Personal Beef With Automotive Innovation

Recently there has been something about the current state of affairs that has started to bother me.  As a techie and car guy I frequently enjoy seeing the technology that new cars have to offer.  Infotainment systems and in car navigation or driving aids are starting to become everything sci-fi movies of yester-year promised.  A ride in the latest large Mercedes S class or BMW 7 series makes you feel as if you’re in a rudimentary version of the Star Trek Enterprise.  While we lack the hover cars everybody in the 50s and 60s swore we would have by now, we’re now literally able to buy cars that will drive themselves on the highway.  Technology and systems in cars is becoming mind boggling and it’s exciting.  Somehow these companies have found a way of doing it, however, and still preserve the simple, raw enjoyment that is being in touch with the machine.  Driving a BMW 7 series this summer I was completely enamored with how the adaptive cruise control took a lot of the annoying speed control out of highway driving.  It was brilliant, and I want a car (or truck, preferably) with it.

But this isn’t what has been bothering me, no.  All this crazy tech innovation lays bare a glaring lack of innovation in the automotive industry.  One that, despite centuries old innovations, has essentially remained unchanged since the dawn of the horseless carriage.  You’ve probably guessed by now what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, its the internal combustion engine.  Although it’s not the engine per say, it’s the fact that we’re still using it.  There have been technological innovations around the internal combustion engine that have made it quieter, more powerful and about as efficient  as this moderately inefficient (from a physics perspective) method can become.  I understand the changes we’ve made and I recognize innovations for it, that’s also not what bothers me.  What bothers me was aptly drawn out, crudely and NFSW-ly, in a comic from the oatmeal.

courtesy the talented Matt Inman (the oatmeal)
courtesy the talented Matt Inman (the oatmeal)

What we see here is the issue at hand.  Despite over 100 years of existence, the automobile still relies on the internal combustion engine for propulsion.  This is despite the fact that Ferdinand Porsche was using in-line hybrid designs (gas powered and boosted by electric motors) in 1900.  He was so obsessed with the future of this technology that nearly every single one of the tank designs he submitted to Nazi Germany were powered by a diesel/electric or gas/electric system – the same kind GM introduced over 60 years later in the Volt.  While Ferdinand struggled to get his designs to work – and thank goodness to that, they were epic – it wasn’t because the design was incorrect or the technology too under-developed.  It was because Germany was losing a war and expensive metals like copper were extremely rare.  This sort of drive system went on, in a much larger form, to become the staple propulsion platform for train locomotives.  Yup, giant diesel engines generating electricity for giant electric motors has been around in theory since WW2 and in use since the late 50s and early 60s.

But not in cars

How did over 60 years of innovation get ignored?  How has the simple idea of an electric motor powered by a small internal combustion engine not taken the world over decades ago?  Perhaps the reason is how horrible battery technology has been until very recently.  Not likely though, since these cars didn’t need batteries to still take that next step towards propulsion efficiency.  These are the thoughts that trouble me.  In the year 2014 it’s a bit shameful that we still rely nearly completely on an internal combustion.

The question of why has certainly plagued the fringes of the automotive industry for a while.  It has been the center of conspiracy and documentaries over and over again.  One thing is for sure; I’m not in the position to even began to speculate, and I’m not going to.  My point is to simply ponder aloud: why this is the case?  A documentary I watched recently – Revenge of the Electric Cars (not what I thought it would be, actually really good) – revealed that the then CEO of GM, the massively influential Bob Lutz, became convinced that GM needed to make an electric drive car.  He revealed in the documentary that he faced strong and outright resistance.  Why?  He never said, but he did give credit to the success of Tesla Motors for changing a few minds and the Volt was born.

But still, why?

I dream of the day when cars are powered by propulsion that exceeds 80% efficiency.  They no longer rely on the systems or infrastructure of a non-renewable resource but instead, like everything else in nature, draw energy from the environment around them.  I’m not after environmental sustainability, though that would be awesome, I am after a smaller hit on my wallet.  I’m after a reduction in the reliance on a few to power the world.  The added benefit would be a cleaner, happier earth – something that’s becoming more and more dire we achieve.  We’ve seen an acceleration in the intelligence of the vehicles we drive, it’s high time we saw what powers them receive the same level of innovation.

Don’t make the internal combustion engine better, make it obsolete.

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