he gasoline engine is a fast-moving target. In fact, the irony may be that it is moving faster than some of the technologies that are threatening to replace it. Carbon emissions of U.S. autos are on track to decline by 2.1 percent per year, while emissions from power plants are falling at a projected rate of less than 1 percent per year, says DeCicco. It is these plants, two thirds of which use fossil fuels, that power electric cars. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists has stated in a report that battery-powered vehicles do not hold a clear greenhouse advantage over the best gasoline or hybrid models in U.S. states that rely heavily on coal-generated electricity.
Even the average gasoline engine may soon approach its electric rival in terms of grams of carbon dioxide released per mile. “With nothing borrowed from Star Trek, we’ve developed a Ford Focus program with carbon dioxide output of 97 grams per kilometer,” Apostolos says of Ricardo. “In the 2040 time frame, we’ll get that to 30 grams, which makes internal combustion engines competitive with electric vehicles.” And then of course there is cost: Batteries need to become 10 times cheaper, and improve their energy density by 100 times, to match gasoline. The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, for example, carries a 16 kilowatt-hour battery, which accounts for about $8,000 of the car’s cost. It stores the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. “A scalable business case is so far away,” says DeCicco.
Which is not to say that electric and hydrogen development programs are not worthwhile—they clearly are. But, in fighting the gasoline engine, they will have to deal with more than just an outstanding performer: They will have to vanquish a true engineering chameleon.
Norman Mayersohn is an editor for the Automobiles section of The New York Times. His transportation fleet includes a Prius hybrid (the family’s seventh Prius), a 1967 Camaro SS350, a well-used Volvo station wagon, and two motorcycles. A former drag racer and organic farmer, he is always fascinated by learning how things work.