The internal combustion engine is facing a watershed moment; major manufacturer Volvo will stop producing petroleum-powered vehicles by 2021, and countries in Europe, including the UK, have vowed to ban their sale before 2040.
We take a look at the story of one of the most successful technologies of the past 100 years, and how it has impacted life in the United Arab Emirates.
The Benz Patent-Motorwagen, 1885 - the first combustion motorcar.
Photo: Getty Images
The age of the internal combustion engine began when a wife took her husband’s newly built car without permission to visit her mother. It was August 1888 and the woman was Bertha Benz, whose husband Karl was the inventor of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen.
Early demonstrations of the spluttering Benz had failed to convince the public of its usefulness, and the commercial prospects for the world’s first car looked grim. Enter Mrs Benz.
Gathering two of her sons, she left her home in Manheim, Germany, to drive the 106 kilometres to her mother’s house in Pforzheim, becoming the first person to drive an automobile over more than a short trial distance and proving the car’s practicality to the public.
The drive took an entire day and was fraught with problems. The three-wheel car frequently overheated, and the brakes needed to be repaired with shoe leather.
The following day, Mrs Benz drove back to her astonished husband, whose soon-reinvigorated company would, years later, merge with another named for creator Emil Jellinek’s daughter, Mercedes. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, 129 years later, the obituaries are finally being written for the internal combustion engine. It has had a good run.
Henry Ford made the car available to the common man with the Model T in 1908, and his company has since produced more than 350 million vehicles. Annual car production worldwide is now about 60 million.
If the car is still as popular as ever, the same cannot be said of its engine. It is blamed for polluting the air of our cities and contributing significantly to climate change. It consumes vast quantities of finite hydrocarbons and kills an estimated 1.3 million people a year.
That’s the equivalent of four A380 super-jumbo jets crashing every day. The internal combustion engine cannot be blamed for those deaths, or for the estimated 20 to 50 million injured in road accidents annually, but the electric future that will replace petrol and diesel is bound closely to driverless vehicles and the expectation that our roads will be safer and cleaner.
Nowhere will this seismic change be felt more deeply than in the UAE. The country’s love affair with the internal combustion engine runs deep.
This is the home of the world’s biggest Rolls-Royce dealership, a country whose police drive a Bugatti Veyron and where a personalised number plate of simply “5” recently sold for Dh32 million.
No records have been found for the first car in what is now the UAE, but at least two vehicles arrived in 1936 with a geological expedition to search for possible sites to drill for oil.
Imported from Bahrain, the first petrol-powered vehicles to arrive were a saloon car, probably a British-built Daimler, and a pick-up truck, probably a Dodge or a Ford.
Both vehicles struggled with the conditions, frequently bogging down in the glue-like soil of the sabkha after rain and having to be loaded onto the deck of a dhow for long stretches. Driving into the interior, the geologists found many who had never seen a car before and who fled at the sound of its horn.
But archive records show that these cars were perhaps not alone in the region. At the request of Sheikh Hamad Al Khalifa, who ruled Bahrain from 1932 to 1942, British officials searched dealers in what is now Pakistan in 1929.
It took more than three years, but Sheikh Hamad was eventually sold a reconditioned Studebaker from T A Jeewanji and Sons of Karachi.
About the same time, there are also passing references to a vehicle belonging to Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, then Crown Prince of Dubai and aged in his mid-20s.
It was Sheikh Rashid who once remarked: “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel,” reflecting his cautiousness about the sustainability of financial reliance on oil.
The end of the Second World War and the renewed push for oil exploration in the 1950s ushered in the age of the petrol engine. Land Rovers, developed from a British military vehicle, began to arrive in large numbers along with the more powerful American Dodge Power Wagon, which had the added appeal of smoother suspension and air conditioning.
Low tide on the Creek in Dubai, 1967.
Photo: Getty Images
Some wanted something with a little more flair. Despite the lack of roads and the challenges of desert driving, it was American cars that represented luxury and glamour in 1950s Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The Ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, acquired a bright yellow Cadillac in which he drove to a historic border summit in Buraimi with the Sultan of Oman in 1955, accompanied by a lorry load of guards to push it out of the sand when it (frequently) became stuck.
