Forget the 2040 sales ban, petrol engines are FIGHTING BACK?

Image of Alisdair Suttie
Author: | Updated: 31 Aug 2017 04:44

Ever since Michael Gove’s announcement that new petrol and diesel car sales would be banned from 2040, there has been a tailspin feeling among drivers. After all, when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs makes that kind of pronouncement, we should listen. Shouldn’t we?

Can the internal combustion engine stage a fightback?

Yes, we should listen to what the government has to say, but we should also take in the wider discussion rather than whip ourselves into the panic that the broader media have seen fit to indulge in.

After all, what Mr Gove says now is not necessarily what will happen in 2040, when he will most likely be a footnote in political history. He may go down as the politician that triggered the end of fossil fuels in cars, but that’s not going to happen abruptly in 2040. For starters, the ban is on new car sales and there will still be plenty of older cars running on petrol and diesel, as well as hybrids, which will need fuel.

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We won’t get bogged down in the discussion about electric vehicle infrastructure here, nor the cost of upgrading the power grid to cope with an all-electric UK car park. What we will talk about, though, is the fact the internal combustion engine, and petrol in particular, still has a lot to contribute and a long way to go before we can start writing its obituary.

The reason petrol engines have proved so popular throughout the lifespan of the car is the amount of energy that can be extracted from a given amount of the stuff. Litre for litre, it makes an internal combustion engine more powerful than the Saturn Five rockets that sent Man to the Moon – and that was five decades ago.

The intervening years have seen huge developments to the petrol engine that have made it more potent, more efficient and more sensible a choice for many drivers. Yes, diesel has enjoyed a tax-driven popularity for the past 20 years in the UK and across much of Europe, but we are now in a world where diesel’s particulate emissions have hobbled its long-term viability. This assumes that science will not turn the argument on its head yet again with evidence that petrol or EVs are causing far more harm in another way.

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So, petrol engines are far from dead and buried. We can take that as read when car companies are still investing enormous sums in their research and development, even as they work on EVs and say how much they want electric cars as part of their future line-ups.

Mazda

The latest company to wade in with its vision of a petrol-powered future is Mazda. It may not be the biggest car producer on the planet, but when this engineering-led business opens its mouth about this sort of topic, you’d do well to pin back your ears. After all, Mazda has a fine history of trying new ideas and making many of them work where others stumble.

For example, Mazda’s keenness on the Wankel rotary engine is far from over and we should yet see a new RX-7-style sports car. There’s also this engine configuration’s usefulness in range extender cars, but what we must focus on here is the Mazda Skyactiv-X engine.

Mazda engine

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The Skyactiv-X is set to launch in 2019 and will use Spark Controlled Compression Ignition to offer a broader, more generous spread of power across the rev band and reduced emissions and consumption.

That might sound like pie in the sky, but the way Mazda does this is to mix the fuel and air at much higher pressures in the cylinder so less fuel is needed for a bigger bang. When Mazda says this is achievable you’d better pay attention, especially given what the company has completed already with its initial generation of Skyactiv motors which have raised the compression ratio of petrol and lowered that of diesels to the point where many rival engineers said it couldn’t be done.

The results of Skyactiv-X engines are a claimed improvement in engine torque of up to 30% and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 50% by 2030 when looking at whole life figures.

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There’s the rub, you may think. By looking at ‘well-to-wheel’ emissions over the life cycle of a car it’s easy to fudge the figures, but Mazda is not a company to make unsubstantiated claims.

Ford

Mazda isn’t the only firm looking to further improve and optimise the petrol internal combustion engine. Ford may have made a lot of noise about its plans for EVs, but it’s also hard at work with its Ecoboost range of downsized petrols. Given these engines now account for one in every five sold in Europe, including 40% of all Fiestas at present, this is an important unit for the Blue Oval.

That explains why it’s working on cylinder deactivation that will allow this three-cylinder motor to operate on two or even one piston when under light loads to save fuel and lower emissions.

Peugeot three cyclinder

Peugeot

Peugeot is also working on similar ideas for its three-cylinder engines. These have already proven themselves around 18% more efficient than a four-pot motor of the same capacity and power output.

All of this points to a future that very much includes petrol in the plans for motoring. Even allowing for the transitional period we are now entering where there will undoubtedly be a shift in power sources for passenger cars, petrol has a lot to offer and an as yet fully realised potential.

For certain, EVs will become more prominent and commonplace for many of us, perhaps even to the point where they are the mainstream and internal combustion engines are pushed to the more enthusiast-led edges of the market.

However, it would be a far bolder individual who claimed it’s the end of the road for petrol power just yet, by 2040, or even some considerable way beyond that.

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