Reinventing the Wheel

Reinventing the Wheel

The internal combustion engine has been around for several hundred years and been used successfully in industry and commercial applications for more than one hundred years. When we think about cutting edge technology we tend not to think about things that have been around that long. And in fact, most of the design of the engines we use today have not changed substantially in decades. But that doesn’t mean the small changes we are working towards don’t have dramatic effects. (Photo via creative commons from Ranj Niere)

The auto industry has voluntarily agreed to meet new fuel efficiency standards of 55 mpg fleet average by 2025. Yes you can reread that, they voluntarily agreed. So why? Don’t more stringent fuel efficiency standards make car design and manufacturing more expensive? Yes and no. Yes it make it more expensive, but manufacturers know that demands for better gas mileage from consumers will only continue to get harder to meet. And while they’d love to meet these standards they do have one problem that makes it especially difficult: competition. The current best selling single model vehicle in the US is the Ford F-150 which gets something like 17/23 mpg. Consumers want better efficiency, but they don’t always want to pay for it. And they want utility. And while one car maker might be making great strides towards better gas mileage, other designers can built something flashy and cheaper and scoop the marketplace and please the picky consumer. Getting everyone to voluntarily agree means it’s not actually a government requirement but allows most car makers to compete on equal footing all the while working towards this goal.

Thanks to computers we can now be a lot more precise in fuel injection and power management in the engine. Gains in turbocharged engines means we can get a lot more power out of a smaller block. But we also have power windows, power locks, power seats, heated seats, climate control and a host of other newer luxuries that make our cars a lot heavier. And as cars get safer they often get heavier as well. But I suspect with new goals alongside competition business will still be able to eke out more and more gains and improvements in the trusty old internal combustion engine. Goes to show everything old is new again.

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