• May 8, 2009
There are all kinds of ways to boost the fuel efficiency of a vehicle. Hybrids are becoming more and more popular. Clean diesels seemed poised to make major inroads in the market. And even though they're a ways down the road, hydrogen fuel cells sure look promising.
But the problem with these technologies is that they add considerable cost to a car. Toyota has probably got the cost of its hybrid system down to about $2,500, but that's still a lot of money to add to the cost of the powertrain. At their present level of development, clean diesels probably carry $4,000-$5,000 worth of extra emissions control equipment. And hydrogen fuel cells aren't quite ready for prime time no matter what they cost.

Engine engineers complain to me all the time about these alternative technologies. They say it's unfair to compare what they are doing with gasoline-fueled piston engines to these alternatives. And it all comes down to money. They claim they can achieve comparable performance, emissions, and fuel efficiency at a lot lower cost.

Specifically, they say "Let me add just $1,000 worth of equipment and technology to my engine and let me show you what I can do."

____________________________________________________________________________________

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.
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They make a great point. A couple years back I was able to interview Hans List, the head of AVL, the Austrian engine design company. He told me he expected to see a 70% improvement in fuel economy from gasoline-fueled piston engines by the middle of next decade. He said very small displacement engines with aggressive turbo-charging strategies would be the key.

Then there is HCCI technology, which makes a gasoline piston engine behaves much like a diesel. It promises to offer diesel-like fuel efficiency at a fraction of the cost. We may be only three to four years away from seeing a production ready HCCI engine.

But I think there could be another breakthrough on the way. Cam-less engines have been the dream of engine designers for over half a century. Using solenoids to operate the valves could eliminate a lot of mass and parasitic losses on an engine. And solenoid technology keeps getting better all the time.

There seems to be a bias against the tried and true in favor of the technology "de jour."
Even more exciting would be getting rid of poppet valves like we use in today's engines. There was some very exciting development work that took place during the Second World War using rotating valves. They looked like cylinders rotating inside of the cylinder head, in the same place an overhead cam would be, with slots cut into the cylinder to function as the intake and exhaust valves. This got rid of the reciprocating mass in the cylinder head, allowing the engine to rev much higher. But back in the 1940s they always had problems trying to seal these rotating valves.

There is some very exciting development work going on now involving sliding valves. This could provide a very simple approach to variable valve control.

The point is, the industry seems willing to invest in sexy new technology like hybrids but is reluctant to add more cost to its existing powertrains. There seems to be a bias against the tried and true in favor of the technology "de jour."

But with virtually every automaker now losing massive amounts of money, I think low-cost solutions could get a second look. So even though some of the technologies I mentioned here could add quite a bit cost to an engine, they could prove to be far more cost-effective than the glitzy bits that are getting all the attention. And that's why I keep saying that the internal combustion piston engine could be around for a lot longer than most people imagine.

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  • 24 Comments
      • 5 Years Ago
      Unfortunately, in his article Mr. McElroy misses one of the major goals of alternative engine technologies: substantially reduced dependence on *imported* oil!

      It's not enough to just reduce CO2 emissions or have a more energy-efficient solution! Those are just the scientific and engineering angles.

      There's the all important political angle: we desperately need to wean ourselves off the oil we depend on from the Middle East, so our national policies aren't totally hamstrung by the absurd & idiotic warring interests there. We're like a bunch of cocaine addicts and need to check into rehab.

      Great, MPG gains will reduce the amount of oil we need to import to some extent... but do not hold nearly the same promise in this area as hydro/solar/nuclear/coal/fill-in-the-blank power plants consuming our own local energy to charge up a bunch of electric vehicles, for example.

      Echelon Bob
      • 5 Years Ago
      I am all for further development of the internal combustion engine with cost effective technologies, but it is a challenge being held back by dumber than dirt politicians who have gummed up the works and will continue to gum up the works by mandating safety requirements that add weight while demanding higher miles per gallon from fuels that provide less energy. If I could just make myself dumb enough I could become an elected official and claim to be an expert on all things automotive.
        • 5 Years Ago
        You speak the truth, its just stupid how they make laws on how safe a car should be, meanwhile you have dudes on motorcycles flying by you going 120. It doesnt make any sense!
      • 5 Years Ago
      @Jim:
      Cleaning the toxic air created by distributed ICEs is a far different problem than cleaning the air at a central plant site. From my readings: people are becoming more knowledgeable about how nasty coal-fired power plants really are and are fighting back the idea of creating new ones. There is a move afoot to create electricity using solar, geothermal, solar thermal, wind, etc. And, many people have gotten on the save energy bandwagon; I would like to see no more permits for coal plants and a move to make the old plants natural gas fired until we can gain a march to produce only clean power plants.