The Ruler’s brother, Sheikh Hazza bin Sultan, preferred a red and white 1957 Ford Ranchero. Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, in his first years as Ruler of Abu Dhabi preferred to drive a 1962 Chevrolet Bel-Air on his desert travels.
In March 1958, oil was discovered. As it began to flow in 1962, so did widespread prosperity. Cars became a symbol of this new wealth, even though the only roads were hard-packed sand tracks through town.
In Dubai, the newly formed Al Futtaim Motors organised the first shipment of Toyota Toyopet saloon cars and Land Cruisers.
That year also saw the establishment of what would become the Emirates Motor Company, a dealership selling Mercedes vehicles in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. Four years earlier, the founder, Abdul Jalil Al Fahim, set up a car spares workshop next to a small family textile and grocery shop on the Al Ain road.
By 1967, Al Fahim’s order of 13 ultra-luxury Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman cars was causing such astonishment in Stuttgart that the Germans sent a delegation to Abu Dhabi, instructed to investigate how a car traditionally associated with world leaders and movie stars was now in huge demand in the desert.
Over the next decade, sand gave way to asphalt; roads reached out from Dubai to Sharjah and the Northern Emirates. The old camel route from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi was replaced with tarmac and by the mid-1970s, a highway finally connected the new capital of the UAE with Dubai.
For the next 40 years, the internal combustion engine ruled the roads. Gas-guzzling, fully loaded opulence seemed to define the country’s image.
Sheikh Zayed switched his Chevrolet Bel-Air for German vehicles, including a Mercedes-Maybach.
Even in old age, he still liked to take to the roads to see his people. At the Sheikh Zayed Centre in Al Bateen, you can still see the handle fitted just above the passenger seat door to help him get inside his white BMW.
Sheikh Zayed visits Liwa and Delma Island, Abu Dhabi, 1979.
Photo: Al Itihad
It was inevitable that Abu Dhabi would later join the elite world of F1 motorsport, with its Yas Marina Circuit, and that the capital would become the backdrop for one of the films in the Fast and Furious franchise.
With a canny sense of publicity, Dubai added an increasingly exotic series of cars to its police fleet, ensuring the kind of international media attention money cannot buy.
In this sort of car-obsessed culture, the internal combustion engine seemed destined to rule for ever. But things are changing. Electric charging stations are being added to many locations, while Tesla, the electric car maker created by Elon Musk, has opened its first Middle East showroom and service centre in Dubai.
Their numbers are few and the first models remain a novelty – but then, 130 years ago, so was Bertha Benz and the Benz Patent-Motorwagen.
The adoption of the internal combustion engine, a revolutionary invention that took the power of the steam locomotive and made it more compact and convenient, saw horse-drawn carriages move from the streets to the history books within 15 years.
Enormous fortunes were made, everyday life was transformed and cityscapes were reimagined.
Now, almost a century after the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, the race is on to find an alternative power source to battle the global emissions crisis – the unforeseen legacy of the internal combustion engine and a testament to the ubiquitousness of the technology.
The world has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, and will continue to do so.
In 1913, the world’s population was around 1.8 billion.
Today, it stands at 7.6 billion. By 2050, it is expected to surpass 9 billion, and the International Energy Agency has estimated the number of cars will double from the current figure of 1 billion.
The UN expects the global population to exceed 11 billion by the end of the century.
Rising numbers of people means rising demand for energy, which, unless something dramatically changes, will ensure the world misses its target of limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
With the transport sector accounting for more than a quarter of total world energy use, many governments are turning their attention to lowering vehicle emissions.
The EU has set a 2050 target for reducing emissions from the transport sector by 95 per cent. Countries including Britain, China and France have announced plans to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel engines within the next few decades.
India wants all its vehicles to be electric by 2030.
Prof Paul Ekins, co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre, said that unlike other carbon-heavy industries such as the building sector, the hyper-competitive automobile industry has willingly committed in recent years to finding an alternative, low-carbon model.
“The mood music was changing and they couldn’t afford to allow things to happen without them.
