Revisiting an Old Argument

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Sometimes meaningful topics for this site in early January are hard to come by. While admittedly searching for a topic for today, I was scrolling through the Racer Mailbag hoping that something would make my ears perk up. I did. It is not a topic that is even new for this site, but things change and it is occasionally worth revisiting an old topic from time to time.

A reader (Matt from South Bend) of the Mailbag wrote in, expressing his concern that IndyCar will make the complete transition to electric power units, thereby depriving current fans of the beautiful sounds and wonderful smells that IndyCar has to offer.

It’s a legitimate concern. There is nothing as thrilling as walking through the garage area during an IndyCar weekend and coming across a garage that has just fired up the engine in their car. Crowds immediately gather, just to hear (and feel) the raw sound of power and the intoxicating smell of ethanol exhaust. I still remember the days when Indy cars burned methanol, and I much preferred the scent of methanol exhaust fumes – but ethanol exhaust is an acceptable substitute.

The sound of even a single car on-track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is mesmerizing. You peer toward the north-end of the front stretch toward Turn Four. You see a car in the distance slingshot off of the turn and get within inches of the outside wall, but you can’t hear a thing. As the car approaches, you begin to hear a high-pitched whine, Suddenly the car is just in front of you. The sound and volume has increased notably in just a second or two. In an instant, the car has passed you as it heads into Turn One. Just as it is directly in front of you, the high-pitched whine has morphed into a throaty growl that silences anything else. That sound reverberates off of the near-empty stands, and produces a sound you can only appreciate in-person. TV or radio does the sound no justice at all. The echo is still lingering as the car disappears beyond Turn One.

I have been going to IMS since the mid-60s, and that is an experience that still grips me every time I witness it.

If the day ever comes where we are watching fully electric cars at Indianapolis; I can’t imagine an electric motor that produces no fumes or exhaust, will elicit the same effect.

In Marshall Pruett’s response to Matt, he said that every time he questions IndyCar president Jay Frye about this, the answer is always the same. Frye says flat-out that he cannot imagine the time that IndyCar runs without internal combustion engines. I hope so, but things change.

Back in October, I bought a new car – a 2022 Honda Insight. For those that are unfamiliar with this car, it is a hybrid. What I really like about it is that it looks like a regular car, not a science fair project like so many hybrids on the market. As recently as one year ago, had you told me I would ever own a hybrid, I would have laughed in your face. Today there is one parked in my driveway.

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I have caught a lot of ribbing for it, from local longtime friends as well as my IndyCar friends. They predictably ask if I’ve gone vegan or when my next nuclear protest is scheduled for. I have made it very clear that I didn’t buy this car to save the planet, I bought it to save my wallet. Locally, gas prices more than doubled from November of 2020 to November of 2021.

I travel about 350 miles each week just for work. I had a ten year-old Honda Civic that I had racked up a lot of miles on. It got about 34 mpg, but with gas prices soaring and my trusty Civic starting to show some age I opted for a hybrid, after doing months of research. The Honda Insight is rated at 55 mpg, but the high-end version that I bought is rated at 51 mpg. How do I like my hybrid after three months? I love it! Is it a race car? No, and it’s not designed to be one. But it handles well, has enough pep for what I need in daily driving and saves me a ton at the pump.

As most of you know, I was not thrilled when IndyCar announced their plans to go hybrid with the next-generation engine formula. A lot of that was due to ignorance on my part.

I have since learned that I didn’t fully understand the ways that hybrids work. I’ve also discovered that even then, I knew a lot more about hybrids than the general public. I was under the misconception that hybrid technology drew power from either the gasoline-powered engine, or the electric motor – not both at the same time. I’ve since learned that while it can be one or the other, most of the time the car is drawing power from both.

With only a 1.5 liter gas-powered engine, I was afraid that my new car would lag while pulling out into traffic or if I needed to pass on a two-lane road. Far from it. The electric motor has a lot of torque and it has provided ample acceleration when I need it.

I’ve also learned how misinformed the public is on hybrids. When I tell otherwise intelligent people that I bought a hybrid, I get questions like “How often do you have to plug it in?” or “Do you have to fill it with hydrogen?” or even “Did you have to re-wire your house to charge it?” One person asked me if I have to pull the battery out of the car to charge it. By the way…the answers to those questions are never, no, no and no.

My good friend (and the person who convinced me to start this site in 2009) Bruce Yarbro, bought a Tesla last spring. He took me for a ride in it and floored it. I’ve never experienced acceleration like that in my life (0-60 in 3.9 seconds). It actually made me dizzy. I’ve since heard it’s because your brain is slammed against the back of your skull. If that’s true, that can’t be good for you. Regardless, it was quite the rush.

