Why You Might Still Be Driving a Gas-Powered Car in 100 Years

For many people, electric cars seem like the obvious automotive future. After all, according to the US Department of Energy, gas cars are only 17%-21% efficient versus 59%-62% for electric cars. Sales of plug-in vehicles are up 33% in the first half of 2014, and vehicles like the Nissan Leaf keep setting new sales records. 

Meanwhile Tesla Motors is planning on increasing its annual sales rate to 100,000 cars by the end of 2015 and 500,000 cars by 2020 while investing billions into building the world's largest battery factory to make these ambitions a reality. 

Then there's the issue of oil, which is a non-renewable resource. Surely the world will run out of oil sometimes within the next 50 to 100 years and force us all to switch to electric cars, right? Well, there are several reasons to believe that gas-powered cars won't give up without a fight, and new technological innovations mean your children and grandchildren might still be driving gas-powered cars 50 or even 100 years from now.

Earth is awash in oil
In 1956 US geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that US oil production would peak in 1970 and then go into a permanent decline. Until new applications of oil recovery technology such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling took off in the last few years, Mr. Hubbert had been correct.

However, thanks to the shale oil/fracking revolution, the US just achieved 11 million barrels/day (mbpd) of oil production in the first quarter of 2014, not only smashing the 9.643 mbpd record set in 1970, but becoming the world's largest oil producer in the process. 

But surely that kind of production growth can't last, right? After all, with oil reserves finite, the faster we pump it out of the ground the faster we run out. Thus the oil boom should actually be accelerating the rate at which we are forced to switch to electric cars. 

To answer that let's put existing oil reserves into context. According to the Oil Depletion Analysis Center in London, the world has thus far produced a cumulative total of 1.2 trillion barrels of oil. Meanwhile the US Energy Information Administration estimates the world's shale oil reserves at 3.357 trillion barrels. Throw in an estimated 2.5 trillion barrels of Canadian tar sands plus conventional reserves and the world has well over 6 trillion barrels of oil left in the ground, about five times what mankind has produced thus far. 

This is not to say that all of this oil is presently economical or technically recoverable, and the environmental implications of using that much oil could be dire indeed. However, I want to make it very clear that the world is not running out of oil anytime soon. 

A well-oiled machine
Automakers are working tirelessly to innovate and maximize the efficiency of the internal combustion engine and cars in general. For example, Ford is making its newly redesigned F-150 pickup truck with 95% aluminum body panels, resulting in 700 lbs of weight savings. Its 2.7-liter turbocharged six cylinder engine allows for 8,500 lbs of towing yet still results in improved fuel efficiency.

Three-time engine of the year award winner Source: Ford Motor Company

Ford's other automotive innovations include industry leading engines. For example, its 1-liter ecoboost 3-cylinder engine just won engine of the year for the third consecutive year according to Engine Technology International magazine.

Ford is also partnering with GM to develop new, ultra efficient 10-speed automatic transmissions. These are expected to improve performance and efficiency in smaller vehicles.

Other automakers are following Ford's example when it comes to maximizing efficiency. For example, Jaguar Land Rover has invested $68 million into its new high-efficiency Ingenium family of engines. 

This will allow the company's upcoming XE sports sedan, which is 75% aluminum, to achieve an estimated 59 mpg based on the new European driving cycle.

Source: Jaguar Land Rover of North America LLC

Meanwhile Volvo is working on a new family of engines dubbed Drive E, which it plans to put into its all new 2015 XC90 full size SUV. A 2-liter 4-cylinder engine will be combined with both a turbocharger and supercharger, as well as a plug-in hybrid option and new eight speed automatic transmission to achieve: 400 horsepower, 490 lbs-feet of torque, and an estimated 117 mpge in the European driving cycle.

Foolish bottom line 
Let me be clear that I am a heavy proponent of electric cars, mainly for efficiency and long-term economic reasons. I believe electric cars will steadily increase their market share over the coming decades and eventually replace gas cars entirely.

However, respect should be paid to the thousands of engineers and business leaders around the globe who are working tirelessly to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency from the internal combustion engine. Given the fact that the world is awash in both oil and vehicle innovations, it's very possible that people may still be driving gas-powered vehicles 50 or even 100 years from now.

