Trump and Big Oil Can’t Save the Internal Combustion Engine

The greatest change since the railroad replaced the horse is underway on the highway and in the sky. Just don’t expect anyone in Washington to understand it.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

It’s a fair bet that no Washington lawmaker has ever heard of Haydn Sonnad. He’s the kind of cool millennial who has no voice with politicians of both parties who just don’t get the future.

When Sonnad was 16 and got his driver’s license he lusted after a Tesla Model S but it seemed beyond his means. Until he got the big idea: He figured out he could easily cover his leasing costs by using the car to give people rides between Los Angeles and Las Vegas on weekends.

That was two years ago. Now Sonnad runs a ride-sharing business, Tesloop, based in L.A., that uses a small fleet of Teslas giving rides to Palm Springs and San Diego. Passengers get wi-fi, noise canceling headphones and a choice of healthy snacks and beverages.

Sonnad is something of a perfectionist. He tested more than 50 neck pillows before he found one fit for his passengers.

It’s a niche business, of course, but it’s very profitable. Sonnad realized, as he told LA Magazine, sounding very much the business mogul: “the economics of ridesharing on an electric, semi-autonomous platform are transformative…the per mile cost was dramatically lower than any internal combustion engine car. We are making more per car revenue than anybody else in the world by a large multiple.”

And there’s the nub of it: as Sonnad saw, the age of the internal combustion engine is coming slowly to its end. The role of the automobile is being re-thought in fundamental ways. Clean electric power will eventually bring the most radical change in personal mobility since the locomotive supplanted the horse.

But that’s not the future as Congress sees it. Indeed, if the future of America were left to them this would be 1980, or thereabouts. Roll back the regulations. Let the gas-guzzlers thrive. Ignore climate change.

Trump is in the process of abandoning the fuel efficiency goals set in 2011 by the Obama administration of an average of 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

And Detroit seems to love it. Ford has even given up trying to sell small sedans. Two years from now 90 percent of Ford’s output in America will be pickups, SUVs and trucks – the more they guzzle, the more the profit on each vehicle.

But General Motors is sending mixed signals. It doesn’t want to pass on the chance to put off the expensive engineering costs of meeting those new standards. But, at the same time, Mary Barra, GM’s chairman and CEO, has obviously realized that batteries have already won the race to replace the internal combustion engine.

GM is widely seen to have an edge over Ford and other US manufacturers in the development of self-driving vehicles – and self-driving technology is a large step toward an all-electric-powered future. GM shares rose more than nine per cent last week when Softbank, a Japanese technology conglomerate, invested $2.25 billion in GM’s Cruise Holdings, which plans to launch a commercial ride-hailing fleet next year using vehicles without steering wheels or pedals.

Clean electric power will eventually bring the most radical change in personal mobility since the locomotive supplanted the horse.

The executives at Uber are probably not losing any sleep over the prospect of GM becoming a competitor. They are now devoting their energy and resources to the sky, re-thinking the use of that as profoundly as they did the highways.

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Uber believes that there is a largely empty space between the ground and the airspace where conventional airline flights operate – at heights of between 1,000 and 2,000 feet - that is just begging to be used. In the future, they believe, millions of people will use it.

The boggling scale of Uber’s plans was revealed for the first time at a conference early in May: a worldwide, instant hailing service of aircraft in which hundreds of thousands of passengers per day are lofted above rooftops and highways and zip between so-called skyports at speeds of up to 200 mph. The business model requires that this can be done at prices within reach of anyone who regularly hails a taxi or limo.

Uber aims to have the worldwide network operating by 2025. The first experimental flights are planned for 2020 in Dallas/For Worth and Los Angeles.

That deadline puts pressure on the FAA to introduce a whole new regime of safety certification for a category of flying machine that exists as yet mostly on paper: electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, eVTOLs, about the size of a conventional helicopter. They climb and descend vertically like a chopper, but they then transition to much faster horizontal flight.

Many people in the aviation industry are skeptical. They believe that Uber is deliberately setting over-ambitious deadlines to put pressure on the companies who are competing to provide the first generation of eVTOL machines, including Boeing, Airbus, the Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer, and Bell helicopter.

