Transportation Internal Combustion Engines

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Internal combustion engines have found major applications in many industries; particularly in transportation, home appliances, and stationary power generation systems. Depending on their size, they can deliver power in the range of a few to several thousand kilowatts. The principle of operation of internal combustion engines is simple -- a mixture of fuel and air is burned inside a combustion chamber and the product of the combustion is expanded, turning the energy of fuel into useful (shaft) work. Examples of internal combustion engines are gasoline engines, diesels, and gas turbines.

There is no single person who can be named as the inventor of the internal combustion engine; the process was an evolutionary one that started with Christian Huygens in 1680 who designed (but never built) an internal combustion engine working with gun powder. Over the next two centuries many inventors perfected combustion engines, among them Nicholas Otto (1876), who proposed a four-step “Otto” cycle, Gottlieb Daimler (1885), who invented the prototype gas turbine, and Karl Benz (1889), who built the first practical four-stroke, two cylinder engine and the first four-wheeled automobile. Wilhelm Maybach (1890) then used Benz’s design to build the first four-cylinder, four-stroke engine (1).

Figure 2 Vehicles per thousand people for various regions in the world.
Figure 2 Vehicles per thousand people for various regions in the world.

The first automobile manufacturing company in the United States was established by Henry Ford in 1903. The company named its automobiles according to the letters of the alphabet. In 1908 it introduced the Model-T (Figure 1), the first mass-produced vehicle, and offered it at prices affordable to a great number of people. With increased reliability and cheap, widely available petroleum, the number of privately owned cars increased rapidly.

Figure 1 1908 Ford Model T.
Figure 1 1908 Ford Model T.

To meet their transportation needs, Europeans and Americans followed different paths. Europeans invested mainly in trains, trolleys, and subways. American policy makers, under pressure from the booming automotive industry, promoted private car ownership. Some American car companies went as far as buying and dismantling streetcars and replacing them with diesel buses, which in many instances were poorly designed, effectively forcing the public to purchase private cars for transportation.

Following WWII, US interstate highways expanded rapidly, literally paving the way for automobiles as the principal source of transportation (2). Of the 700 million cars in the world, over one-third belong to Americans. Today, Europeans have the same ratio of cars to people as the US had a quarter century ago. Similarly, present per capita car ownership in the former Soviet Union is comparable to that of the US in 1923 (See Figure 2). In 2003, Americans traveled more than 4.1 trillion miles, over 87% of which was by automobiles, SUVs, and other light trucks. As the data presented in Table 1 indicate, the miles traveled by commuters using rail systems totaled only about 0.6% of that traveled by passenger cars. Bus and train occupancy rates were very low; as a result, fuel efficiency measured as BTU/passenger-miles were roughly the same for passenger cars and other modes of transportation. Public transportation in Europe is, however, significantly more efficient as trains and buses run with much heavier occupancy rate; four to five- fold increases in efficiency (730 BTU/passenger-miles for trains and 1050 BTU/passenger-miles for buses) are common in most European countries.

Whether the European or American model of transportation is superior is a matter of taste and public policy. In the United States, cars are a necessity and are well-entrenched in the American lifestyle. Distances between homes and offices and between different cities are much longer, and public commuter systems are vastly inadequate. As a result, the use of public transportation is largely limited to the low-income and the disadvantaged. In Europe, on the other hand, distances are shorter, the infrastructure is more developed, and a vast network of railways and other public transportation systems for commuting and long distance travel already exist. Affordable and easily accessible public transportation has removed the need for personal vehicles for most people, making cars a luxury - nice to have for special occasions, leisurely evening activities, and weekend excursions.

Table 1. US Passenger Travel and Energy Use, 2004
Mode Number of Vehicles Passenger-miles (billions)  % of total travel Load Factor
Light trucks
Busesa Planesb
136 million
81 million
5.4 million
a Includes transit, intercity, and school; b General aviation; c Data available for transit buses only
Ref: Davis, S. C., Diegel, S. W., Table 2.12. “Transportation Energy Data Book,” ORNL-6978, Edition 26, 2006.


(1) Brittanica Online Encyclopedia (

(2) See for example Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took over America and How We Can Take It Back, New York: Crown Publishers, 1997, p. 171.

(3) Toossi Reza, "Energy and the Environment:Sources, technologies, and impacts", Verve Publishers, 2005

Further Reading

Tillman, D., Fuels of Opportunity: Characteristics and Uses In Combustion Systems, Academic Press, 2004.

Sorensen, K., Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: Emerging Technologies and Applications, Academic Press, 2005.

Dhameia, S., Electric Vehicle Battery Systems, Academic Press, 2001.

Hussain, I., Electric and Hybrid Vehicles: Design Fundamentals, CRC Press, LLC. 2003.

Jefferson, C.M., and Barnard, R. H., Hybrid Vehicle Propulsion, WIT Press, 2002.

Spelberg, D. The Hydrogen Energy Transition: Moving Toward the Post Petroleum Age in Transportation, Academic Press, 2004.

Fuel, Direct Science Elsevier Publishing Company, Fuel focuses on primary research work in the science and technology of fuel and energy fuel science.

Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies, Direct Science Elsevier Publishing Company; this journal focuses on scholarly research on development, application, and implications in the fields of transportation, control systems, and telecommunications, among others.

Fuel Cells Bulletin, Direct Science Elsevier Publishing Company, Fuel Cells Bulletin is the leading source of technical and business news for the fuel cells sector.

International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Direct Science Elsevier Publishing Company, Quarterly journal covering various aspects of hydrogen energy, including production, storage, transmission, and utilization, as well as economical and environmental aspects.

External Links

US Department of Transportation (

US Department of Energy (

US Environmental Protection Agency (

National Energy Renewable Laboratory Hybrid Electric &Fuel Cell Vehicles (

FreedomCar (