A Marty McFly in 2022 couldn’t buy a new DeLorean ; It is not manufactured, there are not even spare parts to repair an old one.
In 1885 (see Back to the Future 3 ), Doc Brown and Marty Mcfly are forced to use a steam train engine to return to their present. At that time in history there were no cars similar to a DeLorean, despite the fact that rudimentary precursor models of the automotive industry had been presented since the 18th century.
It really wasn’t until after 1885 when in Germany, first Karl Benz and then the group led by Daimmler, Maybach and Jellinek (Mercedes was the name of the latter’s daughter) developed the first cars comparable to the current ones. Shortly thereafter in France, and in the US under the leadership of Henry Ford, one of the most important modern industries was launched .
Those pioneering cars ran on alcohol, and there were even electric or steam-driven ones, but a petroleum derivative that came to be known as gasoline quickly prevailed.
The arrival of oil
Indeed, the commercial history of the automobile cannot be understood without the early development of the oil industry a few decades earlier. Thus, in 1859, shortly before the start of the American Civil War, Edwin Drake in Pennsylvania drilled the first oil well worthy of the name.
The world’s first oil company, Standard Oil Co. Inc., had been manufacturing petroleum oil for lamps since 1870 . It was about to go bankrupt when shortly after the ill-fated couple Tesla-Edison developed electric lighting in cities, but the automotive industry came to its rescue. It was just the same years that Marty and Doc used a coal-fired steam locomotive.
Coal, gasoline, electricity and of course wood already coexisted at the end of the 19th century. This suggests that energy transitions are processes of superposition and not of immediate substitution . Without going any further, in 1989 the last steam train in Western Europe was still running in Spain, in the province of León.
Many years later, in 1955, Marty is forced to hide his fabulous DeLorean so as not to attract attention. His nemesis, Biff Bannon, was driving a Ford Super De Luxe at the time, which ends up covered in manure after a chase. It was obviously a gas car, just like the sleek Packard Custom Eight Victoria that Marty drives to take his mom to prom.
In an era of cheap fuels, more than 10 million cars were produced in the world (currently more than 80 million a year ) and the car was already a symbol of the middle class.
In gasoline, a product called tetraethyl lead ( tetraethyl lead , TEL) was widely used. This made it possible to improve the octane rating, that is, the anti-knock power of the gasoline and, as a consequence, the performance of the engine.
Thirty years later, on October 26, 1985, at the start of Marty’s epic, TEL gasoline was still the dominant fuel. That heavy metal gasoline would still be used for decades, despite the fact that tetraethyl lead was dangerous and associated with the presence of anthropogenic lead in the blood of citizens.
The crusade to remove lead from gasoline
The discovery of this problem was accidental. He corresponds to the American scientist Clair C. Patterson , in an adventure that would deserve a good movie script.
In short, Patterson worked on calculating the age of the Earth and the chemistry of the oceans by measuring ratios between different stable isotopes of lead. In these, he discovered that the massive use of tetraethyl lead had drastically increased the proportions of unnatural lead in the atmosphere.
In the mid-1960s, the geochemist made this situation public and defended in various forums the need to reduce or eliminate the use of lead in gasoline. Patterson was a true traveler in time and came to show that very old human bones contained hundreds of times less lead than those of his contemporaries .
As often happens in these cases, his research was not well received by the industry and it took many years to remove tetraethyl lead from the formulation of commercial gasoline, something that happened in most countries in the 90s Residual, for years it continued to be used in aviation, motor boating and motorsports, and until 2021 it was still served in some countries .
The truth is that Patterson’s studies laid the groundwork for the use of lead isotopes as reliable environmental tracers. Following in his footsteps, it has recently been shown that the elimination of the use of TEL in gasoline has reduced atmospheric levels of lead .
The history of tetraethyl lead shows us how science and technology have been able to gradually improve the quality of emissions and the subsequent environmental impact of the automotive industry. However, to improve the octane rating, TEL was replaced by other additives, including MTBE and ETBE (methyl and ethyl tert-butyl ether), highly volatile compounds that cause serious problems in groundwater when a fuel spill occurs. . Especially MTBE, whose use was banned in the 2000s.
The turbodiesel fraud
Just at the same time, diesel-powered vehicles took over a large part of the market. Thus, the famous turbodiesel or TDI popularized a variant of diesel , when originally it was a motorization more designed for trucks and other heavy transport, including submarines.
For more than a decade, these TDI engines were best sellers in Europe, thanks in part to pollutant emission figures that were later shown to be falsified in an apparent collusion between manufacturers and governments that calls for reflection.
The fraud was revealed in 2013 by Professor Gregory Thompson and his colleagues at West Virginia University when they proved that one of the main European car brands (later it was shown that many more did) had software that reduced oxide emissions. of nitrogen only when the vehicle was on a test bench, and not when driving normally.
The fact that a scam of such magnitude went unnoticed for years suggests caution in the current situation. When today we are shown again and again the environmental benefits that electric motors or those powered by hydrogen are going to have on the environment, a little critical evaluation would not hurt , especially considering that, although we produce and use energy renewable, the materials needed to make it are not .
No power source is perfect
The automobile industry is a capital industry for our economy, and in a world as complex as the current one, the temptation to repeat the history of the TEL or that of the TDI engines undoubtedly exists. Nor should other notorious fiascoes be forgotten, such as that of biodiesel , or the doubts generated by vehicles that use flexible gas engines .
On the other hand, in the present, past and future, Marty’s car not only needs a conventional motor, but to jump back and forth in time, an additional energy boost is needed to activate the “ flux condenser”. The energy of a lightning bolt in 1955, a few grams of plutonium in 1985 and a homemade nuclear fusion reactor in a future film of flying cars are used for this.
However, in today’s reality, it would not be easy to find a politically correct option despite the variety of energy sources available. Any possibility (except perhaps lightning) would have its detractors in a context in which even electricity generated from renewables is increasingly opposed due to the impacts on the environment that some point to .
Let us not forget in any case that, perhaps above climate concerns, a powerful reason to improve energy technology, especially in transport, is to reduce the effects of air pollution, responsible for the premature death of millions of people a year.
In search of a sustainable DeLorean
Limited production in the early 1980s near Belfast, the DMC DeLorean had a nearly 3 liter V6 engine and used leaded petrol. When Back to the Future was released in 1985, the factory was already closed and from then on it became a cult vehicle.
A Marty McFly in 2022 could not therefore buy a new DeLorean; It is not manufactured, there are not even spare parts to repair an old one. If he were to find a way to get another one from a collector, he would be in trouble because he doesn’t use legal unleaded fuel and would need special additives. He also couldn’t drive through downtown Hill Valley or any of our cities without an ECO label.
Maybe then Doc could transform it into an electric vehicle , but in most of our garages it still couldn’t be recharged. Another possibility would be to run it on hydrogen, but in that case the cost would exceed the profits from many years of rigged sports betting.
If Marty and Doc, already desperate, decided to search the internet for information to choose a new car, they would spend hours reading advice and recommendations of dubious objectivity. In the end, they might not know whether to still tie themselves to a vehicle with a combustion engine or prefer something apparently more sustainable. To know what the right decision is, they would need to go back to the future again…
José Luis Rodríguez Gallego , Professor, Institute of Natural Resources and Territorial Planning (INDUROT), University of Oviedo