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No need to panic about the rise of electric vehicles; internal combustion and diesel will be here for some time to come.

Willie Vogt

May 24, 2021

3 Min Read
Hummer EV pickup
EV POWER: There's a lot of attention aimed at electric vehicles, and companies are working hard to promote them. But for big, heavy-level work, nothing really beats the energy density and convenience of liquid fuel. Bio-based alternatives do offer benefits.Courtesy of General Motors

There's a lot of talk about electric vehicles these days as policymakers push to reduce our carbon footprint, and I realize that has value for many. But frankly, I don't see the internal combustion engine going away in my lifetime (though the older I get, the less time that tends to be).

I do see more folks driving electric cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles. The pandemic has shown that many want to work at home, and if so, the long commute could be ending. With that, an electric car may make more sense – though I would keep a gas-burning vehicle that allows for quick fill-ups and longer trips in the garage, too.

But what seems to be overlooked is that big power needs the energy density of diesel fuel and even gasoline. Sure, ethanol fuel and bio-based diesel offer some solid opportunities, but even if they went nuts building plants for those fuels at a breakneck pace, it'll be some time before petroleum-based fuels disappear.

That energy density is a big deal. Getting a 400-hp tractor with the necessary torque to do farm work – say, plant at 8 mph – would require significant battery power. And batteries add weight, which means less run time between charges. Talk of fuel cell technology to create quick-refueling systems using new technology may hold promise, but then you have problems with hydrogen production for those fuel cells.

Related: Startup rethinks diesel power

I'm not a nattering nabob of negativism on electric vehicles. But I am a longtime supporter of appropriate technology appropriately applied, and that means using the appropriate power source to get the job done. That means keeping internal combustion and diesel engines around as the tech gets perfected – and perhaps beyond that, too.

For example, the California Air Resource Board notes that electric over-the-road trucks might hit 6% of the market by 2040. That means 94% of the vehicles on the road will be burning fuel through an engine most of us would recognize. This is not an overnight transition.

What could be coming

During CES earlier this year – virtual, of course – General Motors rolled out its Ultium electric vehicle platform, which streamlines the design of zero-emission vehicles. It’s also throwing some super design behind those machines with the new Hummer pickup, and some interesting-looking Cadillac models, including the Lyriq.

All are based on a single platform designed to be tweaked based on power needs, by adding more, or fewer, batteries to the final design. That's where innovation in electrics may make an electric pickup for the farm make sense. General Motors is promising a 400-mile range for its first electric Silverado. And the company has made some public relations noise with the Hummer EV pickup, which I included with this column just so you could have a look.

From my perspective, we may not see much more change on the farm yet. I don't believe you'll be swapping that diesel tank on the farm for a hydrogen tank to replenish fuel cells anytime soon. However, you may be running renewable diesel in that tractor, or more biodiesel. And there's even a chance you could burn ethanol in a future diesel engine. But in the end, the sound you hear when you turn the key will remain quite familiar.



About the Author(s)

Willie Vogt

Willie Vogt has been covering agricultural technology for more than 40 years, with most of that time as editorial director for Farm Progress. He is passionate about helping farmers better understand how technology can help them succeed, when appropriately applied.

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