Here come the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, the early entrants in the U.S. electric vehicle marketplace and the end products of more than 20 years of automotive innovation and advanced research and development.
Environmentalists and green car advocates—along with a loyal following of public policyholders, car buyers, and engineers—herald the Leaf, Volt, and other electric vehicles (EVs) due to arrive in the next few years as symbols of hope for clean, energy-efficient transportation. Time will tell if the new battery-powered automobile establish a significant foothold in the marketplace. But for now, the technology the electric vehicle aims one day to replace—the internal combustion (IC) engine—is thriving and enjoying significant gains in research and development activity.
At universities, national laboratories, and corporate R&D centers, engineers and scientists are pursuing research to increase design and performance efficiencies in the IC engine across the full range of vehicles including passenger cars, light-duty trucks, sport utility vehicles, and heavy transport vehicle . The R&D activity is directed at both the spark-ignited and diesel IC engines, and much of it is focused on emissions control.
"I would say the focus and strategy of the current research in the internal combustion engine are to reduce emissions," said Song-Charng Kong, professor of engineering at Iowa State University, Ames, which houses its Internal Combustion Engine Laboratory. "The federal emissions standards are stringent and all the engine manufacturer must be able to meet those standards."
While IC engine research progresses, many people are betting the electric vehicle can create a thriving market, and the introduction of the Volt and Leaf represents a step in the direction of carbon reduction in the transportation sector. Still, the EV must overcome stubborn cost and performance barriers to win mass public appeal. The cost of a battery for an electric car is between $10,000 and $15,000, and that's for a power source producing a range of only about 55 miles. Given the limited range, the batteries will require frequent recharging, difficult for a motorist venturing far from home because infrastructure for servicing EVs does not yet exist.
Until the electric car business can overcome these problems, it appears the tried-and-true internal combustion engine , at least for the next several years, is not going the way of chrome bumpers and tailfins.