Embrace the new engine of change

IT seems an entirely appropriate conjunction; a neat fit in the way these things sometimes fall. Just as more than a century of American hegemony is being challenged, the death knell of the internal combustion engine is ringing ever louder.

Whether America built the modern world on the internal combustion engine, or whether the internal combustion engine reshaped America, and, in turn, the rest of us, is a chicken-or-egg question soon to be of relevance only to social historians. Route 66 may fall silent, and the grizzly growl of Harleys shuttling middle-aged fantasists across the 3,940km between Chicago and Santa Monica will be replaced by the testosterone-lite purr of electronic cars, or, dare it be imagined, an electric Electra Glide.

It may be a tad premature to suggest that the last petrol stations have been built, but it’s plausible to argue that the last ones are already in the planning pipeline. Huge change is just over the horizon, driven as much by climate change as it is by advancing technologies. The bank, UBS, suggests that electric vehicles will make up 14% of global car sales by 2025. That would, in less than a decade, represent profound change, as just 1% of today’s cars are powered by electricity.

The regulatory noose is tightening. Last month, Britain joined a lengthening list of electric-only countries ruling that all new cars must be zero-emission by 2050. In Ireland, we continue to ignore the scale of change that climate change will force on us; we linger at the coax-and-tax stage. Earlier this year, Minister for Climate Action and the Environment, Denis Naughten, raised the prospect of new or increased taxes, to encourage sustainable transport. Diesel tax is 11% below petrol tax, and the Tax Strategy Group has suggested increasing diesel tax by 2.2% a year, for five years, to bring it up to the same level as petrol in 2021. The best that could be said about those proposals is that they are not overly ambitious. A less-blinkered appraisal would border on despair.

The death of the internal combustion engine will have huge geopolitical consequences. Germany’s economy — and the European Union’s — is built on car-manufacturing. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost. Electric cars are less complex and have fewer parts, so, with fewer things to go wrong, the demand for maintenance and spare parts will shrink. While today’s carmakers must sustain old factories and large workforces, new entrants will not be so shackled. Opportunity may trump convention. The leverage that oil-rich states now enjoy (and many of them are opposed to democracy) will wane. Countries that depend on hydrocarbon revenues must imagine a new future. Huge change is inevitable, even if aviation and shipping will rely on carbon-powered engines for the foreseeable future.

We have a choice — resist change or embrace it. Electric cars represent a threat to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs, but that will not delay their advance. If we can cope with that, and ensure sufficient electricity generation, the electric car will change this century as much as the internal combustion engine changed the last — but without the unsustainable pollution. It will be an interesting journey.

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