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Universal acceptance of split-cycle engines at SAE World Congress subject more to business models

Pick any split-cycle engine developer and the story will be the same as the major OEMs of automotive. Business models affect thinking which affect decisions and choices of technology. Here’s the latest from SAE World Congress 2012.

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[Updated to clarify Scuderi comments. Also see ref comments below article]

Speaking of getting connected, Scuderi Group was the first company that ever gave me an interview regarding the split-cycle engine technology; that was about 2010. Much has changed; and much has yet to change. Today, I perceived Nick Scuderi as thinking in terms of 3 years minimum [Note: from the time a design is started] as opposed to the 8-10 years for a split cycle on the road that they thought a few years ago. [I added my own two cents and said 3-5 years, because it takes a long time to get EPA certification.] Point is, improvement since 2010, yes; reaching the goal of getting an engine into a car and on the road, no.

Problem is, nobody knows who will build the split-cycle engine in high volume first, because Scuderi is not an engine manufacturer. Its business model is clearly based on being an intellectual property company, which explains why they use an independent research team for physical development, while the Scuderi family builds and protects its only real product, its patents. Not a bad model, but with all respect it sort of feeds its own limitations.

Now on this last day of the SAE World Congress 2012, it is clear that other split-cycle companies are vying for the affection of auto OEMs, like GM, Ford, Chrysler; and none of them, including Scuderi, are apologetic about getting attention from European and Asian companies; because, lets face it, the American automakers are dragging their heels again. After all, 2025 and the 56.2 MPG mandate are not that far off. Point is, we cannot afford complacency; it's a matter of national defense and economic survival.

This is not the first time the U.S has shot itself in the foot, though. When Toyota and Honda opted to produce their engines based on the Atkinson Cycle, the Americans snubbed their noses. Instead they opted to use technology as it stands except with incremental improvements; a few percent gains here, a few more there; very bean counterish. Then came electrification, and that now permeates their psyche; never really “imagineering” the world of 2025 as having the majority of their engines as ICE, because lithium-ion will still be the high-cost element for electrification.

Problem is, no U.S. company or foreign auto company will ever get to meet 2025 fuel mileage mandates with engines as they are right now. No, the end is indeed upon us for the Otto Cycle as we know it, but not for the IC engine in general if we rethink it. One makeover not done by the OEMs is splitting the cold intake-compression from the hot power-exhaust components of the 4-cycle process. It is the one makeover process that must be done to succeed, because there is power in dealing with each part of the cycle as separate but related entities. Right now, it’s always a compromise. So, splitting the cycle takes that need for compromising decisions off the table.

The next company I spoke with after Scuderi was Tour Engine. Oded Tour gave me a solid hour of his time over the phone one evening just to get the tech message across. I first met him at the DEER conference last fall. This year at SAE, I finally got the chance to meet Hugo Tour in person, inventor of the opposed-piston, dual crank, split cycle engine, and father of Oded Tour. Their business model does not on the surface have the flair of Scuderi but it is, in my opinion, no less valid or substantive. At least Hugo and Oded know the value of building and developing with a hands-on approach. Hugo’s experience as a high tech officer in the Israeli Air Force should not be ignored here, nor the intelligence of his son, Oded. One thinks top down; the other thinks bottom up. Both are correct as a business model.

This past week, though, I added the Doyle Rotary Engine to my split-cycle repertoire, and with good reason. I found Mr. Lonny Doyle to be the quintessential American tinkerer, like my father. His arrangement of the technology is as different as the opposed piston of Tour and the standard arrangement of Scuderi. Another thing is different, though. Doyle has the ability to build prototypes on his own, which makes him unique, except for Hugo Tour. With Doyle, hobby is business, and business is business. Thus, the Doyle family is committed to getting a viable split-cycle engine on the market with its own approach, its own ability to make prototypes and its own limited funds to get to the next level. If I was Scuderi or Tour, Doyle would be one guy to pick to get that low-cost prototype into a vehicle.

VC Business Thinking

Not to be limited in my own thinking, I also have to add Pinnacle Engines (Read: Pinnacle Engines shows off innovation at SAE World Congress 2012) to my watch list for their novel approach to opposed piston design as a four cycle, but using a sleeve valve. It’s not split cycle but its business model is surely viable with its first high volume order to leap ahead in 2013. That’s where they excel above even the funds of Scuderi. Between Pinnacle, Achates Power and Grail Engine Technologies, for example, the entire small engine development market could be controlled for a mighty long time.

Then, I had this even wilder thought about being a venture capitalist (as if I had the money!). My order of business would be to buy out Scuderi for its patents, Tour for its patents and knowledge, Doyle for thinking out of the box, Pinnacle for small engine focus, not to mention Achates Power for its two cycle opposed piston. In one fell swoop, my VC company would control all of the latest engine thinking under one roof.

