All Those Technological Breakthroughs…

Posted on January 15th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Opinion,Technologies by Julian Edgar

Every month or so we get emails from a readers suggesting that we take a look at a new engine design that’s been developed by a tiny company or even a single person. The reader sends a URL and the website invariably lavishes praise on the new concept, describing how it develops a greater specific power / better specific fuel consumption / is cheaper to build / etc.

However, I very seldom go ahead with a  story – in fact, the only one I have ever done was this one. But if we’re interested in covering breakthrough automotive technology, why wouldn’t we want to run every such story we can find?

The short and brutal answer is that 99.9 per cent of these ‘breakthroughs’ are failures. To put that ratio another way, we could run 1000 stories and maybe only one of those would prove to be on something that is commercially and successfully built.

I am well aware that innovators and inventers will complain that a lack of media coverage is part of the very reason for that lack of success. And I accept that point. But in an automotive technology magazine, the very first requirement for exposure is that the engine (or whatever ‘breakthrough’ it is) be installed in a car that can be driven. That’s why we covered the Scotch Yoke engine – one of the test beds for the engine was a registered and driveable Subaru Liberty sedan. (In a different way, that’s why we’re also happy to cover home-built electric cars – they can be driven.)

While of course dyno testing of power, torque, emissions and fuel consumption are a vital part of a new engine development, the performance the design achieves in the real world seems fundamental to any assessment.

The other reason that very few stories of this type of appear is that when small companies have real breakthroughs, they tend to keep it very quiet. Instead of having media interviews, they’re dealing in closed boardrooms with large companies, selling intellectual property licensing.  One example is the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) – originally developed by Australian company Kinetic – fitted to the current Toyota Landcruiser.

On the other hand, major car and component supply companies often release detailed information on forthcoming designs. While some of these breakthroughs never go into production (or their long-term success is less than stellar) the ‘hit’ rate is not 1 in a 1000, but more like 900 in a 1000!

It would be a very brave or stupid person who suggested that major design breakthroughs are the province only of major companies, not individuals working on their own. However, in things automotive, I suggest that apparently groundbreaking new technology will be taken much more seriously if it can be convincingly demonstrated in a vehicle that journalists can drive and test.

Well, that applies for this journalist anyway!

One Response to 'All Those Technological Breakthroughs…'

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  1. Oosh said,

    on January 15th, 2008 at 8:16 am

    You also covered the Revetec engine here:

  2. Russ said,

    on January 15th, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Come on Julian, share the not so groundbreaking ‘breakthroughs’ with all of us.
    I concur most of them will never make it to production but, knowledge empowers all. That knowledge shared may lead to a serious “breakthrough” that can be convincingly demonstrated. Perhaps a separate page briefly listing the “breakthrough” and its URL.

  3. Julian Edgar said,

    on January 15th, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    Revetec wasn’t covered when I was editor.

    [shrug] I can write articles on breakthroughs that will never achieve any success. But that means that some articles on how to do real things, right now, won’t appear – there’s only so many editorial resources available. It’s easiest for people to simply do their own web searches on things such as water powered cars, breakthrough engines, etc, etc

  4. Ben said,

    on January 15th, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Ok so say someone had a fuel system designed for economy, that could double the economy in most cars, cost 5-10% in outright power, was installed on a common car, and was made available to you, with all questions answered to the best of the inventor’s ability.

    What else would you need to run an article on the fuel system?

  5. Julian Edgar said,

    on January 16th, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    What else would we need? – in short, no idea. It would depend too much on the product, its engineering, cost etc

    However, at least one thing would probably be installation on an AutoSpeed staffer’s car so we could assess it for ourselves. I’d really like to see the Honda Insight’s fuel economy double – to be blunt, I think the likelihood is zero.

  6. Ben said,

    on January 16th, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    That’s why I said most, not all. The insight is already designed primarily for economy. But if it is a petrol engine without direct injection (I don’t know much about DI petrols), it should be able to be measureably improved.

    Remember the figures I worked on for your EF? I think it worked out to be about 18% efficient on a 100km/h cruise. Changing that shouldn’t be that hard if you are prepared to redesign things, not just modify them.

  7. Julian Edgar said,

    on January 19th, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Ben, anyone can talk about this sort of stuff – you know, it’s “easy” to improve fuel economy. The short answer is that it is NOT.

    If it was easy to gain a 50 per cent improvement in fuel economy with a minor trade off in power, don’t you think it would be being done? Even DI petrol engines don’t have anything like a 50 per cent improvement – perhaps you might like to read our DI article –

    By all means head off and experiment, but if you can gain in real world use even a 5-10 per cent improvement, you’re doing well on a typical car of the last 10 years.

  8. Ben said,

    on January 20th, 2008 at 8:46 am

    Fair call. However I think there are better ways to deliver fuel than through a non heated, pressurised nozzle. I’ll be doing a pretty crude setup soon, just to run the car at idle. If I can reduce the fuel consumption at idle from 1.4-2.2 l/hr (so the trip computer says, which is pretty accurate under cruise conditions) to a constant 1-1.2 l/hr, I think I’ll be on to something, and develop the idea further.

    I’ll keep you posted.


  9. Gordon Drennan said,

    on January 23rd, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    I was interested that one of the cars in the AXP (Automotive X Prize) – $10M to whoever can design a mass-producable 100 mpg or equivalent car, google it – is referred to as being able to achieve that by running on “petrol vapor”. Is that the sort of thing you are talking about Ben?

  10. Ben said,

    on January 29th, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Yeah that’s it. Just proper vaporisation of the fuel. All you need is a way to have all of the petrol in gas form when the plug fires. Which is a lot easier said than done.

    The simpler methods involve heat and modified carburettor/injection sytems, the more comlex ones claim to change the chemical makeup of the fuel into one that is gaseous, cleaner, and faster burning (a process which currently leaves a lot to be desired, for automotive use anyway).

    I am planning on using either heat or a mechanical device to vaporise fuel. Heat is easier for me to work with for now.