol that a lot of us are familiar with –  a toxic fume, yes, but like a lot of toxic things, the inhalation thereof is a guilty pleasure people admit to while giggling behind covered mouths (please don’t inhale exhaust fumes, it’s poison). 

While at no single point is anyone encouraged to put anything automotive in their mouth, smell and taste are very closely related so we’ll round this off on that point.

So here we have a very expensive acquisition that assaults all your five senses, more often than not in a pleasant way, for you exercised your powers of decision with care. You need it, you want it, you love it and you share life experiences with it: this is not motor vehicle ownership; this is a marriage from a Noel Roberts novella.


Motor vehicles are highly technical objects, but they are also highly emotive subjects. What EV proponents have been ignoring in the Luddite thesis is this exact thing.

The two biggest failings of EVs thus far have been range anxiety and charging times (cost is an easily adjustable variable, especially from the end user side of things) both of which Tesla and the Chinese motoring industry are rectifying at a pace best described as “encouraging”.

However, a lot of manufacturers are still toning down their electrical aspirations following a panicked entry after the initial market reception to Elon Musk’s innovations pointed in the direction that anyone not electrified within a decade will be quickly rendered obsolete.

The subsequent downturn stems from flagging sales and a sharp drop in interest from buyers. Why is that? Why was there a spike in interest quickly followed by a dip?

It’s the senses. This is what Luddites are clinging to and what the average motorist has realized is an immeasurable parameter in quantifying the value of a motor vehicle. Be it the tinny beep of a three-cylinder, the unrefined shout of a four-cylinder, the lusty howl of a six-cylinder, the deep rumble of a V8, the harsh scream of a V10 or the operatic wail of a V12: how a car attacks your senses will always matter.

EVs produce very little sound, and whatever little sound they produce is one that no one wants to hear. That’s what people are missing.

What Now?

Well, EVs are here to stay, that’s for sure. But it will not be at the expense of internal combustion. The future is shaping up unpredictably and despite what doomsayers have declared, and despite the rather myopic and oppressive legislations banning internal combustion outright, a shaky truce will be reached. What this future entails is discussed in the next article, part 2 of this series.

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