Of Mileage and Markets - the Politics of Fuel Efficiency

Among today’s extraordinarily crowded field of presidential candidates seemingly everyone has an energy policy—an unprecedented state of affairs to my recollection, but not all that surprising in the light of the sour reaction of the public to the high gasoline prices that have prevailed for more than a year now. One hears from the candidates the usual palaver about energy independence, increased ethanol production and various other palliatives and purported quick fixes which, unfortunately, are exceedingly unlikely to provide any rapid or indeed long term relief, but one also hears one suggestion that could, if indeed it is feasible, reduce fuel consumption and therefore demand and therefore price pressures. And that is to increase vehicular fuel efficiency at large.

Among Democratic candidates the talk is of revived Federal standards on fuel efficiency, a revamping, if you will, of the old CAFÉ standards of the Carter era. Most of the suggestions I’ve heard are on the order of a 15% improvement, a seemingly fairly modest increment. The Big Two are adamant in their opposition, however. Can’t be done, they claim.

But is this in fact the case?

The Business Case for Fuel Efficiency

American auto manufacturers, for all the beneficial changes they have wrought in our society, have not wanted for detractors. And, it must be said, not without reason. Who among us past a certain age can forget the forthright opposition of the auto makers to seatbelts? Or the awkward attempts of General Motors to deny the lethal propensity of the Chevrolet Corvair to burst into flame upon impact? And who can forget the indignation of the same upon the imposition of the CAFÉ standards, the perfervid protestations of the impossibility of meeting them, and the impassioned declarations that they would bankrupt the industry? Emissions standards were similarly loathed and still are by the surviving Big Two, and the notion of enhanced efficiency through weight reduction is derided and decried with astonishing intensity, and, verily, advocates of such a strategy are accused of endangering the American driver—ironic indeed when one recalls auto maker opposition to seatbelts and airbags.

Still, one should not suppose the vehemence of the opposition is utterly without foundation, though the literalness of auto maker objections is certainly at issue. Apart from the visceral objection of almost any manufacturing concern to government regulation, the auto makers had good reasons to have opposed almost all of the changes forced upon them by legislators including increased fuel efficiency. For few if any of the mandated changes have been such as to increase the immediate attractiveness of the vehicle to potential buyers and thus sales. One’s fantasies of automotive omnipotence are in no way enhanced by seatbelt systems, particularly ones which prevent the car from being started if one chooses to dispense with them, or by side airbags, or catalytic converters, or antilock braking systems, or almost any of the other encumbrances imposed by government. A catalytic converter, perhaps the most noxious of the lot, slugs the engine, reducing potential horsepower, prevents the use of really high octane leaded gas, and effectively forestalls the addition of a really hot tuned exhaust with a separate pipe for each cylinder. Sure, we’ve found ways to engineer around a lot of the limitations, but I still remember when the things were first mandated, and the advice of the proprietor of my local speed shop, “remove the goddamned thing immediately upon purchasing the automobile!”

As far as the auto manufactures were concerned, the government regs at worst removed a lot of the fun factor in their vehicles—horsepower plunged at least 30% in the late seventies when the catalytic converter first appeared—and invariably increased the cost of manufacturing without adding any perceptible cachet to the vehicle. And moreover they entailed lots of expensive research and development and all kinds of nettlesome compliance issues. Who needed it? The way the auto makers saw it, the Japanese had already eaten their lunch and now the Feds were making it even more difficult for them to survive.

Now with market conditions ever so much worse, American auto makers are understandably livid. The Japanese have now eaten their dinner as well as their lunch, and the strategy of focusing on SUVs has proven as disastrous as Iraq. The once stalwart Chrysler Corporation has been reduced to a dangling appendage of a financial institution named after the three headed dog that guards the gates of hell—an apt metaphor indeed—and the remaining big two have suffered record losses. Although perhaps not altogether likely, the utter demise of the American auto industry is now within the realm of possibility.

So obviously a more stringent version of the CAFÉ standards is viewed with utter dismay and consternation by American automotive executives, and one may be sure that they will do all in their still considerable power to thwart legislative action in this regard. And since their skills in political lobbying as opposed to innovative automotive design are undiminished, they may well prevail.

Still one is left with the question as to whether the fuel efficiency of automobiles really can be raised significantly without radical departures from the existing design norm? In other words, are fuel cells or plug-in hybrids the only way to increase fuel efficiency substantially?

The Bandaid Approach

The redesign of the power plant on the part of a major auto manufacturer is inordinately expensive even if the enhancement consists of a fairly modest tweak. When Madza switched from port to direct injection on one of its six cylinder engines, the change reportedly cost the company in excess of $100 million to implement. So something really radical like a plug-in hybrid powertrain is sure to cost billions. If you’re already reeling from poor sales that’s not something you even want to contemplate. Where are you going to go for the money, especially when you’ve been telling the capital markets for the last five years that people just want more SUVs?