“They would rather be inside the tent influencing the direction than outside the tent and trying to knock it down,” said Prof Ekins, also of University College London’s department of resources and environment policy.
He is convinced this move away from the internal combustion engine has been driven largely by climate change, followed by more awareness of local air pollution issues and the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
“The thing that has changed above all is that the narrative around low-carbon technology has changed,” Prof Ekins said.
“If you go back to the Copenhagen conference in 2009, all the talk was about burdens and cost sharing and who was going to do it. “Well, politics doesn’t deal well with that kind of narrative.
“In Paris [in 2016], all the talk was about opportunity: ‘we have new technology’, ‘we have innovation’, ‘this is going to be one of the defining areas of competitive advantage in the future’.
“This is something that was started by climate change more than anything else and I think that it was pushed by the perception of technological opportunity, and it’s now effectively unstoppable.”
The challenge of finding low or zero-emissions energy for vehicles that can still deliver speed, distance, comfort and status is a difficult one, but it is something the industry has realised it must do to maintain market share.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electric vehicles powered by batteries almost became the dominant technology, but fell out of favour because of the impracticality of how often they needed to be recharged.
Research into batteries never stopped, but only in recent years has the technology seemed viable for automobiles.
This comes at a time when the general appeal of an electric vehicle has increased, said Dr Anna Bonne from the UK’s Institution of Engineering and Technology.
“The image of the electric vehicle has changed from the tiny short-range commuter car to a luxury vehicle,” Dr Bonne said.
“Tesla has made the electric vehicle market sexier by designing one you would actually like to drive. Audi, Porsche, Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin have all announced that they will be producing electric vehicles soon.”
The other challenge facing the increased adoption of electric vehicles is where the energy powering the batteries will come from. In the UK, with a population of 65.6 million, it is predicted that demand will grow from the current 336 terawatt hours a year by about 20 per cent over the next 20 years. By 2050, demand is expected to be 520 TWh/year.
“The main challenge from the climate change point of view is to get low-carbon electricity, because at the moment electric cars emit just as much carbon as internal combustion engines. It’s just emitted at the power station and not from the car,” Prof Ekins said.
There are a number of solutions to the emissions problem, such as biofuels, and one leading contender is nuclear energy.
Speaking at a recent event, Harry Holt, president of Rolls-Royce Nuclear, said that to keep up with demand, low-carbon power generation would need to increase threefold.
Last year, Mr Holt’s company produced 150 TWh of low-carbon energy.
By 2030, they are aiming to produce 350 TWh, and by 2040 that will rise to 425 TWh.
“What that means as a challenge to the industry is we’re going to need to install about 95, just short of 100, gigawatts of electricity generating capacity by 2035, which is effectively replacing the entirety of what we’ve got and a little bit more on top of that,” he said.
Mr Holt believes nuclear will need to provide about 28 per cent of the installed energy capacity in 2050.
To do this, Rolls-Royce Nuclear is investing in small-scale nuclear reactors.
“We believe that these small modular reactors are going to have a very high load factor, a very high rate of utilisation,” Mr Holt said. “We believe they are quicker and easier to build and they therefore significantly reduce the financing burden and ultimately provide competitive electricity to the market.”
The other environmental factor to be considered with widespread battery adoption is the social-environmental one. The resources used in batteries are incredibly valuable.
Tesla plans to sell 500,000 electric cars a year. Using current technology, the company would need about two thirds of the world’s annual lithium production for their batteries. Supplies of other minerals such as cobalt could also come under pressure.
Although this means they are unlikely to be thrown away and therefore the risk of batteries ending up in rivers or landfills is low, it does mean the areas of the world where lithium is mined will be under pressure.
Despite the challenges, just as there was with the development of the internal combustion engine, large sums of money are there to be made.
As highlighted in the UK’s Clean Growth Strategy, analysis for the UK Committee on Climate Change estimated the low-carbon economy has the potential to grow 11 per cent per year between 2015 and 2030 – four times faster than the rest of the economy.
More than £2.5 billion (Dh12.44bn) will be invested by the UK government between 2015 to 2021. This forms part of the largest increase in public spending on UK science, research and innovation in almost 40 years.
