The Gas Engine Is Dead. Welcome to the...

April 5, 2021

In the UK, the hammering of nails into the gas-powered engine’s coffin has begun. Late last year, the Conservative, pro-business prime minister Boris Johnson made the dramatic announcement that sales of cars with conventional internal-combustion motors would be banned from 2030, 10 years earlier than initially proposed, and sales of hybrids banned from 2035.


The aim is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the same target President Biden has committed to. The UK is not the first administration to set such a deadline. Norway seeks to ban sales of conventionally powered cars just four years from now, and within the US, the state of California will too, from 2035. But the majority of Norway’s new-car sales are already electric, and it has no native car industry to imperil with such an alarmingly close cutoff. California’s only major carmaker is Tesla. The edict from the British government is significant because its native carmakers—and especially luxury marques such as Bentley, McLaren, Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce—are huge employers and export earners, and are still overwhelmingly dependent on gas.


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Is all this mad? I don’t think so, and neither do those storied brands. Even before the ban was announced, McLaren said it will launch only hybrids for its major models from 2021 on, will cease development of conventional engines from 2030 and expects to end their sale in 2035. In Q4, after McLaren made its stand, Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark said all of his cars will be all-electric by 2030 anyway. The shift will suit some blue-blooded British manufacturers very well, particularly Rolls-Royce, which has always majored in refinement, and Bentley, for which thumping, low-end torque has long been part of the DNA.


Given the readiness of these luxury automakers for these bans, I wonder if what looks like a cliff edge now might feel like a speed bump when we finally get there, or even pass under our wheels unnoticed. Governments may simply be putting definite end dates on the combustion engine’s pre-existing, gradual but terminal decline in some developed markets. The signs are there—the rate at which EV sales are increasing, the frequency of new-model launches, the boosts in battery-energy density and the falling charge times—pointing to a clear direction of travel that politicians have recognized and perhaps just positioned themselves ahead of.


The explosive growth in the share prices of Tesla and Nio—and the implied value of not-yet-listed EV makers like US-based Rivian—might befuddle and enrage the established carmakers, but their valuations let these firms access cheaply the funds they need to actually make this electric future happen and are a clear indication of how the world thinks this is all going to go. Of those entrenched global players, General Motors became the first to commit, in January, to replacing combustion engines—including hybrids—in its passenger cars, its self-imposed 2035 deadline unrelated to the British ban, as GM no longer sells cars in Europe. Others will follow.


So does the UK’s 2030 ban—or Norway’s, or California’s, or France’s in 2040, or those being considered by Germany and others—really matter at all? “I think they do, because there’s just no way around them anymore,” Arndt Ellinghorst told me recently. The hawk-eyed German analyzes the car industry for Bernstein, the US research and investment house, and speaks directly to automotive CEOs. “In the past, when there were just emission targets, then yeah, there were ways around them. But if you just can’t sell these things anymore, then that’s it. The industry needs clarity, it needs certainty. I think it’s almost a win for them. There’s almost a sense of relief.


“More companies now tell me they’re not spending money on engines because the incremental improvements aren’t worth it. There’s very little we can do to engines now to make them significantly more powerful or more efficient. The engine has been engineered to its end.”


Of course, attitudes to motors are very different beyond Europe and California. As a means of propelling a car, the internal-combustion engine is far from dead. In parts of the developing world, a gas engine is seen not as an environmental crime but as a means of self-advancement. The UK ban is only on domestic sales, meaning it could still make engines for markets that don’t ban them. But it wouldn’t be a good look. There might be a short period in which luxury carmakers build engines there that we can’t buy, but it won’t last long.


And, frankly, I can’t wait. I’ve made what passes for a career driving and writing about internal-combustion engines for more than 20 years now. The first letter my son learned was the “M” on the engine cover of a BMW Motorsport straight-six. But I now do maybe half my daily driving in EVs, and I feel like I’ve stepped back into the 20th century whenever I drive a conventional car. The first EVs I drove, in the early aughts, were like science-fair projects. Now they’re often the best cars on the road. There are issues still to resolve, but I can’t believe they won’t be fixed in another decade of the fastest transformation ever to hit transportation.


But if you remain an acolyte of engines that breathe and burn stuff, and of transmissions that you operate yourself, you might not be denied your fix. Of Europe’s other luxury carmakers, electric drive might be good enough for Pininfarina already, but Ferrari says it won’t be good enough for Italy’s grandest marque until 2025 at the earliest and probably later, implying that its operatic gas engines will continue alongside EVs for some time, and perhaps to the bitter end. Porsche has already launched the sensational Taycan EV but is also working hard on carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, which, if it can beat their considerable challenges, might extend the life of engines and force legislators to rethink those bans.


All the proposed bans have been solely on new-car sales: No administration is yet proposing taking our vintage weekend wheels off the road. I’d expect values of quick, usable “modern classics” to spike upward as collectors seek to secure the best examples to drive regularly alongside their daily EVs. If you want to get ahead of this curve, go buy yourself something with a naturally aspirated engine, a manual gearbox and rear-wheel drive, because it’s almost certain that soon we literally won’t be making them like that anymore.


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