The Heat of Combustion – How the car industry shot itself in the face

By Karl Berridge

Part one: “Oil”

For the last 100 years the car industry has quite rightly been concerned with selling vehicles.  Currently in the world today there are over 750 million cars (world ometers:2010) driving around and tooting their horns and it’s believed that figure will double within the next 30 years meaning  there will be over a billion people in the world all with the want and right to own a car.

This is a problem, there are no serious plans in any country to accommodate such an increase in vehicles and crucially the oil which powers them is finite. This is not to say the world will run out of oil, but it will run out of cheap oil as demand starts to outstrip supply. Once easily accessible and tradable oil reserves start to deplete; countries and oil companies will start to move into the mining and drilling of less accessible, unrefined oil. Alongside increased demand the price of oil will rise dramatically and have a disastrous effect on the global economy.  Gradually the price of oil will become economically unviable as the worlds dominate transport fuel. Currently the most optimistic research predicts that this collapse will begin in 2020. (Cambridge Energy Research Associates:2009)

So what then are the options for the car industry? The most intrinsic would be the adoption of some form of Bio fuel. This is logical as cars already have liquids sloshing about their fuel tanks and consumers would find adapting to such a solution easy so long as there’s no major increase in cost against the ever rising price of petroleum and diesel. Already in Europe most fuel stations incorporate a 5% blend of biodiesel  which not only dilutes the price of diesel but also as the oily, fatty ethanol mix which comprises bio fuel contains far more hydrogen and oxygen than diesel making the fuel more combustible and helping to reduce particulates.

In its current form though; Biodiesel is largely made up of the yellowy crop “rapeseed”, this can easily be grown in fields around the world and harvested throughout the year. The problem though is the space it takes up on a large scale, space which could more productively be used for growing food. (United Nations Environment Program: 24/10/2009) There is also the additional issue that research now shows an increase in the usage of the crop could actually be far more environmentally damaging than the use of conventional diesel – owing to the high amount of nitrogen oxide it produces; an emission nearly 300 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (Wiberg; 45;2001)

Currently car makers only build diesel engines for a future involving a 15% biodiesel mix in mind (United Nations Environment Program; 10/16/2009) and many countries will only able to farm a proportion of rapeseed without causing imbalance to food production. Car makers are then reluctant to adapt to such a fuel knowing – from a production point of view- it has limited scope, there is also the additional issue of bio-fuel being detrimental to performance and engine life when compared alongside a mineral-diesel mix.

The ultimate and ideal scenario instead would be a bio diesel formed from some sort of algae, this could be cultivated in areas that didn’t interfere with crop and the process would have an added bonus in that algae effectively absorbs C02 in its regenerative process. Whilst this doesn’t equate to countering the effects of global warming – as exactly the same amount of C02 absorbed  is ultimately produced when the bio fuel is combusted – it still means no additional C02 is produced and could be promoted as such.

However no such process has been possible on a large scale due to the space and supply  of C02 known algae requires, as a consequence the extraction of oil is in no way cost effective.  For the car industry then; any such solution is at the whim of a scientific breakthrough made in the genetic field, specifically the artificial creation of superior algae. For the car industry to prepare and construct its future around such a breakthrough would be irresponsible and detrimental to alternatives which could

The next popular option is the idea that cars can be powered by hydrogen. This is a complex and highly expensive option that has been researched and developed for many years by numerous car companies. The overriding problem though is that hydrogen is not a naturally occurring energy source but instead an energy carrier, this means energy must first be expended to produce and then be stored as hydrogen. In a car this hydrogen can be stored in a cell then used to generate electricity which in turn powers an electric motor.  The benefits of this system is that the refuelling process is similar to that of conventional cars in that people could simply stop and refill their cars with hydrogen as and when they needed. The entire process is however vastly inefficient and expensive. Current hydrogen powered vehicles cost many millions of pounds to manufacture as single units and the infrastructure required to support such vehicles would need vast investment that couldn’t be justified alongside the idea of the electric vehicle which offer the same solution but instead store energy in the form of batteries, with a charging infrastructure utilising the already well established electric grid in most countries.

