Steve Levine:

When most of us picture the high-tech personal mobility of the future, we tend to imagine a sleek, dead-quiet electric car, packed with voice- or motion-directed gizmos and self-driving features. We see ourselves gliding around almost effortlessly, free to talk, work or text as we see fit.

What few of us conjure up is having this sort of experience in a gasoline-fueled car. But that may be changing in the face of recent design advances. The internal combustion engine—the workhorse of the industrial age—is proving to be much more than a stubborn technological incumbent.

More than a century after becoming the dominant way that people move around, gas-powered cars are challenging ostensibly more advanced electric vehicles. It has proved hard to beat engines in which fuel is ignited, drives pistons and propels a vehicle. Even in 2040, according to forecasting agencies such as the U.S. Energy Information Administration, cars with gas- and diesel-powered engines will still represent some 95% of the international car market.

One reason is that refinements of combustion-engine technology are mandated: U.S. government standards require cars to average 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025, up from 25.1 mpg last year. To get there, car makers are improving efficiency with direct fuel injection (which allows gasoline to burn more efficiently), aluminum bodies and smaller engines. Scientists are making progress on a super-battery that may some day push aside combustion, but they’re a long way from making electric cars competitive in the mass market.