Lifestyle

New Technologies to Boost Fuel Economy


Novel approaches to improving gas mileage will enable engines to get the fuel efficiency of a hybrid but at a fraction of the cost

There is one small side benefit to gasoline selling above $4 a gallon and oil prices setting new records almost daily. From lonely inventors to small research firms to big carmakers, everyone is scrambling to find new ways to improve fuel economy. They're not just working on the hybrid-electric vehicles and electric cars that make big headlines. Engineers across the globe are also working on ways to improve the good old gasoline engines that power today's cars.

Take MCE-5 Development. This researcher based in Lyon, France, is the latest company to try to make a gasoline engine that will give cars the efficiency of hybrid-electric vehicles and clean diesels for a fraction of the cost. MCE-5 says it can get a 35% fuel economy boost from its 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. In a test lab, the company has gotten 220 hp and about 45 mpg, and all for less than $1,000 a vehicle.

The company believes that even by the middle of the next decade, when its engines will be ready for production, hybrids will still be too expensive for every driver. "It's possible to have the fuel efficiency of a hybrid for one-tenth the cost," says Vianney Rabhi, director of strategy and development for MCE-5. "Even if there's a big step in battery development, hybrids will be costly."

Engineered for Optimum Compression

There are, of course, plenty of skeptics. Some say the technology will be more expensive than manufacturers think once they try to mass produce it. Plus, by 2015 hybrids may be much cheaper and better performing. "No one will dispute the results they get," says Phil Gott, director of automotive consulting for Boston-based Global Insight. "The challenge is taking it out of the lab and designing it for mass production." Others say the technology could simply be used with a hybrid system to make a super-efficient car.

The whole idea is to make a gasoline engine operate more like a diesel engine. The engine compresses the mix of air and fuel under higher pressure than today's conventional engines, forcing the piston to move faster and generate more torque. MCE-5 also has a series of gears that can adjust the compression of the air and fuel mix to optimize fuel economy. Gearheads call it Variable Compression Ratio (VCR), because the cars are engineered to run at the optimum compression of fuel and air rather than at one steady rate.

Other engineering companies and carmakers are working on a similar concept. Mercedes-Benz said last year that it may start selling an engine with the same kind of technology sometime in the next decade.

Backing from the French Government

MCE-5 has shown impressive results in the lab. But can it deliver the bang for the buck that its executives promise? The company's engine needs more parts, which add cost, says Gott. They also can cause more engine knock, which is a pinging noise most drivers find unacceptable.

The company admits a lot of work still needs to be done. But it has a number of well-heeled backers, including French carmaker PSA (PEUP), the parent of Peugeot and Citroën. Private investors have put in $30 million and the French government another $18 million. Later this year, MCE-5 plans to try the technology in a Peugeot car and hopes to sell it for some test fleets in 2012 or 2013, Rabhi says.

Mercedes-Benz (DAI) showed off its F 700 concept car with a similar kind of engine last year. The car is the size of its stately S-class flagship sedan (BusinessWeek.com, 5/10/06) that runs on a 44-mpg four-cylinder engine. Mercedes is excited about the technology, but says it won't be ready for the road until well after 2010.

Sticking with Internal Combustion

Some critics question whether the technology will be obsolete by then. Toyota (TM), Nissan (NSANY), and General Motors (GM) all plan to sell plug-in hybrids or electric cars by around 2010. Their executives think the electrification of the automobile is the endgame everyone should be pursuing.

MCE-5 disagrees. Even if the lithium ion batteries used for electric cars get cheaper in the next decade, Rabhi says, "The future of the automobile will be the internal combustion engine for the next 20 to 30 years."

In the end, both will be right. If players like Mercedes and MCE-5 have their engines ready and the cost is really as low as they claim, the new engines could simply be mated to a hybrid system, says James N. Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics, a Detroit consulting firm.

There are other challenges to these engines. If you increase the compression ratios, it creates more oxides of nitrogen, or NOx, which is a component of smog. So the engines' makers will have to clean the emissions. "Everybody is working on it," Hall says. With gasoline prices expected to remain high, everyone has plenty of incentive.

Welch is BusinessWeek's Detroit bureau chief.

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