      Tesla Motors has proven the feasibility of the BEV with its roadster; and, I believe within the next two to three years "Better Place" will prove that BEVs are feasibile for the masses.



        • 5 Years Ago
        Alternative energy is all well and good, but the reality is that no matter what we do unless there is a miracle in energy tech we will still be using Coal and Oil to derive a great deal of our energy needs for the next 20+ years. Stopping development on cleaner uses of coal and oil is just as stupid as not developing alternatives to them.

        Honestly i dont know how all of you alternative energy cheerleaders expect all of the cities in america to afford your plans to "eliminate" fossil fuels in 10 years. Many citiesstates are already drowning in debt and most of the citizenry is unwilling to pay anything more in taxes to improve much of anything (even as the roads and towns crumble). This is a bigger issue than the technology itself.

        We need to diversify, but not exclude any particular energy type. We need all of the energy we can get.

        • 5 Years Ago
        @Jim:
        "Cleaning the toxic air created by distributed ICEs is a far different problem than cleaning the air at a central plant site."

        my point was that electric vehicles don't eliminate the problem, they just move it around.

        (I know your point. it's an old saw...the difference is power plant pollution is easy to monitor and control than millions of ill-maintained ICEs. For example, changing a coal plant over to nature gas, reduces the GHGs by half and eliminates the coal ash completely.)

        "From my readings: people are becoming more knowledgeable about how nasty coal-fired power plants really are and are fighting back the idea of creating new ones."

        they're also fighting nuclear because people still think "Chernobyl" even though that was an inherently unsafe design that nobody even builds anymore.

        (Nuclear power has its own particular set of pluses and minuses: Nuclear is finite, expensive and destroys its own site over time. Compared to other forms of power generation, it is by far the most expensive unless you include the so-called "clean coal." Both leave a dangerous residue.)

        "There is a move afoot to create electricity using solar, geothermal, solar thermal, wind, etc."

        problem is that those only work in certain areas, and electricity is generated on-demand. there's no easy way to "store" generated electricity for transport.

        (Not true: The old concept of needing a base load, like a coal plant, goes away with the introduction of the smart grid which can switch any power located on the grid to any load on the grid, at computer speeds. Additionally solar storage is no longer a laboratory experiment. there are plants now that can store heat in the form of molten sodium underground for weeks; there are also banks of batteries planned as part of the smart grid.)

        "I would like to see no more permits for coal plants and a move to make the old plants natural gas fired until we can gain a march to produce only clean power plants."

        Earth to Lad, natural gas is still a fossil fuel. it may not carry the contaminants that coal does, but it does nothing to address CO2 emissions.

        (Not true! Nature gas has half the GHG pollution and no dangerous residue compared to coal.)

        "Tesla Motors has proven the feasibility of the BEV with its roadster;"

        it does not. it just proves that you can get longer range out of a BEV by making a battery pack big enough where it's half the weight of the car.

        (Do you have troubles believing that a stop sign means "stop and not something else?" Let me say it out right: I think you are trying to defend your ego rather than presenting a position and you have a problem accepting contrary arguments...I think in our case we can agree to disagree.)

        @slasher79:

        Yes we will need all of what we have now until we can replace the fossil fuel with clean fuel and that's the plan! The first source of energy we should continue to develop is: "using less energy." and everything builds from that point. It may take twenty years to progress past the use of fossil fuels but we must do it!



        ↓↑report
        • 5 Years Ago
        "Cleaning the toxic air created by distributed ICEs is a far different problem than cleaning the air at a central plant site."

        my point was that electric vehicles don't eliminate the problem, they just move it around.

        "From my readings: people are becoming more knowledgeable about how nasty coal-fired power plants really are and are fighting back the idea of creating new ones."

        they're also fighting nuclear because people still think "Chernobyl" even though that was an inherently unsafe design that nobody even builds anymore.

