Everyone wants to have the next big thing in auto technology, and when they think they have the tiger by the tail, they call me to come take a look. Here's are a few recent contenders:
Sal Scuderi and his engine model in Manhattan. (Jim Motavalli photo)
I am in the ballroom of a Manhattan hotel near Grand Central Station looking at an engine. Well, not an engine exactly, but a cutaway working model of one. There are cool lights blinking, and pistons moving up and down. This is the Scuderi engine, the great hope of a family enterprise.
Sal Scuderi is the son of the late mechanical engineer Carmelo Scuderi, who designed this new type of low-emission, internal-combustion powerplant, and he is endeavoring to explain the "split-cycle" technology to me as several other company folks, including Sal's brother, sit around the ballroom ordering lunch. The one-liter, turbocharged Scuderi engine, he said, takes the traditional four-cycle design and splits it over two paired cylinders, one for intake/compression and the other for power and exhaust.
On conventional engines, pistons fire at top dead center, but this one fires later to "produce highly efficient, cleaner combustion with one cylinder and compressed air in the other." The engines in every gas-powered car since the Duryea brothers take two crankcase revolutions to complete a combustion cycle, but Scuderi says his engine takes just one. "They waste energy and lose work because they compress the gas twice," Scuderi says. "Our process delivers very rapid atomization of the fuel."
Scuderi claims its revolutionary two-cylinder engine reduces nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 85%, and emissions overall by 80%. He also says overall fuel efficiency is much improved.
Is this a big breakthrough that will have automakers all over the world booking flights to Springfield, Massachusetts for licensing talks? It's kind of above my pay grade, but Scuderi did finally get the engine running yesterday.
Dan Kapp, the man behind Ford's new direct-injection EcoBoost engine as director for powertrain research and advanced engineering, told me Ford has "touched base" with Scuderi. "Flow loss and inefficient combustion on the expansion stroke are drawbacks," he said. "I don't want to be in a position of critiquing their work, but aren't you asking two cylinders to do the work of one? We'd need to see a lot more, to try and understand how they will meet some of the challenges."
I am on the phone last year talking to Shiva Vencat, who heads Zero Pollution Motors, the U.S. arm of a French company that thinks we'll all soon be running around in cars powered on compressed air. There is a sense of déjà vu, because I had a similar conversation with Vencat circa 2000, the first time they said French air cars were coming to the U.S.
The French company, Motor Development International (MDI), has entered its compressed-air cars in the Auto X Prize, and its U.S. web page says the latest start date is Spring 2009, for some very peculiar cars called the AIRPod Urban Transporter. They look like pastel-colored ladybugs. They claim 136 miles of range on compressed air, which would be quite a lot. I've seen MDI claim ranges of more than 800 miles using some form of heating to expand the air.
Experts I've talked to say the energy density of air does not favor this form of transportation, but people love the idea. "Have you heard about the air car?" they ask me. Yes, I have. I'm ready whenever MDI is to take a ride. I'd love to see it happen.
I am at the Concours d'Elegance in Greenwich, Connecticut last month, and in the center of the field, among the Duesenbergs and Packards, is what looks suspiciously like an airplane. But it's also ground transportation, heir to a rich history of flying cars. I wrote about the car after it made its maiden flight, but this is the first time I'm seeing it in the flesh. It's the Terrafugia Transition, and it's bigger than I thought.
The Terrafugia Transition car/plane in Greenwich. (Jim Motavalli photo)
At my request, the Terrafugia guy pushes a button and folds the wings up. On the road, the folded wings are vertical, which eats into visibility somewhat. But the carbon fiber car/plane is quite light (1,350 pounds), and supposedly gets 27 mpg on the road, and 30 in the air, where it cruises at 115 mph.
CEO Carl C. Dietrich tells me that one of the big selling points for this $194,000 device is that "it eliminates hangar fees -- you drive from airport to airport." Caught in bad weather? No problem: Just touch down, fold the wings and drive off. Windshield wipers are included. Some 60 people have put down $10,000 refundable deposits. The Terrafugia first flew last March, and since then the company says it has gone in the air 27 more times.
Will the Terrafugia succeed in the marketplace? I have no idea, but several others, including the fascinating Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. (the "Airphibian"), have tried and failed. Other contenders, from the late 40s to the mid-50s, have included Moulton Taylor (he built as many as five Aerocars), and Consolidated-Vultee, which made one working model.
Automotive dreams forever take wing, and sometimes literally.
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