The experience got me thinking about going fully electric. But the more I thought about it, it just didn’t make sense. There is a giant push for electric vehicles (EVs), that I’m not sure has been completely thought through. If Susan and I were to make a trip from Nashville to Indianapolis, it would really be pushing things to get there on one charge. To be safe, I would need to find the Tesla Supercharging station in Louisville – the only one between Nashville and Indianapolis. Then we would have to hope at least one of the charging lanes was available. Even if one was, it would take us about 25-minutes to charge up before getting back on the road. That adds another roughly half-hour to a normally four-hour trip. That’s significant.

It’s safe to say that you can find gasoline almost anywhere, and it takes less than five minutes to fill up. Throw in a trip to the restroom and you’re back on your way in no time. With more and more EVs on the road, I don’t think the increase in charging stations have kept up. I hear reports that there are sometimes long lines for charging stations. If you’re not at a supercharging station, it can reportedly take more than an hour to get a substantial charge.

Bruce drove his Tesla from west Tennessee to North Carolina in November, when the temperature was in the upper twenties at night. He learned how significantly the cold weather affects batteries. He had planned on stopping four times, on what is normally an eight-hour drive in a regular car. The cold weather drained his battery so quickly that he stopped nine times – more than twice what he had planned on. The normally eight-hour drive took fifteen hours. He said that’s the last time he takes his Tesla on a road trip in cold weather.

After seeing motorists stranded in Virginia on I-95 last week, I’m wondering how those in EVs fared. Even if you run out of gas in situations like this, you can conceivably walk to the nearest gas station for more gas. What happened to those whose batteries were drained in the snowstorm. Even after traffic cleared out, how did they get enough of a charge to get their vehicles drivable again?

Most of us have also heard the theories that most neighborhoods do not have the grid capacity to charge more than about three EVs at one time. If we all drive electric vehicles, how and when will we be able to charge them sufficiently for the next day? Will we have to find a charging station and sit there each evening charging up our cars for the next day? If I live in an apartment complex, do they now come with charging stations on-site? If not, how can I charge my car?

With the big push toward full EVs, I think there are more questions that answers – enough so, that I genuinely question the viability of an all-EV society. While I am not opposed to driving a fully-electric vehicle for everyday driving, I question the overall practicality of the idea. I am certain that somewhere in this audience is someone who is so convinced how wrong I am, they will be glad to point out the flaws in my argument. I welcome it. If I am wrong on what I’ve said, or left out some key points of logic – please enlighten me.

I go into all of this to say that I don’t think the internal combustion engine is dead or ever will be. Although our politicians are hoping to kill it with arbitrary deadlines, I’m not sure it’ll happen – not in this country, anyway.

That’s why I have changed my stance on hybrid engines in the Indianapolis 500. After owning one, I believe that traditional (non-plugin) hybrids are the next big area of development for auto manufacturers. Unless batteries that last for 800-1,000 miles that recharge quickly can be developed, I think there will be an eventual backlash from consumers against the EV. While it sounds great in theory to have quiet, powerful and emission-free cars everywhere, the fully-electric car Americans want, currently does not exist – at least affordably.

Not all Americans want a car to have the performance of a Ferrari, but they want cars that are affordable and dependable. They also want their cars to be practical and convenient. A car that turns an eight-hour trip into one that takes fifteen hours is neither. Sure, some will say it’s worth the sacrifice to save the planet, but we are a long way from the masses adopting that way of thinking. They want to get from Point A to Point B, quickly and practically. A traditional hybrid continues to charge its battery on its own, without being plugged in – while being very fuel-efficient in the process. That’s the future – at least, the immediate future.

That’s why I think car manufacturers will be glad to pursue hybrid technology through racing. What better place to showcase the latest hybrid technology, than the Indianapolis 500? That’s also why I am convinced that they will still be racing open-wheel cars that still sound (and smell) great at 16th and Georgetown every Memorial Day weekend, long after I’m gone.

George Phillips

16 Responses to “Revisiting an Old Argument”

  1. Great points, George. Until the oil and gas industry can figure out how to profit from electric vehicles, we will have internal combustion engines. Before electric cars come into wide use, the infrastructure of charging stations and home plug-ins needs to be developed. I went toa Formula E race once, and I missed the roar of the engines.