        "There is a move afoot to create electricity using solar, geothermal, solar thermal, wind, etc."

        problem is that those only work in certain areas, and electricity is generated on-demand. there's no easy way to "store" generated electricity for transport.

        "I would like to see no more permits for coal plants and a move to make the old plants natural gas fired until we can gain a march to produce only clean power plants."

        Earth to Lad, natural gas is still a fossil fuel. it may not carry the contaminants that coal does, but it does nothing to address CO2 emissions.

        "Tesla Motors has proven the feasibility of the BEV with its roadster;"

        it does not. it just proves that you can get longer range out of a BEV by making a battery pack big enough where it's half the weight of the car.
      • 5 Years Ago
      John, In the May 8th edition of Autoline Dayly, you talked about a Dacia. Dacia is pronounced "Day-See-A".
      • 5 Years Ago
      If the government wishes its unreasonable CAFE numbers to be met, we're not going to get there on powertrain technology by itself. A large detractor from the bottom line is vehicle mass, and with options of the past becoming standard (A/C, power windows), it isn't traveling in the right direction. Add the IIHS and their aggressive safety lobbying into the fray and cars are now behemoths.

      Many cars have been made that get close to 50 mpg, and the one of the main reasons was that they were about 2000 lb and were not expected to reach 60 mph in under 7 seconds.

      Ugh, don't get me started on "clean diesels". Al Gore has everybody concerned the sky is falling because of CO2 and global warming - a clean diesel can achieve excellent fuel economy, however, the required diesel particulate filter takes C + O2 -> CO2. How long before environmentalists are calling drivers of diesel vehicle "Baby Killers".

      /facepalm
      • 5 Years Ago
      No matter what you do to improve the ICE, it has been and will remain an inefficient device that burns toxic chemicals in the atmosphere. It is especially ineffecient when powering automobiles because of the weight it has to move and the heat and friction loses in the drive lines. Direct drive electric motors appear to be the best solution to drive automobiles and will supersede the ICEs. Yes!, there are lots of problems yet to be solved using BEVs. However, the main problem of providing a practical battery is now within reach and will speed up the demise of ICEs...good riddance!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wankel???

      I think you missed the boat on this one.

      One moving part and all you have to do is make it more fuel efficient. What's so hard about that?
        • 5 Years Ago
        "One moving part and all you have to do is make it more fuel efficient. What's so hard about that?"

        if it was just that easy, then Mazda wouldn't be the only company wasting time on them. Wankels are at an inherent efficiency disadvantage, partly due to the surface area of the combustion chambers (greater heat loss to the coolant.) Renesis showed some interesting improvements, but still lagging behind piston engines.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The Wankel, like communism, works great on paper. Once you start pushing the limits of it, and even after a few years of regular use, you start getting leaks and loss of compression.

        I love the design and the idea, however they are just not reliable or efficient enough to be mainstream... yet.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Well the ZF 8 speed automatic is here.
      So small engines will move big cars just fine
      Audi can now offer the 2.8 V6 with quattro in the A8 (it is just front drive now)
      Audi can now offer the 3.2 V6 with quattro in the long wheelbase (quattro is available in the short wheelbase version only)
      • 5 Years Ago
      The thing is, we *have* gained quite a bit of efficiency with conventional gasoline engines. The "problem," as it is, is that those increases in efficiency have been used to pump up the power output. Think of this: in 1987, a 5.9 liter V8 might have wheezed out a whopping 140 hp. Now, the same displacement gets you 390 hp, yet is still drivable on the street, clean as a whistle in terms of emissions, and all else equal returns similar fuel economy.

      My first car had a 2.2 liter 4-banger rated at 84 hp. Now you can't even find a 2.2 liter engine with less than twice that. I think it's safe to say that a modern 84 hp engine in a similar car would get markedly better fuel economy than a 1986 84 hp engine.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Good point Jim, also add the additions of variants of the piston engines like the 5-cycle Atkinson, the Miller cycle (5-cycle with a supercharger) or the 6-cycle Crower engine, Autoblog even mentionned it in 2006 http://www.autoblog.com/2006/03/16/camshaft-legend-adds-another-two-strokes-to-internal-combustion/
        • 5 Years Ago
        There is still a lot automakers can do to make the internal combustion engine more efficient and cleaner. In the long run -- 20 years out -- they may be gone entirely or combined in a hybrid. But for now, we should keep our focus on improvement as the new technology takes shape and the costs come down (which they will).

