Despite the forward vision of years gone by, as shown by this GM Heritage Center photo, the auto industry in its present state is still behind-the-eight-ball, because energy in the form of oil and gasoline is not getting cheaper or more plentiful.
However, the industry still acts and makes decisions (and indecisions, I might add) as though time is still on their side. The auto industry must rid this time-warped, incremental thinking over quantum thinking, especially with engine development.
That is why various engine technology components, including multiple valves, variable cams, direct fuel injection, turbo charging, super charging, etc. have emerged over long periods of time, segment by segment, when each has been around for many years.
Nonetheless, each technical piece has contributed to the totality of present efficiency, but only in an incremental way; and that is why new engines like the Chevy Cruze still get less than 35 mpg in the city.
Still, the sum total of industry engine efficiency has yet to bring about the quantum leap necessary to meet societal needs and wants for gas mileage and emissions. So, here are four technologies that I believe will help pave the way.
Split Cycle Air Hybrid Engines: While the Japanese have been beating Americans at their own game for decades, by choosing the Atkinson (Miller) cycle engines, they’re now at the point where they, too, are subject to succumbing to incremental approaches; meaning little gains from here on out. In other words, they are climbing the wall of diminishing returns.
Fact is, the only next new thing left for the industry is to split the four cycle engine literally in half. Make the cold side of intake and compression on one half, while the hot side handles the power and exhaust. Companies include the Scuderi Group and the Tour Engine have already done that. Furthermore, the ability to facilitate an air-hybrid is overwhelming.
External Combustion Engines: Remember how efficient steam engines were? Truth is, they still are. Problem is, putting one into a car hasn’t been done in a long time. (Actually, that happened at the beginning of the 20th century.) Nonetheless, we now have the Cyclone Power engine that is compact enough to be integrated into an automobile. It’s also being proven at the Salt Flats in 2011 for a run at the land Speed record.
The advantage the ECE has is its ability to burn any fuel, completely. Lack of a compression cycle means more thorough combustion, which results in less emissions. And the recirculation of the closed steam system makes it portable. This might be a great choice to power that Volt generator, and more so if natural-gas is used.
Laser Spark Plugs: The auto industry has touched just about every conceivable component inside the ICE except for one, the spark plug. It is the one hurdle that keeps the industry from achieving the gains necessary to maximize direct fuel injection and lean burn, because the 100-year old spark plug just can’t cope with stratified charges.
Enter laser technology which can be split from a single power unit. Yet, the industry still attacks the issue in an incremental, band aide fashion, by turning off cylinders. Only Ford has had the vision with its collaboration the University of Liverpool to take on the task. So, regardless of the ICE technology used, this one is still a must do.
Micro Turbines: This is really cool. Imagine a small turbine the size of your forearm that does not thrust the vehicle forward, but powers a generator that drives electric motors, similar to the Chevy Volt propulsion system. Again, fuels of every grade could be used. Jaguar already has one in a concept vehicle that extends driving range over 530 miles.
Point is, the Volt concept is a range extending system; and that's what people want and need, but not at $42K. Still, it needs a cleaner, more efficient drive for the generator to go to the next level. It could be an ECE or a turbine, until the fuel cells come of age.
Auto industry still hampered by incremental technology thinking
DOE has $184M for Advance Vehicle R&D
Scuderi Air Hybrid