Improved ICEs or all-in on EVs: which is better for the future?

Internal combustion engines have served humanity well for over a century. But is it time to finally retire this venerable technology in favor of EVs?
Christopher McFadden
Should we give ICEs a second chance?


  • You might be interested to know that electrical vehicles (EVs) are as old, if not older, than internal combustion engines (ICEs).
  • Yet, despite their relative age, ICEs managed to dominate transportation.
  • But could the EV be about to topple the mighty ICE?

ICEs have served us well. In fact, for various reasons, our modern world would not be possible without them; we are, not to put it too mildly, entirely dependent. But, they are not exactly the most environmentally friendly machines, as we are sure you are more than aware.

For this reason, many consumers, policymakers, environmentalists, and manufacturers have suggested that EVs could be a potential "silver bullet", allowing us to keep the benefits of engines while also getting us closer to net zero. However, EVs come with their own unique issues and environmental impacts, too.

After all, they must be made of stuff that needs to be mined, refined, assembled, "fuelled," maintained and eventually disposed of. Some argue that, because of this, improving on existing ICEs could be a faster route to net zero than replacing all of the ICE-powered vehicles with a new EV.

So, which of the two options should we be focussing on? Or, just perhaps, should a compromise be made between the two? Let's take a look.

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EVs vs ICEs

But before we get into all that, let's make a quick and dirty comparison of the two technologies. We'll break down comparisons briefly into ten major areas. We'll also keep score as we address each point in turn. Which technology will win? Place your bets...

1. Technology, maturity, and cost

Winner: Possibly ICE (0-1)

ICEs are a much more mature technology, with a robust and well-diversified supply chain of new, aftermarket, and scrap parts. They are usually, though not always, cheaper to buy new, and secondhand ICEs are often very affordable while secondhand EVs tend to be more expensive. Both new and used EVs will undoubtedly drop in price with time, but at present, EVs are generally also more expensive to purchase.

The total cost of operation (TCO) of each type of vehicle has been hotly debated, with some concluding that ICEs have a lower TCO. However, the way the costs are distributed is very different in each case.

For an EV, most of the TCO is generated upfront, in the purchase price, after this, it costs very little to keep an EV on the road and they will last, on balance, a lot longer than an ICE, making them much cheaper to run the longer they are on the road. The key to keeping the EV TCO low, therefore, is to keep it on the road for as long as possible.

With an ICE, the cost is spread out more evenly over the entire lifetime of the vehicle, which means the longer an ICE is on the road, the greater the total cost.

2. Efficiency

Winner: EVs (1-1)

EVs are more energy efficient. Combustion engines lose a lot of energy through heat, noise, etc. This results, at best, in ICEs delivering 40% efficiency (as in the case of the now much-maligned diesel engine, for example). EVs also suffer from system losses but can be more than 70% efficient.

3. Performance and driving experience

Winner: EVs (1-2)

Driving experience is partly a personal affair and, therefore, subjective. That being said, EVs are generally considered a more comfortable ride. Thanks to their near-instant torque, EVs are silent and have smoother acceleration and braking. They also tend to have a lower center of gravity, which provides better handling and responsiveness.

ICEs, on the other hand, have defined the driving experience, which means that many people consider elements such as excessive noise, for example, to be an important a part of the driving experience. High-end engines, like those found in top-of-the-line sports cars, currently offer unparalleled performance compared to most EVs, although relatively few people drive these.

4. Fuelling infrastructure and convenience

Winner: Depends on the circumstances (2-3)

ICE fuel stations can be found in most parts of the world and at convenient distances apart. Refueling is typically completed within minutes. However, fuel prices are highly volatile and can change quickly, depending on fluctuating supply and demand, geopolitics, and conflict.

On the other hand, EVs have a far less well-developed network of public charging stations. They are also considerably slower to "fill up" than conventional ICE "gas stations."

However, EV owners can recharge their EVs from the comfort of their own homes, scheduling the charging for when electricity is at its cheapest, while ICE owners generally cannot drive around endlessly looking for cheaper gas.

It is also likely only a matter of time before EV charging times are shortened and more public charging stations are available (in many places, chargers are being inserted into street light poles and other existing infrastructure).

5. Maintenance and reliability

Winner: EVs (2-4)

The engines of ICE vehicles are incredibly complex and precise pieces of engineering with many moving parts. Over time these parts become worn, require regular maintenance and eventually replacement. They also require regular servicing through oil changes, air filter replacements, etc., to ensure they work efficiently.

EVs, on the other hand, have considerably fewer moving parts. While more complex in some ways, they require much less ongoing maintenance. However, ICEs have been around so long that a large network of trained, experienced professionals can perform such maintenance relatively easily. EV mechanics, however, are much thinner on the ground, although this will change.

However, all things being equal, it is a good bet that an EV will be cheaper to maintain and repair over time.

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6. Range

Winner: ICEs (3-4)

ICE vehicles typically have ranges of between 240 miles (386 km for gas guzzlers) to up to 703 miles (1,132 km) for more fuel-efficient engines. By comparison, an average EV today typically tops out at about 219 miles (301 km), although some models can achieve more than double that. While EV ranges are constantly increasing, this is still an inherent "Achilles Heel" of the technology.

