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3 Innovations That Will Change the Auto Industry -- Before Electric Cars Take Off

The electric cars have finally arrived in force. Over the next few decades, they will irrevocably change the auto industry for the better. But in the meantime, we're still running our vehicles mostly on gas. And it's not as if innovation hasn't occurred on this front.

The good news is that innovation in conventional internal-combustion engines will continue, because the world's carmakers are relying on them for the vast majority of sales. But what form will these innovations take? Some will be obvious, some not so. Some may even transform the automobile more radically than electrification ever could.

  1. Radical engine efficiency. Exhibit A is Transonic Combustion, a California startup company that's developed an engine technology that can boost efficiency by 50 percent. It works by directly injecting a special fuel mixture into the engines combustion chambers that's essentially primed to ignite itself (no spark plugs necessary) at the moment of optimal compression. That translates into better MPGs than a Prius, on the road. Actually, the Prius itself is shining example of an efficiency improvement. Hybrids of its type attack the major problem of the IC engine, which is that it's inefficient at low speeds. Hybrids use electric motors to supplement or replace the gas-burning operation, enabling better gas mileage.
  2. Light weighting. The poster child for this technology is Aptera's ultra-light, three-wheeled futuremobile, whose shell is made of composite materials. Right now, most cars are still sculpted mainly from steel and sheet-metal, but in a decade, that could all change, as the cost of plastics, carbon-fiber, and composites all decline. Luckily, these materials are all just as safe and strong as the good old stuff. But they're much, much less heavy, which means cars won't require engines that are as large as they are now to achieve decent performance. Couple this trend with the efficiency shift detailed above and you can easily see how the MPGs will go way up, while gas consumption and emissions go way down.
  3. New emissions technology. Speaking of tailpipes, technological advances in automotive design and engineering have cut emissions in half every decade for the past 30 years. By 2030, even gas-burning engines (if there are even new ones being constructed then) should be emitting almost nothing in the way of greenhouse-gas and other noxious pollutants. What's important to remember here is that consumers haven't paid a premium for these technologies. It's just that the automakers have gotten progressively better at improving a technology, internal combustion, that's now more than 100 years old. In fact, U.S. consumers have reaped a benefits, in terms of what I call our "environmental equity." We have cleaner air than we did in 1980, and we'll have even cleaner air in 2030 than we do today. And, relatively speaking, cars won't cost any more than do now. Actually, we may see the advent of a new generation of...you guessed it, hyper-efficient, lightweight cars that run on gas and emit basically nothing -- and are also super-cheap.
As EVs mature, these technological developments will set the stage for the displacement of the IC engine. The timing will be perfect, as we may very well be tapping out the last of our oil reserves by then. Fortunately, battery technology should have advanced to a point by the near-midcentury that will see EVs delivering ranges that are comparable to the IC cars of the future. And that in itself will be a breakthrough, as by 2030 gas-burning engines could be getting 100-plus MPGs and motoring happily for 1,000 miles between fill-ups.

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Photo: Aptera
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