The internal-combustion engine, propelling U.S. automobiles since before the Model T Ford, will remain the dominant power source for cars until at least 2050, according to a study by a panel advising the Energy Department.
The National Petroleum Council said high costs and technology hurdles will impede any substitute technologies such as batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, which have been promoted by presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
The petroleum council, which includes representatives from industry, government and universities, said today U.S. policies should be "technology neutral" and depend on "market dynamics" to pick winners and losers.
"It's too soon to choose" which technology holds the most promise, said Linda Capuano, a co-author of the report and vice president for technology at Marathon Oil Corp. (MRO) in Houston.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu asked the council in 2009 to study how advancement of "alternative-fuel vehicle systems" can improve fuel efficiency, helping to lower greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce the need for oil imports. Chu was briefed on the report by the council at an event in Washington today.
The internal-combustion engine will remain the "dominant propulsion system for decades to come," said Bill Reinert, a co-author of the report and a Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) executive.
Combining traditional engines with electric batteries in plug-in hybrids and reducing the weight of cars and trucks promise to increase per-gallon mileage averages, the report states.
Vehicle efficiency gains could be as much as 90 percent even with the internal-combustion engine as the dominant technology, the council said.
It will take some kind of "disruptive innovation" to knock the internal-combustion engine from its perch, the report states.
Obama has sought to advance battery development through U.S. grants, tax breaks and loan guarantees to companies including Fisker Automotive Inc. and Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA) He also set a goal of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.
General Motor Co. (GM)'s Chevrolet plug-in hybrid Volt more than tripled sales this year to 8,817 as of June 30, while sales of Nissan Motor Co. (7201)'s all-electric Leaf slid from a year earlier.
Vehicles fueled with compressed natural gas -- not electric batteries -- will emerge as the biggest competitor to the combustion engine if natural-gas prices remain low, the report found. Hydraulic fracturing in shale rock formations has boosted supplies and pushed prices for the fuel to their lowest level in a decade.
Chu also asked the council to examine the likelihood the U.S. could cut in half greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks by 2050.
S. Shariq Yosufzai, Chevron Corp. (CVX) vice president for global downstream and among the authors of the report, said greater use of biofuels, natural gas and electric batteries will lead to significant per-mile carbon-emission reductions.
Those gains may be offset with an increase in total miles driven as forecast by the Energy Information Administration, which tracks and analyzes energy data for the U.S.
There isn't a clear path to meeting the 50 percent greenhouse-gas reduction target, Yosufzai said.
In 2010, transportation accounted for a third of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.
Of that, about 80 percent comes from cars and trucks on the road, with boats, railroads and airplanes accounting for the remainder, according to the report.