So reads a 1912 advertisement from the Electric Vehicle Association of America highlighting the capability of electric cars to drive in any weather and with no need for the driver to crank the vehicle up before setting off.
At that time, most electric cars reached speeds of about 32kph and could not travel far without running out of power.
But today’s electric cars, powered by lithium-ion batteries, have come a long way. One Tesla Model S recently travelled more than 1,000 kilometres on one charge.
Dr Anna Bonne, of the UK’s Institution of Engineering and Technology, says electric vehicles with a good driving range on one charge, such as the small ones recently introduced by Renault and GM with a range of up to 320 kilometres, are becoming more affordable.
It is unlikely, however, that the new cars will be one size fits all. Some are suited to short journeys in urban areas, while others are better for longer journeys between cities.
“It is likely that cars will be powered by electric batteries, but larger vehicles that need to travel a long distance with a heavy load will be powered by hydrogen as they won’t be able to get the range they need with current battery technology,” Dr Bonne said.
“There is also an option that larger commercial vehicles such as lorries could be powered by overhead power cables, but the infrastructure would be expensive to install.”
Research from Shell shows the number of electric cars will rise significantly from the 1.2 million in 2015 to about 100 million by 2035 – or 6 per cent of the global fleet.
The 1900 Lohner Porsche vehicle combined two electric motors hidden in the front wheel hubs with two internal combustion engines, giving it a top speed of 40kph.
Photo: courtesy of Porsche
About a quarter of these electric vehicles are plug-in hybrids, which run on a mix of electric power and oil, and three quarters run on batteries.
Hydrogen fuel cells are also an option, with a small number of commercial vehicles on the road using them now, but Prof Paul Ekins of University College London and co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre, believes the electric car will win out.
“Battery electric vehicles have a head start and if the battery continues to develop as it has over the past two or three years in terms of cost and performance, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are going to find it pretty difficult to catch up,” says Prof Ekins.
But he does concede the possibility of a mixture of hydrogen fuel cell and electric vehicles.
“There’s an enormous amount of innovation to come and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we didn’t get hybrids of all kinds, but I think that battery electric vehicles will have a good share of the market.”
This view is shared within the industry. A spokesman for Shell said a patchwork of solutions would be needed for a successful and sustainable transition to a low-carbon future.
“Different types of vehicles and journeys have different requirements,” he said. “We believe different fuels and engines will develop and co-exist to meet the growing demand for mobility with lower emissions.”
Shell is developing fuels, including hydrogen, which it says “has the potential to play an important role in the energy transition” because of its flexibility and versatility.
But it seems there is still a way to go, as the spokesman said that “strong industry co-ordination and government support will be required” for hydrogen to be used more broadly.
The impetus for energy companies to secure their future is clear, as set out in the 2017 edition of BP’s energy outlook, which states that a 100 million increase in electric cars could reduce oil demand growth by 1.4 million barrels per day.
Self-driving cars, car sharing and ride pooling also contribute to fuel efficiencies.
Shell has said it plans to spend as much as US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) a year on its New Energies division as the transition toward renewable power and electric cars accelerates.
The company has said it also sees opportunities in hydrogen fuel cells and next-generation biofuels for air travel, shipping and heavy freight.
Royal Dutch Shell director John Abbott told an audience at Imperial College in London: “The world will need many solutions, not one. Success is not about picking one winner.
“Shell’s concept for a retail station in the not-too-distant future sees conventional fuels being sold alongside hydrogen and expanded facilities for battery electric vehicle drivers as they wait for a full charge.”
One of the biggest challenges to accommodating this vision is making sure the everyday infrastructure that will allow motorists to recharge and refuel these vehicles is available, with the speed and convenience people have come to expect.
Setting the standard, Beijing has set a target of having 800,000 charging sockets by the end of the year to cater for the world’s biggest market. To put five million energy-efficient vehicles on the roads by 2020, as it intends, China must tackle the shortage of charging facilities.
This is something that countries such as the UK have only recently started to tackle, with Royal Dutch Shell opening its first rapid charging point for electric cars at three sites in the UK in October last year, with the intention of seven more by the end of the year.