    • You guys are completely wrong, how do you think computer and IT industry advanced, its because of moore’s law of things getting faster and cheaper by a factor of 2 every 18 months. Thats what is happening to auto industry now and thats why the GMs of the world will not survive due to the paradigm shift in how the industry will operate. Look it took Elon Musk to change the paradigm, a computer Entrepeneur, whether you agree with it or not EVs of Tesla are the leader in the sector and Tesla is who spearheaded the Autonavigation at the level that Tesla can do. All the traditional auto companies are playing catchup. I know hearing the noise of IC Engines is what most of us got attracted to racing, but what we want and what the trend is, is different. Electrification of Autoindustry is inevitable whether you like it or not, Ev range and the charging stations will all be taken care of. There are more EV charging stations than there were even 12 months ago. By the time Indycar looks at next Engine cycle, I am afraid to say, we may be looking at Electric Engine formula. And most of all at the end of they day we have to worry about the Earth and Climate change and for that reason we need to go electric, my two cents

  2. Has anyone seen your local electric company’s plan to support, generate and deliver power to your garage and public charging stations for all electric cars and trucks? No one is addressing this issue, that I’m aware of.

    Buy an electric bike and a good rain coat.

    • Buce Waine Says:

      Another thought……….. Has anyone mentioned how the ‘battery’ will be recycled?

      • Fair question. Batteries for contemporary electric cars have an estimated life of about 10 years, and the materials from which it is made (as I understand) do not biodegrade. Unless I am wrong, landfills will be overflowing with useless batteries that cannot be broken down. Is this really “green” or “environmentally friendly”? Or does it just make certain people “feel good”?

        Maybe we shouldn’t be thinking for ourselves…that can be dangerous these days!

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Then there is this recent item from Finland after being told that replacement of battery would cost twenty-two thousand.

    In case you have not read about it:

    tps://finance.yahoo.com/news/tesla-owner-decides-blow-car-154102416.html

  4. billytheskink Says:

    It would be interesting to see how a fully electric Indycar would compete against contemporary ICE Indycar equipment, particularly at the 500. At this time, it seems, it would struggle to match the current car in either speed or refueling/recharging efficiency… but will that gap close in the future?

    • all of you to look at is the Formula E car, they are reaching 180 mph at the end of some straights, there is no problem with speed in EVs and the acceleration and torque on these things are better that ICE cars

      • billytheskink Says:

        Yes, I am looking at the Formula E car and others. I did not question the speed of EVs, I questioned their speed relative to their range/re-charging efficiency.

        Could an electric Indycar match the current ICE Indycar over 500 miles? Even if it could match the current car’s top end speed, I don’t see evidence yet that it could match the current car’s refueling speed. I expect that gap will close considerably or disappear from this earth before I do.

  5. Chris Lukens Says:

    George, I’m curious if you charge at home or have found a charge station nearby. If at home, 110v or 220v ? It is my understanding that a 220v at home station takes around four hours for a full charge. Has this shown up on your electric bill ? I know a 220v welder can really make that meter spin.

    I’ll add, I’m surely not totally opposed to EV’s. If I want an around town grocery-getter they are fine, outside the city limits, not so much.

  6. Where do you put the old batteries.
    What power source makes the batteries.
    How much energy is consumed in this production.
    Which country owns most of the lithium and cobalt mines. ( starts with a C )

    I think the below points the way to the future and allows the engines to sing for us.

    ———-
    Dedicated plant will produce sustainable fuel for combustion-engined Porsche models from 2022
    Construction is underway at the Chile factory where Porsche will produce synthetic fuel for combustion-engined cars from 2022.

    The company is aiming to begin trials of its own synthetic fuel next year, and it will be compatible with unmodified combustion engines. Initially, however, it will be limited to motorsport applications, with its first outing set to be in Porsche’s Mobil 1 Supercup race cars next year.

  7. Another challenge: It’s not clean energy unless the electricity is derived from a clean source. Driving an electric car charged from coal-powered electricity is not “clean.”

    Also: America’s frail electric grid cannot withstand a full-on switch to electric cars by the majority of drivers. It can barely withstand the additional drain by hotter summers/colder winters.

  8. Ethanol already is a green fuel for the most part. Did they promote it as such after the ethanol fuel sponsor from Iowa went away? Not much. The ethanol-electric hybrid combination could get the series some seriously good response from the public.
    And it could become attractive to manufacturers who have now begun to leave Formula E, if that trend continues.

    Congrats on the new car. May you always arrive safely.

  9. I had been thinking about whose brain I could pick about hybrid vehicles. I forgot that you bought a Honda hybrid. Thanks for sharing what you have learned. I think hybrid is the direction I will be going for my next vehicle. Has anyone here had experience with a hybrid crossover SUV?

  10. Robin Miller remarked
    he hoped to be “long gone”
    when IndyCar ran ANYthing other than ICE.

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