In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T. Suddenly, affordable, mass-produced, internal combustion engine cars were within the financial reach of Americans.
The world was never the same. The internal combustion engine — ICE, for short — changed where people lived and worked and reshaped American life. Its impact extended beyond cars; ICEs allowed us to mechanize agriculture and warfare. It’s hard to imagine how the 20th century would have turned out had the ICE never been born.
Now, like other once-revolutionary technologies, the ICE may be on its way out. Cheaper, better batteries and revitalized urban centers are making electric vehicles a viable option for the future. And not a moment too soon. Given the urgency of acting now to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, Britain, France, Norway and India have already committed to phasing out new ICE vehicles over the next generation. China is promising to do the same, and Germany is considering it as well.
The United States should climb on in — with California taking the lead.
The idea of tapering off ICE vehicles is not new. Nearly five decades ago, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the founder of Earth Day, proposed federal legislation to replace the ICE by 1975. Back then, Los Angeles and other cities were choking on smog and America’s dependence on foreign oil was choking our economy.
Regulations since then — in the U.S. and elsewhere — have driven huge improvements in ICE technology. Today’s cars are more than 90 percent cleaner than those of 40 years ago, with respect to smog-forming pollutants. And today’s ICEs are a lot more powerful, efficient and reliable than engines of the past.
Some people think we can squeeze further improvements out of ICEs. Mazda, for example, recently announced a breakthrough that could lead to a 20 to 30 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.
But that’s just a spit in the ocean compared to the immense amount of work we have to do to safeguard our climate and clean our air.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad car companies are striving for efficiency. But no matter how good they get, ICEs can only take us so far down the road to a cleaner, healthier environment. Only 14 to 30 percent of the energy consumed in an ICE goes toward moving the vehicle, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Most of the rest — more than half of the total energy in every gallon of gas — is lost as heat. The built-in inefficiency of ICEs means that no incremental improvement is going to get us the dramatic reductions in carbon pollution that we will need in the future.
ICEs have other limitations too. They don’t allow us to take advantage of this nation’s enormous solar and wind energy resources to power transportation as readily as a transition to batteries or fuel cells will. They won’t stop the tailpipe pollution that still fouls the air in our cities. And they won’t create the kind of flexibility in vehicle design that is possible with electric motors.
Electric vehicles can run on 100 percent clean energy. Their charging time is getting shorter and shorter, and you can be sure that as the market grows for these cars around the world, it will get shorter still. And they are poised to take over the roads. In fact, the U.S. risks becoming a laggard on the world stage, incentivizing carmakers to continue providing an outmoded product scorned by the biggest markets around the world.
That’s where California comes in. The Golden State has already led the nation toward a better future: Clean car standards adopted here were subsequently adopted in 13 other states and have been a huge source of emissions reduction already. California can set the standard once again by demanding the phaseout of ICE vehicles over the next 15–20 years.
Why do we need to decide this now? Transitioning from ICEs to electric vehicles will require new infrastructure. We need to encourage and spur investment in recharging stations, grid improvements and vehicle technologies to make the transition smooth.
No nation embraced the ICE as fully, or was transformed by it as completely, as the United States. Clinging to the ICE now will only cause us to miss the next transformation. As other nations begin to take actions to create a clean, electric future, America must leave the past in the rearview mirror. California, take the wheel.