A member of staff charges an electric car at the Holloway Road Shell station where Shell launched its first fast electric vehicle charging station in London.
Should countries like Britain panic at work that remains to be done to build an environment for large amounts of electric vehicles?
Prof Ekins doesn’t think so. “Charging infrastructure isn’t that expensive and I think we will have regulations that say local authorities have to provide a certain number of on-street charging infrastructures,” he said.
“Quite a lot of car parks will have charging infrastructures in them and people will install them in their homes. They’ll have incentives to do that.”
Innovative energy deals are springing up in anticipation of how our neighbourhoods could manage their energy needs.
Nissan and the OVO energy company plan to launch a vehicle-to-grid offering for customers buying the new Nissan Leaf from this month. It will allow customers to sell energy back to the grid at peak times.
Nissan electric vehicle owners will be able to connect to the grid to charge at low-demand, cheap tariff periods. They can then use the electricity stored in the vehicle’s battery at home and at work when costs are higher, or feed electricity back to the grid.
OVO plans to introduce special tariffs to reward customers for this interaction with the grid.
The companies say vehicle-to-grid technology could generate a virtual power plant of up to 200 gigawatts. This energy capacity is more than double the peak requirement on the UK grid.
Meanwhile, an alliance called CharIN – including Shell, Jaguar Land Rover, BMW and Daimler, Siemens and Bosch, EWE, Continental and Man – is working on a system to help the grid handle the coming influx of electric vehicles.
CharIN, an association dedicated to ensuring charging systems for battery electric vehicles have a global standard, is seeking to prevent local power cuts when several people plug in their cars at once.
CharIN has also invested in the distribution of charging posts, which would need to be smart and connected to enable communication with the grid.
This would allow the posts to know when there is enough electricity in the system and when there is not. This model has been tested for two years in London, Hamburg and
Elon Musk’s dream to get an electric car in every household is also shared by James Dyson.
Dyson, the entrepreneur’s engineering company best known for its vacuum cleaners and fans, plans to spend £2bn (Dh9.93bn) developing a “radical” electric car.
The battery-powered vehicle is due to be launched in 2020 and 400 staff have been working on the project for the past two years.
The money needed for the research of this new technology is astronomical, but the money to be made by whoever cracks it first is difficult to even imagine.
The accolade of producing the engine of the century is waiting, ready to be grabbed.
Mazin Al Khatib, chief executive of Nostalgia Classic Cars at
Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz, Dubai.
Photo: ChristopherPike / The National
Early risers in the late 1970s might have wondered if their eyes were playing tricks – an American gas guzzler cruising the back streets of Jumeirah with what seemed to be a boy, barely into his teens, at the wheel.
Mazin Al Khitab laughs at the 40-year-old memory.
“I come from a family that always had drivers and I used to be one of those naughty kids who would wake up early in the morning, especially on a Friday when the streets are empty,” Mr Al Khitab says.
He pauses, then says: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after this article, whether Dubai Police are retroactive? Anyway, I grew up in Jumeirah and I would steal the car … not steal. Borrow.”
Talking to Mr Al Khitab, you might believe he measures his life by cars. First, there was his childhood in Dubai.
“My dad, God bless his soul, for him the automobile was literally a means of transport. So I grew up on big, large, comfortable American cars, Buicks and Cadillacs, because for my dad, comfort was the most important thing.”
Then there was university in the US. “My dad was kind enough to buy me a brand-new car and of course it was a sportscar. It was a shift with a paddle and clutch – a Dodge Daytona Turbo Z.
“When I finished university, I shipped it back here and, stupid me, I didn’t know that at that time I needed to watch every single penny. I could not afford to have two cars, so I sold it. It was a big mistake. I wish I could find it.”
Then the real world intervened. Mr Al Khitab took a job as an investment banker, married and had kids. But his passion for the internal combustion engine was never far away.
He began to buy cars, more than even a growing family could possible need.
“When I started to make money I started buying all my dream cars,” Mr Al Khitab says. “Being in banking I justified it to myself. Why? If I maintain them well and take good care of them, they will appreciate.
“And it became like a drug. I started buying one, then another, the third, the seventh, the 10th, and then I had 17.”
