13 May, 2013

What technologies will near-term new cars feature?

Looks like $80K and up Tesla's notwithstanding, the internal combustion engine will stick around for some time, especially when one considers hybrids.

Pure electric autos have to get a credible 300 mile range (like a real car) and crack the recharge time problem. I can pump 300 miles worth of oomph into my GTO (which has a hearty thirst) in about three minutes, versus half a day for moving electrons around. I'm not saying this won't happen, but it will take some time and investment. Investment in technology for quick-charge batteries and in infrastructure for more ubiquitous charging stations. One option would be an industry-standard battery pack that could be robotically swapped out in minutes. Speaking of industry standards, a "universal" charger and charge control interface is mandatory as an enabler for widespread acceptance of electric cars. Possibly more so than price (within reasonable limits of course).

I wonder about the long-term viability of hybrids since they seem to be neither fish nor fowl and bring along a lot of complexity and cost. Seems to me that a small, light weight car powered by a modern turbo-diesel could eclipse the effective MPG of a hybrid and do so more cheaply in terms of initial cost (and long-term cost of ownership if the battery pack needs to be replaced).

Having gotten that diatribe out of the way, here is what I am seeing in the crystal ball polished through some work (reasonably priced and unreasonable brilliant!!!) I've done for clients in the automotive industry. Look forward (or not) to:

  • Smaller displacement engines of four (or even three) cylinders. These will eschew natural aspiration for supercharging (tuned for performance) or turbocharging (tuned for efficiency).
  • Direct (high pressure) fuel injection
  • More multi-fuel options and greater tolerance for ethanol blends
  • Variable valve timing and a longer term move to electromechanical valve actuation 
  • Start/stop engine technology to reduce emissions and increase MPG in city driving cycles. Having driven a succession of crappy cars in my time, I find an engine that dies at a stop sign unnerving, but I imagine we'll get over it.
  • A proliferation of engine cycles such as the Atkinson cycle. No gas turbines; no Stirling engines yet.
  • Spark plugs as you know and love them will remain with us for some time. There's no big pressure to supplant them with laser initiation (although we could), an they last a long time without trouble. Coil-on-plug will continue to be the standard, and if performance/efficiency demands, we may see two plugs per cylinder in some applications.
  • 100,000 mile "hood welded shut" expectation. We're pretty close to that already. I see increased use by OEMs of full synthetic oil and really long oil change intervals controlled by on-condition sensors (or at least an ECM calculation).
  • Liquid cooling will be retained, but a non-water based fluid will become more dominant.
  • A motor-alternator unit will replace the conventional starter motor and alternator for weight savings and in response to the stop/start feature.
  • Automatic transmissions in their various forms will continue to squeeze the conventional manual gearbox out as cars continue their evolution from something you drive to something you ride in. Number of gear ratios will stop at around eight (I hope) and CVTs will be used beyond that. Bottom line is that we'll be seeing engines optimized around a tight RPM band for economy and emissions.
  • Some high-end drivetrains will incorporate mechanical or pneumatic energy storage in support of regenerative braking.
  • Pre-start oiling systems may allow your rotating and reciprocating engine parts to last forever if the economics work out. Ditto proven cool down post-shutdown controls.
  • Accessories like A/C, cooling fans, and power steering will be electrically driven for max MPG.
  • Driver "aids" like lane departure warning, back-up obstacle warning, parking assist, radar augmented cruise control, and collision avoidance will increase their market penetration as they come down in cost.
  • Increased use of a "car area network" to eliminate cost, weight, installation labor, and failure-susceptibility of conventional wiring harnesses

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