        P.S. I love the phrase "clean diesels" . . . just like "clean coal". There is no such thing at this present time.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I fully concur with you on this Jim. I really wish there were more engine choices for people that like fuel economy in regular cars. Why does a hatchback have to get 110 bhp? It's like all cars are built for racing enthusiasts these days. I'm proud to say my daily driver is a 98 Metro 1.0 3 banger, and it's 55 bhp/58 ft lbs of torque does all that I need it to do for commuting. I understand cars need more power for all the accessories these days but most seem to take it to far. I'm pretty far left of center on this, I know, but there is a proven market here for this. On the west coast of Canada lots of people are importing Japanese Kei cars (660cc). Unfortunately they have to be at least 15 years old to import by Canadian law.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Oh, for sure. I think the tone of my post didn't match my intent; I was agreeing with John's article. I do think the improvements left are going to be smaller incrementally, though.
        • 5 Years Ago
        McElroy: "Specifically, [internal combustion engineers] say "Let me add just $1,000 worth of equipment and technology to my engine and let me show you what I can do.""

        But what you see from Tool above is the problem:

        "I love the phrase "clean diesels" . . . just like "clean coal". There is no such thing at this present time."

        And there never will be; it won't t matter how efficient the internal combustion engine is made (even with $10k worth of tech) - because it will never be green enough to pass political muster.

        John, you're still fighting the engineering argument when the political argument has already moved beyond it and couldn't care less (facts be d@mned!). While I agree with you on the merits, we've already lost the war.




      • 5 Years Ago
      It hasn't helped the IC engine that as cars have gotten heavier, they've also gotten faster. Since the late 80's the average car has gained roughly 25% in weight and is roughly 25% quicker 0-60. That's required a roughly 40% increase in average horsepower. So while I'm really pleased that my 160hp engine from 2004 gets highway mileage equal to my 115hp engine from 1996, I would have, given the option, bought my current car with a less powerful engine and better mileage.

      I am an enthusiast and I like having the option of buying high performance vehicles, but I have no idea why cars from compacts to SUVs need to accelerate faster than a mid-sixties 911 (8 seconds), yet they do, often on the base engine. Most of them are driven by people who have no intention of using that power and may have no idea how quick their cars really are because they weren't looking for that when they bought them.

      The range of engine options in Europe make it possible to buy fuel economy if that's what you want or a bit more to a lot more performance if that's what you want in the same class of car. We don't get those options here. Here we get 160hp fours in midsize grocery haulers and the next step is a 275hp V-6 in a Camry no one even wants to drive fast in the first place.

      Imagine being told you can have for free a mint condition first generation 911 or a new Camry V6 BUT only if the Porsche will beat the Camry in the quarter mile.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Mr. McElroy it is time to let go. This latest post in your nearly year long "Detroit has still got ___________ to make it great again" is getting embarrassing.

      If I recall you have written how the big three will never go bankrupt, they have quality products ( Camaro already being recalled for a defect ), the CEOs are all perfectly legit and competent, on and on.

      GM is no more. Chrysler gone. Ford will not survive the collapse of all the part suppliers after GM folds in June. I wax nostalgic just like everyone else, I owned some really fun muscle cars in high school...

      But Op-Ed posts that are the journalistic equivalent of arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic do not make for good reading.

      2010 will be a new begging, an opportunity for Toyota, Honda, Fiat and VW to expand and sell lots of quality cars to people here in the U.S., but GM, Chrysler and Ford won't be part of the equation.
        • 5 Years Ago
        "Mr. McElroy it is time to let go. This latest post in your nearly year long "Detroit has still got ___________ to make it great again" is getting embarrassing."

        he didn't mention "Detroit" even *once* in this post. Take your vendetta somewhere else.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @Todd:
        > Ford will not survive
        WANNA BET!? PLZ PLZ!!! 8))

        mate seriously, you need to wake up first before you post here next time
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