"Nothing ages so quickly as yesterday's vision of the future" ~ Richard Corliss
I was looking through the 36 page car section of a Popular Mechanics when the following article by Roger Huntington caught my eye: "How Far Can We Go With The Piston Engine?" The article begins like this. "An early death for the age-old internal combustion piston engine is the prediction of some people. They say the exhaust can't be cleaned up enough to meet future air-pollution and antismog laws and that we'll be running around with batteries, steam, fuel cells and atomic engines in another ten years."
This was written in 1969, before the quick lube / Do-It-For-Me market emerged, and eighteen years before the AOCA was a twinkle in its founders' eyes. Seems to me these words could have been written in '79 or '89 or '99. Or even yesterday. Is this picture of the near future more relevant today than it was then?
One way to get a perspective is to look back to the first days of automobile transportation. Did you know that electric cars were the rage then as well?
When first developed, the internal combustion engine did not take the motoring public by storm. Though many inventors produced various designs for this novel approach to mobility, Gottlieb Daimler is often credited with developing the first prototype of the modern gas engine, including a vertical cylinder with gasoline injected through a carburetor. A year later, in 1886, Karl Benz obtained the first patent for a gas fueled car and the horseless carriage was on its way.
During this same time period carriages were also being powered by fuel cells. As early as 1842 an electric road vehicle was powered by a non-rechargeable battery. Improvements in the battery made battery powered vehicles increasingly practical, and by 1899 there were more electric cars on the road in Britain and France than there were gas powered vehicles. In the late 1890's there was even a New York City taxi fleet composed of electric cars.
Electric cars were quieter, cleaner, and offered a much more pleasant motoring experience. And they could run at a pretty decent clip as well. In 1899 a Belgian built electric car called "La Jamais Contente" was clocked at 68 miles per hour, setting a world land speed record. The gas powered counterpart was a hand-cranked contraption that smelled, vibrated a lot and made a lot of noise. The hardest part of all was changing gears, which you didn't have to do in an electric car.
Electric vehicles did have their limitations. First, they were expensive. Second, they had a range of less than 20 miles, which became problematic in a wide open country like the United States.
END OF THE ROAD
It was only a matter of time before the internal combustion engine would overpower the electric motor. Times were changing and America's sprawling highway network was unfolding. Motorists needed a car that could go the distance. Gas power was also helped by the discovery of Texas crude oil, making gasoline abundant and affordable.
Charles Kettering's invention of the electric starter in 1912 had a big impact on the desirability of gas powered cars, and Henry Ford's mass production processes brought the price down to where almost anyone could afford these vehicles. A gas powered Ford, at $650, became far more desirable than an electric roadster that cost over a thousand dollars more.
I cite the Pop Mechanics article because it has a direct bearing upon our discussion of the present concerns about the future of our oil change business. At the time Roger Huntington was writing engines were definitely more inefficient, generated more pollution and used more fuel. But as Detroit automakers focused on these issues, solutions emerged including fuel injection, streamlined manifolds, turbochargers, the elimination of distributors, and a whole host of other complicated but effective mechanical and electronic devices. Things got way better with each passing decade.
In addition, there were solutions that never entered the automakers' minds. Foremost of these was the introduction of synthetic motor oil three years hence. Synthetic oil, though few understood its significance at the time, could help reduce fuel use, increase engine efficiency and reduce waste oil through extended drain intervals.
Doomsters could not foresee these improvements in the combustion engine. But keep in mind that engine manufacturers have vested interest in making such improvements. GM & Honda currently build 80,000 engines a day. To create a whole new kind of engine, to roll out the essential infrastructure that would support it, will be immensely complicated and costly. Yet as an alternative to going electric, the engine builders are highly motivated.
AND SOME THINGS STAY THE SAME
In 1969 there were some who predicted electric cars would return to favor within ten years. And some predicted there would be cars without wheel riding about on a cushion of air.
Truth is, the internal combustion engine is still with us. The only place we see cushions of air is in the mattress industry where people can sleep and dream about their electric cars. For the time being, the oil change industry will provide a valuable service to the countless motorists who appreciate the convenience.
It would be foolish to ignore potential threats to your business, but for the foreseeable future the sky is not falling. Environmental concerns are the "driver" behind the clamor for electric cars. Synthetic lubricants offer several major benefits that address environmental concerns. Cleaner engine operation produces better air quality. Reduced fuel usage through efficient engine operation and power distribution is a benefit. And extended oil drain intervals significantly reduce waste oil. Understanding and promoting these benefits of synthetic oils will help extend the lifespan of our industry as electric cars remain a footnote of history.
The future fascinates us because some day we'll be living there. Our actions today will help our industry not only survive, but thrive.