OEMs - The Brick Wall

Then again, there is the other side of the split-cycle acceptance equation, the OEMs. It is obvious to me the American automakers are still wrapped in their own paradigms which drives their own business models. All you have to do is attend an engine symposium to find out the so-called experts have very little knowledge of the four-cycle engines that pays their bills. Mention split cycle and you get silence, stares; then they move on with a comment that it’s in the labs; which it is not.

The “not-in-my-lab” syndrome is still everywhere in Detroit, but far less with the European and the Asians; and that is my fear. That Detroit and MBA arrogance may once again scuttle the one makeover that could avail high MPG gains.

Much like the bad choices of the past by American OEMs, which dismissed the MPG advantages of the Atkinson cycle, for example, the Americans may once again be setting themselves up for another shot, but in the other foot this time if they reject split cycle. Then the public will finally be right in their assessment that the foreign automakers will have proven they are indeed better; not better in capability, but better in willingness to make the right makeover choices.

We’ve all heard or read of the term, creative destruction. Fact is, it’s been a very long time since anyone in automotive has practiced it and put it into production, except perhaps the Wankel engine and the propulsion of the Chevy Volt. At least Toyota and Honda had the chutzpah to go Atkinson Cycle which kept the cost down even for the Prius. Of course there is risk with change; but there is greater risk if we do nothing or opt for the so-called safe, incremental change thinking which nets gains in terms of one percent, not quantum gains.

So, perhaps we need to change the business models of the American automakers. You would think bankruptcy would have done that at GM, for example, but that’s not how I see it. I see the old GM in new clothes but with the zipper still stuck halfway down; and our public taxes paid the bill for the tailoring. This is the same company that took six years to make a decision on a design process to save $1.92M globally per year; I know, I was the one who concocted and gave them the idea; and that was before bankruptcy when money was a mighty big deal.

At least Ford is thinking different with its business model. Its EcoBoost, small displacement with lots of turbo-boost to replenish the lost power is a winner. Give the Blue Oval credit here, but they’re still short when it comes to 2025 mandates; and they know it. A Ford engineer pointed toward lighter weight vehicles. At least they are thinking and talking out loud..

Of course light weight body structure will surely help the MPG cause. Read: Auto industry behind 8-ball by choice with lighter auto bodies.

But if it makes an easier transition, then perhaps put the split-cycle first as a range extender engine in a series hybrid. Lord knows the Volt needs something better than what it has to be fully efficient, more green, not to mention justifying the high cost.

Point is, the new-wave engine thinkers are already out there. They are called Scuderi, Tour, Doyle among others like Pinnacle, Achates, Grail. One comment surprised me, though: Nick Scuderi said that the competition is not with other split cycle companies, but the IC engine itself based on the same conventional arrangement. Well said, I thought at first. Then I thought about it again and realized that he, with all respect, was still being very diplomatic.

So I will say it for him and the others. The automotive OEM business model is still a hindrance to real progress in the MPG race; always has been, still is. Lots of prototypes, plenty of new technologies, plenty of capable engineers, but no real makeover of the existing engines that they are already manufacturing-capable and experienced to make. So, I say it’s the mindsets behind the OEM business models which are holding us back from achieving the fuel efficiency gains that all of us expect and deserve.

So, my message to the auto industry at the close of the SAE World Congress 2012 is this: It’s the 21st Century for crying out loud. Let’s think and act like it. Besides, what would Henry Ford and Diesel do? They’d be the first to go the next step.

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Frank Sherosky    April 26, 2012 - 6:15PM

To answer a recent email from another investor, here is what I wrote as a comment under a separate article before the SAE show.

"Just to be sure I do not misrepresent here, that 3-5 years is MY total outlook based on what I understood the situation was leaning. The hard 3 year figure, though, would likely be a minimum for ANY OEM to get a new engine in place for high-volume production; but that was a number I did hear and one that Scuderi would agree.

Keep in mind, though, the 3 year clock does not count until the ink is dry on a bonafide contract. So your guess is as good as mine on that part. That's why I added the additional 2 years making it a 3-5 outlook; in other words, in an absolute sense. If the engine was used for a generator engine, that could fly first, in my opinion.

For the record, I have no reason to doubt that 3 year min timeline. Fact is, any OEM would need time to design, package, test, validate, redesign, tweak, meet EPA for certification, etc. Certifying a new engine is not a walk in the park."

I hope this clears things up. I also revised the wording in this article a bit so as not to cause any further misreading. I felt Nick Scuderi was being open and honest with me. As an engineer, I concurred with the timeline as rational.

Brian (not verified)    April 26, 2012 - 7:43PM

Great info. Lonnie Doyle graces the pages of some of the Scuderi Boards now and then. I wish him well. Seems like a super guy with, as you say, a great aptitude for some really creative and high tech " thinkering.".