Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, a green-startup proponent, is banking on EcoMotors' two-cylinder diesel engine to lessen emissions worldwide
The renewed interest in diesel cars and trucks is spurring a new round of innovation in diesel engine technology. It's drawing new investment interest as well, including from one of Silicon Valley's iconic venture capitalists.
Vinod Khosla first earned fame as a founding partner of Sun Microsystems (JAVA) and then as a managing partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Since he went solo and founded Khosla Ventures in 2004, he's earned a new reputation for an early—and vocal—commitment to renewable energy. In the tradition of Al Gore, he's a persuasive presenter on the potential of green startups to create economic growth, and the vital necessity to fund technologies that can slow climate change. Khosla was one of the earliest voices to point out the perils of corn-based ethanol, a form of biofuel that's come under increasing scrutiny for damaging the environment and driving up food prices.
One of Khosla's latest bets is EcoMotors, a Detroit company whose crown jewel is a two-cylinder diesel engine that's lighter, more powerful, and easier to scale up than today's engines, says Ford Tamer, operating partner at Khosla Ventures. The design could wind up boosting a diesel engine's efficiency—which is already 20% to 40% better than those of gas engines—by half. The two-cylinder units can be clicked together like Legos: by linking them in a series, designers can build the sorts of larger engines with four, six, or eight cylinders that are typically used in cars and trucks.
Details on the patented design are still hush-hush, but the design uses horizontally opposed pistons, like those in Subaru's gas-powered "boxer" engine. Because the pistons are always moving in opposite directions to one another, they cancel out most of the stress they'd otherwise transfer into the engine block. This allows the design to be lighter than conventional engines, where the pistons are inline or in a V configuration. EcoMotor's approach cranks out about 1 hp per pound of engine weight, says Tamer, 20% better than the highly tuned engine on a Porsche 911, and 300% better than many mass-market engine designs.
The design comes with an impressive pedigree. It's the brainchild of EcoMotors' CEO Peter Hofbrauer and COO John Coletti, two gurus of engine design with more than 50 years of experience and dozens of industry firsts between them. Before Khosla got involved, EcoMotors' design went through three development phases under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program to develop ultra-efficient motors for battlefield use. "This isn't a model running in a lab," says Tamer. "It's real. Our goal is to license a commercial version to any automakers."
The Technology of Mileage
The more auto companies pick up the design, the happier Khosla will be—and not just for financial reasons. The design promises to help meet rising mileage and emission standards in wealthy, established markets. But Khosla is more intrigued by the growth potential in emerging markets, as well as the dire need for clean, affordable transportation technologies.
Demand for cars is growing far faster in countries like India than it is in the U.S. or Europe. To address the various needs of developing markets—including scooters, cars, trucks, and marine and diesel power generators—EcoMotors plans to offer a range of engines starting at 15 hp (about the size of a large lawn mower) up to 325 hp (plenty to power a fast car or light truck), or 625 hp (big enough for industrial and heavy transport applications) if a pair of motors is used.
Tamer hopes to have prototype vehicles powered by the EcoMotors design next year, and volume production as early as 2011. Further out, when battery technologies are more affordable, he explains, the goal is to create plug-in hybrid vehicles capable of better than 100 mpg. They would switch on a high-efficiency diesel motor only if and when the batteries run out.
Diesel Hybrids: The Best Bet?
Not since the birth of the automobile around 1900 have so many different technologies—gas, hybrid, diesel, electric, and combinations thereof—been jockeying for sales. This reflects the global auto market's unprecedented state of flux, says Jesse Toprak, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. Manufacturers and policymakers are searching for the right mix of technology to lift mileage to the tough goals now being demanded by governments, while not giving up the performance that consumers have grown accustomed to.
"Years from now, diesel hybrids could be the best bet," Toprak speculates. "Farther out, it might be plug-in electric cars with diesel backup motors."