He had to take over part of a warehouse to store them.
How did his wife feel about his habit? There were many reasons for their divorce, of course, but as for his car collection: “Yes, it was an issue.”
Then came the decision that changed his life. He had done well in banking and was leading a successful team at a well-known financial institution. The money was excellent.
“I remember I used to tell my team: ‘When you guys get up in the morning and you don’t have a smile on your face ready to come to your work, don’t show up’, Mr Al Khitab says.
“And honestly, it started to happen with me. I would wake up in the morning and there was no smile on my face. That’s when I made up my mind that I would leave and start to convert my passion in to a business. I was too young to retire, swim and play golf.”
The result is Nostalgia Cars, which he set up in 2015. It buys and restores classic cars, with a workshop and a showroom in Al Serkal Avenue.
“I chose this area because Al Serkal is the art hub of Dubai, with more than 50 art galleries in this compound,” Mr Al Khitab says. “I look at my cars, my stock, as pieces of art. Honestly, sometimes I sit for hours just staring at them.”
They make an impressive sight. Row upon row of gleaming names – from a 1923 Model T Ford to a 1930 Chevrolet Deluxe, a 1972 classic Jaguar E Type, a 1965 Triumph TR4 and many more.
A visitor views a classic Jaguar E-Type modified with an electric engine on display at the Jaguar Land Rover 'Tech Fest' in London, in September.
There are more than a dozen Mercedes, including a 1960 190, as well as a 1973 Rolls-Royce Corniche and a 1959 Ford Thunderbird – a masterpiece in cream and chrome.
Mr Al Khitab says the business was set up from a collector’s point of view.
“Every problem I had as a collector, I have solved in my business. I wanted to show people that you can get a decent classic car that’s appreciating in value for $25,000.”
A fire engine red 1965 Mustang is $23,000, while the Ford Thunderbird is $30,000.
So business is good, as you would expect in a culture as car crazy as the UAE. Yet most of his customers, like most of his cars, come from overseas. Mr Al Khitab thinks he knows why.
“The culture of classic cars in the UAE is, in my opinion, not as big as, say, Kuwait or Saudi,” he says.
“If you look at Kuwait or Saudi, generations in the 1940s and ’50s had cars. Whereas in the UAE, in generations in the ’50s, not many had cars, maybe the sheikhs and the big families.
“I am 50 years old and from my Abu Dhabi, Dubai, UAE friends, few of them would say ‘my grandfather had a car’. If you go to Kuwait and Saudi, way more. “And that’s what’s reminding them: ‘Ah this is the car I remember my grandfather had. I used to go to his house and see it’.”
But Mr Al Khitab believes that attitudes here are changing.
“What I’m seeing now is that a lot of younger generations are coming in and are interested to learn and start collecting,” he says.
Part of the appeal of a classic car, he thinks, is their uniqueness. In the UAE, cars that would be a rarity elsewhere are common. It is hard to stand out and make an impression.
“The passion for cars here is amazing,” Mr Al Khitab says. “That’s why you see all these beautiful supercars. But if you really want to show off you cannot any more.
“You might go to a hotel and you find a couple like yours. One of the things you look for in a supercar is that you are the only one on the road.”
What though, of the future for cars? Recently, Mr Al Khitab found himself in conversation with a senior executive from General Motors.
“He was telling me where we are going, and I was like: ‘are you serious?’ Sit in a car and it takes the kids to school and it drives home alone to take you to the office.”
How does Mr Al Khitab feel about this? “Bad. I feel bad. It’s convenient, fine, but …”
This is a father who insisted his daughters learn to drive in cars with a manual transmission. “They were the only ones when it came to the test,” he says proudly.
The love affair with the internal combustion engine will not end with the coming of the electric, driverless car, he hopes. But the relationship may evolve. Mr Al Khitab has just returned from a business trip to China.
“The demand and interest in the sample of people I met is amazing,” he says. “They want to buy classic cars. They want to keep them to show their grandkids that this is what a car looks like. “In a few years, the young ones will look at a classic car and go ‘wow’. So from a business point of view? I can’t wait.”