It is then the electric vehicle which has slowly become the inevitable alternative to oil powered cars. The advantages are numerous, not least because the possibility of any aforementioned breakthrough in alternative energy sources could ultimately be incorporated into powering the electric grid in far more manageable way anyway. Already most countries have the infrastructure to supply energy to consumers in a way which proves cheaper than the price of petrol.  In most countries this currently means an average of 3p per pile to drive an electric vehicle compared alongside 25p per mile to drive a medium sized petrol car. By this logic even if such cars were taxed extensively to account for additional energy supplies to sustain the electric grid and measures were introduced  to ensure lithium-ion battery life span (currently 8 years) doesn’t adversely affect the consumer then the electric vehicle would still prove to be the more cost effective option for consumers in a world with ever rising fuel prices. The additional benefit being a new era where the consumer has more protection from the markets overbearing and flippant dictation of the price of oil and ultimately – everything else.

Part 2: “The hard sell”

There remains one simple and disastrous problem though for the plausibility and commercialisation of the electric vehicle. Lithium ion technology – the thing that powers electric vehicles – moves slowly. Lithium Ion batteries are already highly commercial and used to power mobile phones,  and yet the only dramatic and noticeable improvements to prolong battery life have been made to the efficiency in which such devices use up their charge as appose to any breakthroughs in Lithium Ion technology. Consequently it is safe to presume electric car batteries will follow in the same vein; particularly as car companies begin to have to balance the additional weight and sophistication of battery developments against adverse weight and cost respectively, resulting in the focus shifting from prolonged battery life to the efficiency in which a car distributes its charge. Consequently the maximum range an average electric car, for the average consumer and in the foreseeable future will be between 100 – 250 miles.

This is an enormous problem for the car industry. Here is a new product that they increasingly need to be selling and yet it seemingly offers a compromise when compared against the product they now sell.

This great compromise of the electric car is ironically centred around the very notion that has enabled car companies to sells cars to people for the last 100 years, through advertising and in print. It is the notion that the car offers great personal freedom and liberation to the individual. Now though the car industry is faced with the great challenge of selling a product which conflicts with so many of the aspirations which the car industry has itself invented. However, how it invented these constructs of status is crucial in understanding how it must come to sell this new product.

It is an open secret that Autocar – the first car magazine and one that is still in production today, was established specifically of use as an “Organ of propaganda” (Setright;24;2004) for Harry J. Lawson – the founder of the Daimler Motor Company. Using the magazine as a platform Lawson was able to construct and air of sophistication around the Daimler products by alluding that his cars were a reflection of a high class lifestyle and therefore necessary for anyone hoping to project such image.  This proved more effective in forming aspiration from consumer than any advertising campaign had ever achieved, marking the beginning of the complex relationship between car companies and the media and the birth of the automotive press.

Today whilst there is a great range of motoring publications they all on some level still generate the higher extension of  propaganda and advertising for the car industry. There are specialist publications; for example BMW magazine which perpetrate and maintain the image of the sort of person that aspires to drive a BMW. There are also publications such as “MAX Power” who aim to establish the type of vehicle which young men may buy and customise. Even the numerous classic car magazines, despite arguably being a step away from this culture as they have nothing new to sell, are just as guilty. It is these publications which manage to establish the heritage of a car company and effectively increase the value of particular brands. Such magazines have clear prejudges, often romanticising European and American cars whilst consciously ignoring cars from similar periods that arguably are just as interesting and desirable from countries such as Japan. It is therefore no surprise then that companies such as Mazda or Nissan have never achieved the same prestige as their European rivals.

This ‘aspiration’ and ‘lifestyle’ element on which the car industry thrives is no better seen than in the glossy monthlies. Evo magazine for example lays claim to cover the ethos of their slogan; “The thrill of driving” and the publication works around the pretence of the emotional response that can be had whilst driving a car. However the magazine is arguably obsessed with highly priced exotic vehicles, regularly featuring Ferrari’s and Porches on its front covers and covering them in features and in reviews. Contrary to their goal of detailing any emotional qualities of driving such cars; “Evo” and publications of a similar style such as “Top Gear” and “CAR” are arguably obsessed with numbers and performance figures.  Such platforms gauge and rate cars on their 0-60 times, their top speeds, BHP and the time in which a car is able to lap a test track. Consequently the cars which score highly in these measures are deemed “desirable” where as ones which achieve less impressive rank lower and deemed less desirable.

