The basic takeaway from what powertrain experts said when looking out as far as 2050 is strikingly similar to what they might say about 2011: There is a fundamental need to improve the efficiency of the internal-combustion engine (ICE).
The reason is that the ICE will continue to be the dominant powertrain technology for at least the next 20 years, according to panelists at the “Far-Term Powertrain Solutions—2016 and Beyond” session at the SAE 2010 World Congress in Detroit.
“Advanced diesel and gasoline engines, and alternative fuels, are really at the middle of everything that we are doing,” said Gerhard Schmidt, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford Motor Co. “For the next 10, 20, maybe even 30 years, these more ‘classical powertrains’ will dominate our industry.”
This opinion was shared by Johannes-Joerg Rueger, Senior Vice President of Diesel Systems Engineering at Robert Bosch LLC. “We have to be realistic. That’s key. It’s necessary to be enthusiastic about future technologies, otherwise we will never start to develop them and we will never get anywhere,” he said. “But at the other end, being over-enthusiastic doesn’t help us either; it just confuses the consumer.”
With respect to market share of hybrids and electric vehicles, Rueger said that “it’s probably 99% in the media but 1% on the road,” driving home the point that reality does not align with the coverage those technologies are receiving. “That will remain for quite some time in the marketplace, and if that’s the case, it is very important that we further improve the [efficiency of the] internal-combustion engine.”
One company represented on the panel is developing what its Vice President of R&D claims is a “breakthrough technology for improved well-to-wheel efficiency. Our system has inherently high combustion efficiency, it does not require a throttle, and it operates with high compression ratio—probably similar to that of a diesel engine,” said Chris De Boer of Transonic Combustion Inc., describing the company’s TSCi fuel injection system.
“It involves the direct injection of fuel in a supercritical state, it involves improving the heat-release diagram for optimum combustion efficiency, and it involves catalysis of the fuel.”
De Boer said that simulation predicts that the thermal efficiency will be improved by up to 25% over a gasoline engine at part load. The technology has been applied to a number of light-duty passenger car engines in North America, with test results confirming that thermal-efficiency potential as well as a fuel consumption improvement of more than 20%.
The TSCi system “isn’t really a radical departure from what we have today on engines,” he said. The system has fuel injectors, a common rail, a fuel pump, and a control system. “Our system could be readily integrated into existing engines,” since it has a common architecture to current common-rail diesel and gasoline direct injection engines. The company anticipates production of the concept in the 2015 time frame. (To read more about the TSCi technology, go to http://www.sae.org/mags/aei/7160.)
Long term, the market share of ICE-powered vehicles will depend on the availability of renewable fuels, according to Ford’s Schmidt. Plug-in hybrid vehicles and battery-electric vehicles will become even more prevalent beyond 2020, and he believes that hydrogen-powered vehicles hold “great potential.”
“It’s really not one size fits all. It will be a nice mixture of different technologies and fuels—I count electricity as one of the fuels—which will finally bring us [closer to the goal of sustainability],” he concluded.
J. Gary Smyth, Director of Powertrain Systems Research Lab at General Motors R&D, stressed that biofuels, which are still in their infancy, provide a “significant opportunity” to help achieve a sustainable future by displacing petroleum-based fuels.
“We firmly believe that liquid fuels are going to be there for a long time—more and more they’re going to be from alternative sources. That’s why we need to optimize the propulsion systems for those liquid fuels,” Smyth said. “But we also have to drive into electrification.”
Beyond the Chevrolet Volt, Smyth referenced the company’s recently announced EN-V (Electric Networked-Vehicle) platform, which will be showcased at the Expo in China later this year, as an example of how vehicle electrification can be expanded—specifically as a solution to the urbanization “megatrend.”
“This [platform] is really showing how far we can go with respect to personal transportation in highly urbanized areas,” he said. “This combines both electric propulsion systems with connected vehicles to prove potential going forward…Electricity will play more and more of an important role [in the future], especially in urbanization.”
Discussing energy storage, Smythe noted that hydrogen also will play an important role moving forward. “How can we store a lot of electrical energy? We still feel that the most effective way to do that is with respect to hydrogen,” he said. “We’re at the point now where we really feel we can develop a fuel-cell system, and really we’re at the decision point of how do we go forward with production.”
Minoru Shinohara, Senior Vice President of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., shared the company’s electrification plans, including the upcoming launch of its Leaf electric car. He stressed—as did the other panelists—that realizing economy of scale is of utmost importance in finding the balance between advancing new technology and remaining cost-competitive.
“Mass production of EVs will require the positive participation of the suppliers. And the battery, as you may imagine, is a key for cost reduction,” Shinohara said. “But we can fully utilize that battery after the use of the EV, which should reduce the cost burden for EV customers.” This is part of the company’s 4-R business model, which involves reusing, refabricating, reselling, and recycling the battery.
So how do we realize future powertrain technologies? One condition, said Bosch’s Rueger, is that funding must be available. “Government subsidies and incentives can overcome some initial hurdles, but it can never solve the problem if the technology is not competitive financially,” he said. Reducing costs and, of course, engineering competence in the area of electronics are other critical conditions that must be met.