Air, Fire and Fuel: The Future of the Combustion Engine
Before car commercials became part of our regularly scheduled evening programming, the earliest print ads for an automobile urged the masses at the turn of the century to dispense with their horses and turn to a motorized “horseless carriage” for their transportation needs, citing it was easily managed and could travel at the breakneck speed of 20 mph.
Despite America’s slow embrace of the motor vehicle, efficient large-scale production allowed these gasoline-powered modern marvels to roll off the assembly line and into driveways across the country.
Though the technology behind the modern engine hasn’t changed much in the last century, since the first Model T made its debut in Dearborn, Michigan, the demands placed on manufacturers have led to many in the industry to reexamine what’s under the hood.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. When corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards requiring automakers to almost double fuel economy while lowering emissions, the industry put the pedal to the metal, exploring innovative ways to increase the internal combustion engine’s efficiency.
“CAFE standards are driving the product in the direction that it wouldn’t necessarily have gone on its own,” said Jay Kavanagh, engineering editor at edmunds.com. “When you look at the pre-smog era in the mid-‘70s, when we had the fuel embargo and vehicles were pretty simple, engines were pretty simple as well. They had carbureted engines with conventional ignition systems, no electronic engine management on them at all. Now you can look back and see how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements, requirements for emissions and fuel economy really pushed the engine into what it is today.”
With sophisticated technologies like direct injection and turbocharging, the combustion engine of today is far more powerful and efficient than its predecessors.
“I would attribute a lot of what makes engines today, as good as they are on every level, to the fuel and emissions requirements that are imposed on them,” Kavanagh said. “I think we can see a similar effect with these new fleet fuel economy standards.”
With fleet fuel economy targets on the rise, new technologies and future engine concepts are being conceptualized and developed.
“When you have a goal to shoot for, you start to see innovations develop,” Kavanagh said. “We’re already seeing the major engine consultancies with concepts they’ve developed for future engine technologies. A lot of them are only in the lab state right now, but some of them are in demonstrator vehicles where they’ve seen considerable improvements in fuel economy without necessarily a huge impact on the cost of the engine. There’s always going to be some cost with any new technology, but the fuel economy improvements coming in the pipeline for the internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered vehicles will only bolster their viability for the future.”
Fewer cylinders, more turbochargers and more electronic controls are just a few of the characteristics that contribute to these improvements.