Internal combustion: the way of the future

Just when you thought we were on the verge of an electric car revolution, it turns out that the internal combustion engine isn’t leaving anytime soon. The winner of this year’s Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize has been announced, and underneath that aerodynamic, space-aged body is the familiar gas-guzzling engine that your grandfather would recognize. That is, if he could find where they put it.

Weighing in at 376 kg and looking more like a spaceship than a commuter vehicle, the Edison2 Very Light Car took home US$5 million of the shared US$10 million prize. The four seat, four wheel, single cylinder machine gets 2.29 L/100 km — a full 0.06 L less than the X Prize goal of 2.35 L/100km!

The key to success? Low weight and extreme streamlining. reports it as “the most aerodynamic vehicle ever tested in the General Motors’ wind tunnel.”

Originally conceptualized as an electric vehicle, the Edison2 design team “realized internal combustion made more sense” and decided to opt for a single cylinder gas engine instead of the “hundreds and hundreds of pounds of batteries” an electric car needs.

Although the Very Light Car will probably never make it into showrooms, Oliver Kuttner, the founder of Edison 2, never had that in mind. The goal of the car was to show how their “Light Car principles can dramatically improve efficiency for electric, hybrid, diesel and natural gas systems.”

This kind of innovation is exactly the goal of the Ansari X Prize foundation. Some of you may remember how in 2004 the SpaceShipOne took home US$10 million for being the first private spacecraft “capable of carrying three people to 100 km above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks.”

The X Prize foundation aims to “bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” by “creating and managing prizes that drive innovators to solve some of the greatest challenges facing the world today.”

The problem is that neither electric nor super light-weight cars are feasible on a large scale. Thankfully, Gordon Murray, the legendary designer of the McLaren F1 hypercar, unveiled his own plans for a gas powered city car in early September. However, instead of breaking the bank by using space-aged materials, Murray’s T.25 is made mostly of cheap, recycled materials and can be “built in a shed.”

Made of “glass fibre, recycled plastic bottles and steel tubes” and “using a fifth of the material required to build a conventional car” the T.25 weighs 574 kg while still getting 3.18 L/100 km. The car can seat three, with the driver front and center and two passengers in the rear.

The real breakthrough lies in the iStream manufacturing process. The car uses only the equivalent of C$47 worth of steel, so there are no “polluting parts [as] used in conventional factories.” The low cost coupled with the ability to “[modify] the size of the frame or the shape and colour of the body panels [ . . . ] by rewriting the software” leaves you with an extremely realistic answer to current transportation problems.

With millions of gasoline powered vehicles on the roads and an extensive support system, it doesn’t seem like the combustion engine is leaving us any time soon. The CO2 emissions are harmful, but we have yet to see what kind of pollution large scale electric car production and charging may cause. After all, batteries come with their own environmental hazards, such leaking their toxic chemicals into the soil and then into the water system. Gasoline cars could very well be the lesser of two evils — and the way of the future.