EVs and the Future of the Internal Combustion Engine


In January 2020, electric car maker Tesla’s market value exceeded $100 billion for the first time—not bad for a company that at the time had yet to record an annual profit in its 16-year existence. Along with moves by at least six European countries to ban sales of new fossil-fuel-powered autos, Telsa’s growing valuation seems to suggest unstoppable momentum for electric vehicles, or EVs.

Yet EV boosters, convinced of the technology’s superiority to the internal combustion engine, overlook the inherent cost and performance penalties of battery technology compared to petroleum—especially its low energy density, defined as the amount of energy a system can store. Put another way: about one gallon of gasoline in your mother’s Hyundai contains more energy than an entire battery pack of its electric counterpart.

And that’s just part of the story. Before EVs can even get on the road, not just needing unsustainable subsidy support, a tremendous amount of energy must be expended. Amazingly, it takes the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil to fabricate batteries capable of storing the same quantity of energy contained in just one barrel of oil. Moreover, there are serious environmental questions surrounding EVs that too often go unmentioned.

In 1900, 40% of U.S. cars were electric—as few people remember today. Those earlier EVs lost out to a higher-density energy source: gasoline, which powered Henry Ford’s Model T. Batteries’ low energy-density problem hasn’t changed in the century since—and electric cars are unlikely to win a race that they have already lost once before.

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Batteries Will Never Beat Oil

Batteries will never beat oil


  • Because the energy density of petroleum is about 5,000% greater than the latest lithium-ion batteries, small percentage gains in internal combustion engine efficiency deliver much larger mileage gains than large percentage gains in battery efficiencies.
  • Energy comparisons need to account for the energy used in battery manufacturing. It takes the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil to fabricate batteries that can store the same quantity of energy contained in just one actual barrel of oil. 
  • Batteries are not "magical" instruments but electrochemical "machines" that wear out from usage, just as thermochemical machines (engines) do. Both wear out mainly from invisible degradations, and both wear out faster when pushed harder.   

Source: Mark Mills, ‘EVs & AVs: Risks & Realities.’ Partner, Cottonwood Venture Partners Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Faculty Fellow, Northwestern University McCormick School of Engineering