The car industry has taken to this culture in a big way and to its great advantage. Cars are now built to these models with most cars vigorously designed and tested to compete with rivals according to such measures. This is then hierarchy as dictated by car magazines filtered down to advertising and then eventually the consumer.  The benefit the car companies is that such a system establishes targets to develop vehicles and increase costs every few years.

There is then another additional hierarchy to consider, one of government standard. This is a consequence of the idea that it is the role of government to regulate vehicle design for the benefit of the “public good” (Tierney;2;2006). This involves legislating certain criteria and often involves a vehicles safety or the levels of certain gases a vehicle may emit. This spawned another type of hierarchy and rank amongst cars as they became judged on developing new measurements such as the “NCAP Rating”(NCAP:2010),  how much C02 a car produced from its exhaust rapidly then became the measure of a cars efficiency.

Whilst at face value theses measures may appear as obstacles, they are in actual fact the forces which regulate the capitalism of the car industry, enabling it to claim improvements and sell newer products.  In this regard the car magazine with its notions of lifestyle and aspiration whilst all the while underlining these notions with its checks and measures has served in sustaining and moving the car industry along in a way which is unbeknown to the consumer and effectively sustaining the car industries profitability.

The electric vehicle though doesn’t fit into this system. It is a constraint on personal mobility, it emits C02 only in an oblique way that is hard to measure via the electric grid, its performance is measured in Kilowatts and not BHP. It has toque which is constant throughout its rev range and weakness in that high top speed would be undesirable proving detrimental to range. It is also relatively noiseless which means any noise created deemed inauthentic. In light of the car magazine and the car industry then, it is a hard sell.

The electric car then desperately needs the car magazine. The industry that was able to establish “status” and “lifestyle” far more than advertising ever could.  In order then for the car industry to develop this product the car magazine needs to develop new measurements and desires which could in turn make contemporary cars seem old and unrefined.

This is entirely possible.  Old measures that flatter the combustion engine can be replaced with measures that flatter the electric motor. For example BHP can be replaced with BSFC (Brake Specific Fuel Consumption)it is the measure of power against efficiency with power measured in KW and efficiency measured as a percentage. To take the example of specific cars: a VW 3.3 V8 TDI engine produces 165 KW whilst achieving an efficiency of 41% (or 20% at peak load). Compared to the Tesla Roadster electric vehicle which produces 215KW of power against a BSFC efficiency of 90% (or 80% at peak load) it’s is easy to see that there are major advantages apparent to the electric vehicle when they not measured by one’s established by car magazines. In this instance the figures reflect the driver can drive Tesla around at full throttle everywhere and only see efficiency (and therefore cost) drop by 10%, whereas in the diesel – driving at speed cuts efficiency by half or more, making it slow and unrefined by comparison.

Along with this the electric car will need to establish other strengths, magazines can present loud cars as garish and immature, whilst establishing sophistication around electric vehicles.  To do so the car industry needs to understand such cars green credentials and economy are all secondary to plain status. It needs to be the convertible of the modern age and produce a yearning from people that is utterly irrational but enough to serve as the savour of the car industry around the world.

It is then simply economics forces consumers into electric vehicles, but if the media is able to establish the aspiration of ownership in the way it has done many times before, then consumers won’t need to be pushed into an entirely new lifestyle, a lifestyle that unbeknown to them has helped to avert crisis.


Wiberg, E. “Inorganic Chemistry” Academic Press: San Diego, 2001.

Setright, L,J,K; ”A social history of the motor car” Granta Books; London;2004

Tierney, W G; “Governance and the public good” New York Press; New York; 2006

World Ometer: (2010): “Cars produced in the world”:

Cambridge Energy Research Associates (09/29/2009) “Peak Oil Demand in the Developed World”

NCAP: 2010: ‘about us’

United Nations Enviroment Program (10/16/2009)Modern Bioenergy”

United Nations Enviroment Program (24/10/2009) “Assessing Biofuels” Retrieved 2009-10-24.

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