April 11, 2024

Thank God for the Internal Combustion Engine

The internal-combustion-engine automobile ranks as one of the modern world’s most transformative innovations.

One of Joe Biden’s notable digressions when getting deposed by Special Counsel Robert Hur was about driving his beloved 1967 Corvette Stingray convertible.

Which wasn’t surprising — the president genuinely loves his car. And why not? It’s a thing of beauty and, for its time, was a splendid feat of engineering.

A paradox of the Biden’s administration is that the old-school car enthusiast is — in the name of the future and of saving the planet — waging a war on the internal-combustion-engine cars that he so admires and that have helped define American life over the last 100 years.

The internal-combustion-engine automobile ranks as one of the modern world’s most transformative innovations. Prior to the advent of trains, travel by land was an absolute misery, even for the wealthy and privileged. Then, the car, in effect, took the train and put it in the hands of individuals.

It was a revolutionary leap ahead for personal freedom and mobility. It changed where we live (catalyzing the growth of the suburbs) and how we work (making it easier to commute). It obviously made it possible to go more places and gave rise to new types of businesses catering to a newly foot-loose population, including motels and fast-food restaurants. It knit the country together via a road network that facilitated untold economic activity, and created the auto-manufacturing industry, as well as industries providing parts and fuel for cars.

To an unusual extent, people feel bonded to their cars. There are car enthusiasts, but not enthusiasts for other 20th century implements that changed our way of life. No one speaks wistfully of the refrigerator they owned 40 years ago, or reads fan magazines devoted to plumbing. Even for consumers who aren’t devotees of cars, what to buy is an intensely personal choice; this is why there is a dizzying array of brands offering an immense range of choices.

The Biden administration’s push to get people into electric vehicles is running directly into the chief advantage of internal-combustion-engine cars, which is the sheer convenience.

One area of resistance to electric vehicles is “range anxiety,” or the fear that an electric vehicle will run out of its charge. That’s often exaggerated; electric cars have acquired more range now, and most people aren’t driving 300 miles in a single trip. Nevertheless, there are reasonable concerns about the ability to find a charging station and how long it will take to recharge the vehicle compared to filling up at a gas station.

Gas stations already exist (about 145,000 of them with a million gas pumps), and no one had to subsidize their creation. They are convenient, cost-effective and make economic sense.

Making charging stations available on a comparable scale will present formidable obstacles. As Mark Mills of the National Center for Energy Analytics points out in a paper on electric cars, transporting the large amounts of energy at the necessary scale using electric energy via wires and transformers is much more expensive than doing it with oil via pipelines and tanks. Equipping stations with the super-chargers necessary to make charging somewhat rapid — but still slower than gassing up — will require “a grid power demand comparable to a small town or steel mill.”

This isn’t to say electric cars aren’t attractive to some consumers, especially those with their own garages for overnight charging and with the resources to spend on a fun, interesting second or third car. Tesla has made major inroads in the upscale category. Good for them. More choice is better.

An all-electric-car future is very far off, though, and internal-combustion-engine automobiles aren’t embarrassing artifacts of the past. Their cost, convenience, reliability and size — more than half of automobiles sold in the U.S. are SUVs — make them hugely appealing. They are also getting constant upgrades. According to Mills, since 1975, “the average automobile today has 100 more horsepower, weighs 1,000 pounds more and has doubled in fuel efficiency.”

Joe Biden’s corvette is now an antique, but the basic technology is as important, and as incredibly user-friendly, as ever.

© 2024 by King Features Syndicate

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