One caveat is that the majority of EVs on the road (most EVs are in China) are cheaper, lower range EVs, while more expensive EVs, like high-end Teslas, tend to have higher ranges.

A lot depends, however, on what you are using the vehicle for. If you are primarily using it for a daily commute and charging at home, then even 219 miles is likely more than enough, while the lower EV range is more of a hindrance for long-distance travel. EV range is also affected by temperature and battery degradation over time.

7. Energy security

Winner: Depends on the nation's energy mix (4-5)

While a nation's energy security is not typically something you think about when purchasing a vehicle, it is a long-term consideration that should perhaps be considered, especially in relation to cost. If your nation has a ready supply of fossil fuels and processing plants, then ICE engines are not too much of an issue for energy security. However, if your nation is reliant on imports, this can be a very serious problem over time.

EVs, on the other hand, can be "refueled" using electricity generated from any source. Of course, geopolitical events can and will impact EVs, too, if power plants rely on fossil fuels.

However, if a nation has more renewable sources that can generate power domestically, the price of running them will tend to be more stable over the long term. The availability of renewables also, of course, impacts how sustainable EVs are. If the electricity to run them is generated by burning fossil fuels, they become less sustainable.

8. Resale value

Winner: EVs (4-6)

As we've touched on earlier, ICEs have had a longer time on the pitch, so to speak, and have developed a robust and extensive secondhand market. For most economies, this typically means that ICE vehicles reduce in price over time as they age. We say most, as some places, like Turkey, tend to be the exception that proves the rule.

While EVs, being the newer kid on the block, have a more variable secondhand market, the fact that they suffer less wear and tear means that their secondhand price tends to hold up very well. In fact, in some areas, a much bigger issue is a shortage of secondhand EVs, making them very expensive.

9. Environmental impact

Winner: On balance EVs (4-7)

The environmental impact of ICEs is well documented and probably drummed into your head daily so we won't go on about it here. But EVs, often touted as "greener," are not without their skeletons in the closet. While they don't produce greenhouse gases "from the tailpipe," significant emissions are generally associated with their construction and charging over time.

Like ICEs, EVs also contain metals and other materials that require mining (some, like lithium, which is mined in environmentally ruinous circumstances) and processing, which is very bad for the environment.

Since most questions on environmental impact involve "greenhouse gas" emissions, EVs are generally considered the "cleaner" technology of the two, especially if the electricity used to run them is generated from renewable sources. This will become the case as renewable energy and nuclear power become more prevalent.

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ICE or EV? You decide.

Overall winner: EVs

Should ICE engines be banned completely?

Anyone serious about discussing the pros and cons of EVs and ICEs should consider areas where each technology is better (as we have done above). Manufacturers on either side, or both sides, of the fence, could do well to take inspiration from the other technology.

But since there is a strong push to phase ICEs out of the market, it seems the onus will be on ICEs to adapt or die. So, how could ICE manufacturers do that? By closing the gap in some key areas, that's how.

The first is fuel efficiency. Improving this beyond 40% will take some radical design changes to ICEs. Many innovators are working on this, with notable improvements, including companies like Liquid Piston, which seeks to give ICEs 10x more power and increase efficiency by more than 30%. This company is leaning in hard on rotary engines that could, in theory, dramatically change the ICE landscape.

Existing options, like liquid petroleum gas (LPG), could also be prioritized as a stopgap. Perhaps even modification of ICE engines to handle liquid hydrogen?

Other angles include improving ways to combust gases to improve fuel consumption, including, as we've previously written about, transient plasma ignition. If companies like Transient Plasma Systems (TPS) are successful in this area, we could see drastically more efficient and less polluting ICEs in the future. The best part is that TPS' solution can be retrofitted to existing engines rather than requiring a new vehicle.

The second is their environmental impact (namely emissions). After all, this is why they are currently under pressure from policymakers. The "secret sauce" here might be if we could continue combusting fuel (with improved efficiency) but with limited impact on the planet.

Biofuels get us some of the way, but other companies, like Stellantis, are working on synthetic "e-fuels" derived from carbon capture. If production could be scaled sufficiently, we could see a world where the harmful emissions of ICEs are also used as the raw products for their operation—a "circular" economy.

The third is maintenance and long-term reliability. Somewhat linked to the first point above, ICE engines would benefit greatly from reduced complexity and/or integration of longer-lasting materials to drastically reduce the need for expensive maintenance costs.

If ICEs can last longer, this would dramatically reduce their environmental impact from the cradle to the grave.

Energy security is the fourth significant factor. The recent massive fluctuations in energy prices across the European continent have, finally, focussed minds on energy security. This is a genuine issue for both individual bank balances and a nation's capacity to keep its economy running.

If national supplies can be bolstered with domestic production of synthetic or biofuels (although this comes with its own sustainability and emissions issues), this could possibly provide a future for ICEs.

Improved ICEs or all-in on EVs: which is better for the future?
Has the ICE had its day? Don't bet on it.

And that is your lot for today.

So, what do you think? Has the ICE had its day? Or can it be saved from the scrap heap? Or perhaps we need something completely different, like fuel cell technology?

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