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  • Report this Comment On August 02, 2014, at 3:57 PM, luckyagain wrote:

    ICE will still be around DEPENDING upon the price of fuel. There is plenty of oil but the real problem is can afford it? Finally when the world stop depending upon the black goo, the Middle East can back to 700 AD where they can practice their age old customs of killing each other and no Americans will have to die or be injured over oil.

  • Report this Comment On August 02, 2014, at 5:58 PM, AdamGalas wrote:

    You make a good point about the cost of fuel. A major argument in favor of electric cars is that fuel savings will offset the higher initial purchase price and result in a short payback period.

    That assumption often includes gas rising to $5, $6 or even $7/gallon.

    Were I live gas is as cheap as $3.16/gallon and despite the chaos in the Middle East and sanctions on Russia, the world oil markets remain remarkably stable.

    If gas cars can continue improving their efficiency faster than gas prices rise then for many people the case to go electric will be weakened, potentially for decades.

  • Report this Comment On August 02, 2014, at 6:48 PM, Phrontrowalpine wrote:

    More Parts, More Problems. A Tesla has 1 moving part

  • Report this Comment On August 02, 2014, at 9:51 PM, AdamGalas wrote:

    Yes, theoretically the Tesla should be the most reliable car in the world. Yet, Edmunds long-term test car required 4 drive units in under a year.

    Motor Trend's test car has also had a slew of problems.

  • Report this Comment On August 02, 2014, at 10:41 PM, dadx wrote:

    all I know about teslas is that they're electric. if it has a tranmission, or differental, or any kind of gearing it has more than one moving part

  • Report this Comment On August 02, 2014, at 10:47 PM, Dutchman61 wrote:

    The idea that oil is a finite resource comes from the idea that it is a fossil fuel. Coal is in fact a fossile fuel and the first oil fields were in Pennsylvania and Ohio adjacent to the coal fields. Everyone assumed they were related and they called oil and gas fossile fuels. The Russians on the other hand never found oil next to coal and they have always assumed it came from some other source. We know methane (natural gas) comes form deep in the earth and it is produced constantly. However there is growing evidence that the Russians were right all along. Old abandon oil fields are producing after resting for 20-30 years and producing mush higher quality oil. The theory gaining acceptance is the oil is produced from methane deep under ground at a steady rate. If that rate can be identified, oil fields could last almost forever if the harvest rate is matched to the oil inflow rate.

  • Report this Comment On August 03, 2014, at 8:38 AM, AdamGalas wrote:

    The abiogenic theory of oil is indeed an interesting one though I think the recovery of older fields has more to do with enhanced oil recovery techniques such as water flooding or CO2 injection.

    If the earth were actually generating new oil from deep within the crust then the key would be how fast and how much energy it takes to get it.

    For example the world's production rate for oil is about 33 billion barrels/year. If we were to locate a giant oil reservoir that was recharging itself at 40 billion barrels/year 10 miles beneath the surface then we'd truly never run out of oil. However if it took the energy equivalent of 2 barrels of oil to extract 1 barrel from this abiogenic reservoir then it wouldn't make sense to do so.

  • Report this Comment On August 04, 2014, at 4:39 PM, pondee619 wrote:

    Just because we have oil, does not mean we should continue to burn it. Fumes from an internal combustion engine are not pleasant to breathe, even under the best of circumstances. Global warming claims, true or false, the exhaust from my car is not good air and it will never be good air. Electricity from renewable non-polluting sources is the best way for this planet to continue to support life as we have come to know it.

    Just because we may have oil, does not mean that we should continue to burn it.

  • Report this Comment On August 04, 2014, at 10:11 PM, AdamGalas wrote:

    As famed architect William McDonough said:

    “The Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones. It ended because it was time for a re-think about how we live.”

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:15 PM, AdamGalas wrote:

    Turns out that the above quote was paraphrased from a Saudi Oil Minister who penned the original quote to debunk the myth of peak oil.

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Adam Galas

Adam Galas is an energy writer for The Motley Fool and a retired Army Medical Services Officer. After serving his country in the global war on terror, he has come home to serve investors by teaching them how to invest better in order to achieve their financial dreams.

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