The current gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine that we all use for motive power is essentially unchanged from the first version invented. Ever since the Ford Model A, there have been minor improvements, but it has remained essentially unchanged. (I cite the A-Model because of the mass manufacturing of breaker-point ignition versus the buzz-coil of the T-Model.)
Okay, you can argue that overhead valves, overhead cams, and computerized ignition systems constitute a substantial improvement. But what’s underneath – the four cycles, and they way they are handled – are completely unchanged. Variations have been tried (like Mazda’s Wankel rotary) but they were dirty and inefficient. Offshoots like VW’s air-cooled engines likewise are dirty and inefficient, even though at the time they seemed like they were something of an improvement. It was just a lighter-weight car, pushed by a lighter-weight engine. And they followed the old trick: “If you’re making lots of noise, then you must be doing real work.”
Hybrids are the current darling of the more-money-than-brains set, but when you look at the sum of environmental impact at the end of the vehicle’s lifetime, there is more toxic waste created and a far greater impact to the environment than a Suburban with an 8-liter engine. The early ones had a battery pack lifetime of about 35,000 miles (and half the vehicle’s value as a replacement price!), although that has now been extended through the use of brute-force methods like bigger battery packs and not discharging them as deeply. Hybrids do have their place (like taxicabs), but they’re really not a good fit for any duty which requires more than ten minutes’ sustained driving at more than about 40MPH. Anyone who insists otherwise has been “drinking the Kool-aid.”
Getting back to pure combustion-driven vehicles: For about the last twenty years or so, designers and manufacturers have been trying to “fix” everything by overlaying ever-more-complicated electronics onto the same old outdated mechanical systems. And a number of carmakers continue in the pursuit of ever-more-sophisticated add-on mechanisms and controls to make up for lack of successful research into a needed breakthrough in mechanical design.
Unfortunately this ongoing failure to innovate has resulted in overly-complicated electronics, bringing far too much reliance upon the computer overlay and quirky add-ons.
To quote Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “They’re looking in the wrong place!”
This all makes me crazy because it seems like the engineers who have a chance to change things are just sitting back and taking the easy way out; instead of taking a risk and maybe making a difference. And at the same time, they make it ever more difficult for shade-tree mechanics to do repairs. If you’ve ever had to work on a late-70s car, they were the beginning of the descent into darkness: miles of incredibly complex plumbing, idiotic controls and add-ons like air pumps, exhaust gas recirculation, first-generation catalysts; all combining to create less pollutants at the cost of efficiency and fuel mileage. But at least all the useless add-ons were mechanical and could be fixed when they failed. Which they often did, while presenting with crazy symptoms.
I have long been convinced that we are smart enough that we can think our way out of this, and finally, finally, I have been proven right. I knew that we were smart enough to find a good solution.
And we’re beginning to see things that are the beginning of change: An outfit called Scuderi has figured out a way of making plenty of useable power with MUCH greater efficiency. When you go to the page, have your headphones on or your speakers up. The website opens with a video, but if that doesn’t play well for you, look around in their site. There is a page of smaller, shorter videos and very good explanatory text. http://www.scuderiengine.com/
Meanwhile, research at Argonne National Labratory has shown promise for a hybrid diesel/gasoline engine. In short, diesel is far more efficient, but has problems with soot because the fuel does not completely mix with the air in the chamber. Multiple injections of gasoline instead allow for good mixing and layering of the charge, and much higher efficiency without the emissions problems of diesel. More is here: http://www.anl.gov/Media_Center/News/2011/news110504_gas-diesel.html
More are coming; the need is great and the economics will support change. I for one am looking to the brighter future that I always knew was coming and hope gets here soon.