So in practical terms you’re limited to a bandaid approach. Find some cheap, bolt-on components that are somehow going to make a big difference in mileage. But do such components even exist. The very idea seems ludicrous. But in fact they do and most of them are already selling as aftermarket products.

And the neat thing about most of these tweaks is that they increase horsepower even while decreasing gas consumption.

Plasma Ignition

Plasma ignition probably constitutes the quickest quick fix for improving mileage in an ordinary spark ignition engine. The plasma in question is generated by an extremely brief, high intensity electrical impulse emanating from an ordinary spark plug fronted by specialized control electronics. Plasma, a fourth state of matter, in which the element is literally decomposed into its constituent subatomic particles, has a temperature of minimally several thousand degrees Centigrade, but need endure no longer than a nanosecond or so to effect a very complete combustion of the fuel air mixture. Double digit improvements in both mileage and horsepower may be achieved by just this means.

Plasmatronics LLC in New York is the best known manufacturer of plasma ignition systems and has sold its products to the manufacturers of European exoticars and numerous racing teams. The company claims that with mass production the system would add little to the price of a new car.

Pulse Charging

Pulse charging is a form of intermittent turbo-charging without the turbine utilizing the pressure of the exhaust gases to force air into the cylinders. The technology, which is said to resemble the air induction system on the old pulse jet engines of World War II used in the notorious V1 “buzz bomb”, is cheap to implement, and can produce up to 50% improvement in horsepower or fuel efficiency but not both simultaneously. The technology is proprietary to Dolphin ACI, a subsidiary of Green Star Products headquartered in Southern California. The performance of the technology has been independently validated, and can be accomplished with addition of handful of small, inexpensive parts.

Performance Coatings

Unlike the previous two techniques, which are essentially proprietary, performance coatings are currently offered by a number of manufacturers and processing facilities. Several distinct groups of such coatings are in use today, primarily on the racing circuit.

The first group consists of thermal barriers, and the coating itself is generally some kind of fine ceramic that is thermally resistant and at the same time capable of enduring extremely high temperatures without breaking down. Thermal barriers increase the pressure of the expanding gases of combustion in the cylinder and in the exhaust system by minimizing cooling. Where the heat of combustion would normally dissipate through the thermally conductive engine block, it now remains in the cylinder and the exhaust where it can perform useful work. Thermal barriers can improve both fuel efficiency and power output by several percent.

Ceramic coatings have been used to a very limited extent in production cars and motorcycles but remain largely confined to the aftermarket.

The second type of coating that can demonstrably improve both mileage and power is diamond like carbon or DLC for short. This is a spray on coating of extreme durability and at the same time extreme lubricity that closely resembles a diamond in its molecular structure. It is normally applied over a very thin micro-stratum of some ultra-hard metal such as titanium nitride or carbide. Diamond like carbon coatings on moving parts improve mileage by several percent by reducing friction.

To date DLCs have only been used in racing engines and have never been incorporated in engines intended for production automobiles. They are, however, extensively used in various mass produced machine tools and there appears to be no reason why they could not be inexpensively applied in auto manufacturing.

Another performance coating which drastically reduces friction is a spray application of powdered molybdenum. Again this commonly used in aftermarket modifications of stock engines for the racing circuit but is not present in any production vehicle.

Finally, there is a cryo-treatment, which is not precisely a coating, but a means of altering the crystalline structure of metals to increase durability and to achieve a smoother and therefore lower friction finish. Cryo-treatment, which generally employs liquid nitrogen as the chilling agent, was first used in the German aircraft industry in the Nazi era and slowly diffused through various industrial sectors in the intervening decades. In the last decade or so it has become ubiquitous in auto racing circles. Cryo-treated engines are only marginally more efficient than their untreated counterparts, but have vastly lower wear factors and appear to require significantly less maintenance especially under conditions of hard usage.

Bandaids or Gaping Wounds?

So what is the likelihood of any of these effective palliatives seeing use beyond the performance aftermarket? My guess is that plasma ignition is probably the most likely to find a larger market though I could be wrong. It’s a very straightforward addition, and it conforms to the overall industry trend of relying more and more on smart electronics to control engine operating parameters. Pulse charging is pretty straight forward as well, but it is patent protected so I believe “not invented here” will keep it out of the OEM marketplace. Performance coatings are harder to call. Most auto makers don’t want engines lasting three times as long and the coating process itself would change the production chain. I don’t think it will happen.

In addition to these bandaids, there are lots of other fairly simple engine modifications that can improve efficiency, and I’ll mention a few of these in a later article. We’ll conclude with a look at radical innovation—stuff that is almost certain not to happen.

What about water/methanol injection?

Is this a viable alternative as well?

Snow Pty Ltd make one. Kits cost about $400