Engine Technology a Decade Later

The missions of 2012 and 2020 overlap in technology.

A decade ago, R&D in homogeneous-charge compression-ignition (HCCI) combustion strategies were widespread. (ACCESS)

A securities analyst from New York called me recently, to ask about the future of powertrain. Specifically, she wanted my prediction for a timeframe for the demise of both gasoline and diesel IC engines. Such inquiries by the investment community to auto-industry media are fairly common. Indeed, the specific question of “when will the ICE die?” may be the most asked, most discussed topic of the past decade.

Intertwined with it are related questions: “When do you see EV sales penetration exceeding XX percent? When do you expect battery cost per kilowatt-hour to drop below that of gasoline engines? Which OEMs will prevail by 20XX? Will engineers whose work is directly related to ICEs and their drivetrains be willing and able to switch to EV-related employment?”

A journalist’s job is to ask experts and report their views, rather than blabber-on tediously ourselves (which many of us tend to do, anyway). It’s fair to say that gasoline and diesel engines will exist in substantial volume for some time. While I’m not a crystal-ball guy, I believe history helps align past and future. So, I dug out my reporter’s notebook from a decade ago: April 2012. It’s a record of who I spoke with and what I saw at the 2012 New York Auto Show, followed by the SAE High-Efficiency IC Engines Symposium.

Chronicled on both sides of every page in that notebook are interesting rearview-mirror observations from those events. At the NY show, Nissan’s then-boss Carlos Ghosn spoke to media. He predicted that global EV sales would reach 10% of the overall total by 2020. Nissan also was setting up a new U.S. company for EV battery reuse, he said.

Two weeks later at SAE’s advanced engine conference, much discussion surrounded thermodynamic efficiency, a quest that’s eternal in the powertrain world. “No stone can be left unturned,” asserted Dr. David Foster of the University of Wisconsin. “Crevice volumes. Friction. Rotating inertia. Heat transfer. Keeping in-cylinder temperatures low,” Foster noted, directly works toward minimizing exhaust-energy loss – still an aim of IC stalwarts.

Achates Power CEO Dave Johnson also presented at SAE, with a slide stack outlining the thermodynamic potential for his company’s multi-fuel, opposed-piston, 2-stroke engine tech. Achates at the time was aiming its OPOC development at light trucks. An engine was eventually demonstrated in a Ford F-150, before electrification closed in. The company now looks to potential heavy-truck applications.

Downsizing. Downspeeding. Stratified charge. Cooled EGR. Lean burn. Concepts for reduced pumping loss. Digital valve control. A phalanx of boosting ideas. HCCI! No stone left unturned. A decade later, powertrain’s crusade for greater efficiency continues – but with electric machines, power electronics and batteries getting the most attention.