Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2008   by Jim Anderton, Technical Editor

Pondering the Piston Engine

Let's face it, with $1.20-a-litre gasoline -- it may be higher by the time you read this -- the future of the automotive industry as we know it is in jeopardy. It's not that Canadians are going to sud...

Let’s face it, with $1.20-a-litre gasoline — it may be higher by the time you read this — the future of the automotive industry as we know it is in jeopardy. It’s not that Canadians are going to suddenly give up driving; but the masses of suburban commuters that fill the major urban areas of this country are going to adjust to higher fuel prices. Some will adjust by switching to public transit, some with car pooling and others by moving or changing jobs to shorten their commute. None of this is good for the automotive aftermarket. In an environment where government at all levels are committed to locking Canadians into world oil prices (don’t get me going about the wackiness of an oil-rich nation like Canada paying world-class prices domestically for motor fuel) the way to keep people driving means greatly improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles. Right now, the focus is on hybrids and diesels, both of which are a mistake. For now, at least, hybrids work, but instead of adding the cost of complexity of the battery system, how about optimizing the piston engine?

Here is my solution to keeping people on the road while improving the gas mileage of the traditional piston engine. Let’s begin by creating small engines with turbochargers and maybe power recovery turbines (an old aircraft technology) with advanced materials like ceramics to convert more heat into miles-per-gallon. Then maybe add variable compression for a spark-assisted compression-ignition engine that combines the best of both diesel and gasoline fuel technologies so as to burn any fuels, from alcohol blends to stove oil. This kind of engine would still use piston technology and it would be affordable, economical and, most of all from our perspective, serviceable.

Yes, engines today are more efficient, with VVT, feedback fuel injection, etc., but they’re also growing in horsepower, too. I once owned an Austin Mini 1000 which regularly delivered 55 miles per gallon with a primitive 998cc cast iron lump and an SU carburetor. The price for economy? At an optimistic 55 horsepower, speed wasn’t on the table. So what? Most drivers don’t care, or would gladly trade off power for economy these days. GM and Suzuki used to offer 1-litre models, but try to find engines of less than 1500 cc’s these days. The Smart car? It’s O. K. for urban yuppies and ultra-hip Boomers, but I’m talking about four seats and low cost for families.

The concept is this: a total cost of ownership, meaning financing, insurance, depreciation, fuel and maintenance that allow families to live and work where they want, not just where there’s a train station. The wild card is the environment, which is addressable with alternate fuels like hydrogen or even cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from wood waste instead of corn. GM is betting the farm on the Chevrolet Volt, which is an electric with an on-board gas-engine charger, and if they can pull it off, it will be good for everyone … but let’s not give up on internal combustion until we’ve squeezed everything we can from pistons turning a crank.