Is the Development of Alternative Car Fuels Being Hindered?

Historians will tell you that the Middle Eastern wars of 1967 and 1973 really brought home to industrialized nations just how vulnerable they were to interruptions in oil supplies.

Of course, this affected many areas and not just the automotive industry but the discussions about needing to find alternative fuels for the motor vehicle have their origins that far back and arguably even before then.

Some of those initial objectives may have been driven by commercial concerns but by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the embryonic environmental movement was beginning to take shape and also starting to push for alternatives to oil.

What’s happened?

Although it may be hard to believe today, back then many informed forecasters were predicting that the internal combustion engine would be obsolete by the end of the twentieth century.

Those were the days of moon landings and supersonic transport across the Atlantic on Concorde, so optimism in science and technology was at an all-time high. Surely if it was possible to put men on the moon, finding an alternative to petrol/gasoline and diesel should be a piece of cake?

Well, here we are almost half a century later and the vast majority of vehicles on the road are still burning those same polluting fuels.

True, there is an increasing number of electric vehicles around as well as all sorts of expensive hybrid technologies though they’re often restricted to luxury limousines. In addition, engines are now far cleaner than they were 50 years ago and no one is disputing that all these things have helped.

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Even so, many would argue that these advances are a drop in the ocean in terms of reducing pollution and our dependency on oil.

Some describe our civilisation’s snail-like pace to get away from oil as being “inexplicable” other than through conspiracy theory. That usually entails arguing that commercial and political pressures, sometimes called “the long arm of the oil industry” have deliberately ‘somehow’ hindered the development of alternative fuel technologies.

Is that view justified?

The Reality

In truth, it may be impossible to know for sure but it’s contended here that there is no conspiracy.

The fact is that since the late 1960s and early 1970s, humanity has had to get to grips with the extremely painful fact that we are perhaps not quite as clever as we thought we were between say 1900-1970.

True, progress in areas such as electric cars, hydrogen fuel vehicles, fusion engines and almost any other motive force you can think of, has been a very slow but this sluggishness is not unique to this domain.

In almost any field you examine, from space exploration to medicine and from biology to robotics, the dreams and aspirations of our parents and grandparents in the mid-twentieth century have not been realized. The one exception is IT but even there some would argue radical innovation is drying up.

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The fact of the matter is that in many areas of science and technology, radical breakthroughs simply haven’t happened as anticipated.

In the case of motor vehicle propulsion systems, much of the scientific research that has gone on over the last half a century is available freely in the public domain. Read it and you begin to grasp just how difficult it has been to make revolutionary progress and how intractable some of the scientific and engineering obstacles to alternative fuels have proven to be.

Whether people in the past were somehow ‘cleverer’ than the engineers and scientists of today can be debated but what is clear is that there is a far simpler explanation for sluggish progress than blaming a lack of investment and the machinations of the oil companies. That simpler explanation is that this area has proven to be and continues to be far harder to make progress in than many expected.

That looks set to continue.

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by Eby M