The dominant power

As alternative automotive fuels and technologies attempt to challenge the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine (ICE), don’t imagine it hasn’t stared down competition before. More than a century of technical advances have extracted impressive refinements from, and secured the supremacy of, a proven and basic mechanical system. With the ICE now poised for a new era of innovation, there are lessons to be learned from the automobile’s past and the evolution of a technology that revolutionized transportation and the world economy.

by Canadian Fuels Staff

Above: The Achates Power opposed-piston engine is able to efficiently manage engine airflow for improved combustion and thermal management.

Image courtesy Achates Power, Inc. ©2017.

No early victor

“I’m always living in the 1920s here,” says Alexander Gates, manager and curator at the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, Ontario. The museum’s impressive collection includes many outstanding examples of early automotive technology, including a 1925 Brooks Steamer, a 1923 Rauch & Lang Electric, and a 1914 Galt Gas-Electric hybrid. Visitors are often surprised to learn that the vehicle market in the early 20th century featured such a variety of engine options.

“Steam-powered machinery has mostly disappeared from our lives today,” explains Gates, “but you have to remember that steam locomotives and steamships were among the most reliable and advanced transportation options in the early 20th century.” Applying the technology in automotive engineering was simply the logical next step—although steam technology had its shortcomings.

“The process of getting one of these old steam cars up and running was horrendous,” says Gates. “The steam wasn’t ready to go at all times. You needed a secondary source of energy—a kerosene or gasoline burner—to generate the steam. Pre-heating the car in winter months could be excruciatingly long. Steam also involved having a constant flame burning, which made many owners uncomfortable. As one enthusiast told me, ‘If you don’t like fire, you won’t like a steam car.’”

“Steam-powered machinery has mostly disappeared from our lives today, but you have to remember that steam locomotives and steamships were among the most reliable and advanced transportation options in the early 20th century.”


The 1925 Brooks Steamer, one of more than 90 historically significant cars featured at the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, Ontario. Since 1963, the museum has been dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the Canadian automotive industry.

The electric option

The electric Columbia Mark 68 Victoria automobile, first built in 1906, was followed by the production of a hand-cranked battery charger in 1912, both seen here.

Early electric vehicles were prized for their quiet performance and ease of operation—two reasons these cars were marketed to and popular primarily with women at the time.

“Most early internal combustion engines (ICE) had to be cranked by hand to be started,” observes Gates. “Wealthy women in particular did not perform that kind of work. Cranking was actually a tricky process for everyone, with a number of engine adjustments, such as spark timing, that had to be just right.”

Cranking could also be dangerous. Backfires inflicted countless injuries over the years, including broken thumbs and wrists known collectively and colloquially as “Ford fractures”.

Women, to their credit, preferred vehicles they could simply switch on and drive. Electric vehicles were quiet and, although lacking the power of ICE-powered vehicles, fast enough for city driving. Excursions to the countryside, however, were usually out of the question. 

“Many people forget that much of rural North America lacked electricity until after the Second World War,” says Gates. The limited range of electric vehicles, which hampers sales today, was just as much of a hurdle a century ago.


Musée canadien de l'automobile à Oshawa, Ontario en 1964
wrenches in a cross

The fuel plays a role

The number of Ford fractures dropped once the electric starter appeared around 1912, enabling anyone to fire up an internal combustion engine with relative ease.

But the decline of other motive sources cannot be ascribed to that one innovation, remarkable as it may have been. So why did the petroleum-fuelled ICE survive and thrive in the coming decades? Why did other technologies vanish from the automotive market by the 1930s? After all, the ICE was hardly fault-free. It was noisy, smelly and temperamental—although the distinctive rumble of many internal combustion engines has always been part of their lure.

Dr. Dipal Patel, assistant professor in the faculty of engineering and applied science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, points to the growing petroleum infrastructure—the rapid improvements in refining and distribution, and the inherent qualities of the product itself.

“The main reason an electric vehicle doesn’t have the same range as a petroleum-fuelled ICE is due to the incredible energy density of hydrocarbon fuels,” explains Patel. Energy density refers to the amount of energy contained in a given fuel mass. The chemistry of the hydrocarbon molecule delivers immense energy in comparatively small amounts. This is the key to petroleum’s portability, fast refuelling time, and the greater range it delivers to ICE-powered vehicles.