But this is a field where dark horse start-ups could easily disrupt the big guys. For example, the Munich-based company Lilium has attracted more than $100 million in funding, including from Niklas Zennstrom, the founder of Skype, and private venture groups.

Lilium’s slogan is that it will be able to fly “anybody anywhere at anytime” for a price no higher than a cab. It is already flying an unmanned prototype and the eventual piloted vehicle would be able, they say, to fly four passengers between London and Paris in an hour. A pilotless autonomous version would follow.

Every developer of electric power faces the same fundamental challenge: to find batteries light enough, powerful enough and durable enough to sustain intense use in the same way that the internal combustion engine or jet engines can do. For starters that would have to include, for example, carrying out as many as 10 flights of up to 25 miles in distance between battery charges – and being able to recharge those batteries in under 10 minutes.

The Taiwanese battery maker E-One Moli Energy has satisfied Uber that it can already do that.

However, the real crunch that decides whether Uber’s vision will ever be realized  concerns whether low altitude urban airspace can ever be safely managed with the density of traffic Uber is talking about. The arrival of swarms of air taxis will need rigorous new air traffic controls and regulations

That airspace is already widely used by helicopters, both for private use and by emergency services, including air ambulances. This traffic is not going to disappear – even if, as is possible, eVTOLs replace helicopters for emergency services and police work, for which they seem more efficient and flexible.

To safely manage so much traffic requires strictly designated air lanes and the safe separation of vehicles – in all weathers. Current air traffic control systems are extremely conservative in their standards of separation and would not come close to allowing what Uber wants.  

To solve this problem Uber has enlisted NASA to develop new air traffic managing technology capable of not only handling air taxis but the swarms of pilotless drones that Amazon and others want to use for home deliveries.

In the end, the only way such a system could work is by putting control completely outside human handling and into the care of the same situational awareness technology used in driverless cars. The experience so far with cars has not been flawless. GM’s Cruise technology, for example, has been criticized by analysts who have reviewed it. They say it is not yet fit for purpose.

But, of course, in evolutionary terms today’s technology will seem primitive in a decade and the future has a way of pushing ahead whatever the early glitches - the first iPhone is now regarded as a collectible antique.

It’s bizarre that this accelerating revolution in the means of travel is taking place at a time when we have one of the most reactionary, anti-science administrations in history. As a result, to an extent never seen before, America is living simultaneously in two worlds, an imagined past and an imagined future.

Legacy industries like the Detroit carmakers and Big Oil will try to extend the life of the internal combustion engine for as long as possible, and Trump is eagerly ready to help. Their lobbyists form a powerful braking operation, effective in opposing change and in protecting the status quo should it seem threatened.

But at the same time most industry leaders know the reality, whatever they say in public: they are really managing obsolescence and it can’t be this way forever. Every day there is a constantly shifting balance between old technology and new, and if they get on the wrong side of that their businesses, no matter how big, will die.

Managers in other nations get this. Take two giants of Big Oil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell. BP has just made a $20 million investment in StoreDot, a small Israeli developer of ultra-fast charging batteries. Shell bought New Motion, a Dutch firm that operates a European network of charging stations for electric vehicles.

Britain and France have both declared that they want all diesel and gasoline-powered cars off the road by 2040.

History teaches that the wheels and wings that move nations have a huge influence on the development and destiny of those nations.

The meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869 completed the nation’s first transcontinental line. At that moment America became whole in a way that had never been possible before. It was the beginning of a sweeping national urbanization. A new generation of cities grew up around what began as locomotive watering stops.

America had finally and brilliantly harnessed a technology created in Europe 30 years earlier.

And then, early in the twentieth century, it was America that gave the world a new speed and convenience in personal mobility when Henry Ford invented the mass production of the automobile, putting it for the first time in reach of millions.

The internal combustion engine has worked marvels. It’s been a universal transforming force for around a century. But its days are numbered.

Just ask Haydn Sonnad.