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