Driven by innovation

ICE technology’s rise was driven in part by the First World War—the first mechanized war. Manufacturers in Europe and North America escalated research and production to support the war effort. The economic boom of the 1920s further boosted vehicle consumption and production, arguably securing the ICE as the automotive engine of choice before the Great Depression set in.

The ICE’s success can also be credited to the technology’s remarkable flexibility and untapped potential. Across more than a century, engineers have always been able to pivot the technology to meet the pressures of the day and the demands of the market.

Early innovations—from overhead camshafts to superchargers, multi-valve heads and V-configuration engines—aimed to propel the vehicle from point A to point B faster and with greater power. More recent innovations make that journey more efficient and less harmful to the environment. Positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) valves recycled exhaust gases beginning in the 1960s. In the 1970s, manufacturers installed catalytic converters to scrub tailpipe emissions. Onboard diagnostic computers began simplifying the process of fine-tuning various aspects of ICE performance in the 1990s.

“Modern engine control units deploy a range of sensors and perform millions of calculations per second to manage ignition timing, air-fuel mixture, injection, idle speed and other parameters,” says Dr. Patel. “And any list of recent innovations should include direct injection, variable valve timing and lift, and cylinder deactivation, which reduces total engine displacement and uses less fuel when less power is required.”

“Modern engine control units deploy a range of sensors and perform millions of calculations per second to manage ignition timing, air-fuel mixture, injection, idle speed and other parameters,” says Dr. Patel.


Future prospects

The automobile is so essential to modern life in North America that the technology is under constant pressure to improve—to become safer, more durable and reliable, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Modern engines are built to clock more than 200,000 kilometres with only minimal routine maintenance—a remarkable achievement in design and engineering.

Automakers currently spend more than $100 billion globally each year on research and development, ranking these investments among the largest in industry. A portion of this R&D targets one of the main weaknesses of the ICE: its inefficiency, the unlocking of which may further secure its superiority.

“Engineers are nowhere near close to extracting 100 percent of the energy within the combustion process,” says Patel. “In fact, most petroleum-powered ICEs have a mechanical efficiency in the range of only 20 percent. Most energy is lost as heat, exhaust, and friction. Capturing that lost energy—and putting it to work for propulsion—is what drives a lot of ICE engineering research.”

There are hundreds of parameters—from fuel chemistry to combustion chamber design and improved mechanical processes—that can still be configured to optimize the ICE and make it the greenest engine possible. So what are some of the innovations on the horizon that hold the most promise for continued market dominance for the ICE?

“Homogeneous-charge compression-ignition (HCCI) engine, certainly,” says Patel. HCCI combines the strengths and operating principles of gasoline and diesel engines to deliver up to 20 percent greater fuel economy while keeping particulate emissions relatively low.

“Opposed-piston (OP) engines, free-piston engines, even no-crankshaft designs have the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of the slider-crank architecture, which is dominant in current engines, and potentially double the fuel economy,” says Patel.

The opposed-piston architecture is clearly a case of what’s old being new again. An OP-powered automobile was the first to break the 150km/hr speed mark in 1904, and the technology was widely applied up to and during World War II, when it powered American submarines and German aircraft, among other machinery.

OP engines feature two pistons per cylinder instead of one. A two-stroke version is currently under development by Achates Power in California. With fewer moving parts, the engine is simpler, less expensive to manufacture, and reduces friction by up to 40 percent, contributing to as much as 50 percent greater fuel efficiency.

Staying power

“Despite all the hype that surrounds electrics, hydrogen fuel cells and other fuel alternatives, innovations continue to improve every aspect of ICE performance,” says Patel.

“The ICE is so integrated into our lives,” adds Alexander Gates. “We know how far it can take us. We understand how much it costs. I think it may be another generation before we’re really comfortable not pulling into the gas station.”

ICE piston


The ICE defined


The ICE is an engine in which fuel is burned in a confined combustion chamber.

This exothermic process produces hot gases that expand in the chamber and propel the piston and crank assembly at the heart of most automotive drivetrains.

In its earliest forms, the ICE was used in industrial applications. Early compression-less versions appeared late in the 17th century, but the first patent is thought to have been issued to English engineer Samuel Brown in 1823.

Nikolaus Otto is credited with developing the four-stroke ICE in the 1870s. Karl Benz built his own four stroke just a few years later—the engine that would power the first automobiles in production.