Autonomous Zombies

Here is an interesting observation: most drivers don’t want to be there.

Unlike enthusiasts, such as myself, who really get a deep enjoyment and fulfilment from driving, in the mass market most car owners don’t actually like driving at all, it’s just become a necessity of modern life. That’s why so many of them don’t pay attention and would rather chat on the phone, listen to the radio or just stare into the distance like a slack jawed zombie.

Cars are a very strange phenomenon in that respect, where else would you find a large, heavy and complex piece of machinery that is bought and operated by almost everyone regardless of whether they are interested in that machine or not? It wouldn’t happen with lathes, welding kit or submarines, but with cars we just accept it. In fact the buying profile of cars is more like toasters or kettles, everyone thinks they need one but has not interest in how to work them properly.

Danger being recognized
Danger being recognised

And because of the non-professional nature of the vast majority of car owners, technology is being developed to meet their needs. That is; making the car make most of the decisions. We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….

Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.

Fully autonomous cars are now being trialled, you just get in, tell it where to go and it drives you there. To many this is automotive heaven, just like having a chauffeur, and takes the irritating burden of ‘having to do some driving’ out of a journey completely. Plus there are safety advantages which make a very compelling argument, the fact is that nearly all accidents are caused by the driver doing something really dumb, so by taking the driver out of the system lives would be saved. And that argument alone is powerful enough to kill the ‘drivers car’ stone dead, no arguments, it is simply infeasible to argue that autonomous cars should not be compulsory just because we want to have a little bit of fun.

But to enthusiasts this is automotive hell, no control, no involvement, no enjoyment, nothing.

And it also take a lot of skill and judgement away too, what if I want to drive on the left of my lane to get a good view past the truck I am about to overtake? Will the lane control system let me? What if I need to gently nudge my driveway gate open because its blown shut? Will the collision avoidance system let me?

And this brings me to a very important point; cars are so reliable these days that people are totally unable to cope with a simple problem; I would have thought that if the pedal stays down then either put your toe under it and pull it up or drop it in neutral, park up and switch off. Easy, but most people have lost the ability to cope with any sort of problem, and that is scary.

I say scary because we depend more and more on technology, cars, electricity supply, computers, the internet, mobile phones, the list goes on. And for the most part the technology serves us amazingly well, but like all things it can fail.

I remember in the 70’s there were power cuts, no problem; the lights went out so we lit candles, life goes on. We communicated by actually talking to people, we were entertained by actually doing things, we worked by going out and making physical things.

But now, oh dear, if the power fails we seem to be doomed to sitting in a freezing dark house unable to phone a friend or do any work on the computer. ‘Doomed I say, doomed, captain’ (although that phrase probably wont mean a thing to younger readers).

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of technology. As an engineer I work on car technology that won’t see the glowing lights of a showroom for maybe seven years, as a writer I would be lost without the word processor and its fantastic ability to correct my abysmal spelling. Oh yes indeedey I just cant get enough of the techy stuff.

What I am scared of is the way people are loosing the ability to do things for themselves. To even bother trying to solve problems seems to great a challenge, the mind is being numbed and switched off, its like intentionally loosing the ability to walk just because you can afford a wheel chair.

The first thought when a problem hits now seems to be ‘who should I call about this problem’, and not what it should be ‘what can I do to solve this problem’.

People have to be more proactive, just like we used to be, and much less reactive and just plain pathetic.

But what drives technological development is consumer demand, so if we want cars to be ‘drivers cars’, totally under our command, then we have to make our voice heard. Not only that but the voice must have a strong and sound argument, and it has to be heard right now.

Now modern cars are introducing collision avoidance, lane control and other complex systems which all have to work in harmony with all the other systems in all the infinite combinations of circumstance.

The complexity is so great that I believe it is now impossible to accurately asses how such a car will react in all conditions. Complexity hides secrets, usually unintentional.

This is true not only for cars, but in many of the systems we rely on today which are also hugely complex and have chunks of third party software in the control system, from automatic number plate recognition and speeding fines, military automatic targeting and smart weapons, to the DNA database and even the way we use the internet.

The potential for technology to assist is immense, but it has to be understood that we have now lost control of every detail. So how far do we let the machines dictate to us, and how much override can we allow to fallible humans? It is one of the most important debates we should be having today.

The answer to this will dictate the future of society and quite possibly our fate as a species.

Ralph Hosier is a Chartered Engineer with over 25 years in the cutting edge of vehicle development and research. He has written several automotive books and many articles. He also teaches engineering at the UK forces motorsport charity Mission Motorsport.

For engineering enquiries, project advice or media requests please email on and look at the company website for more details.

The next big thing.

People often ask me what the future of motoring holds, after all my day job is working with car companies to develop prototypes of the cars of the future. But the long term plans of the big car companies is only part of this story.

It’s true they try to guess the future, often a new car design will be in production for seven years with a facelift half way through, and it takes between three and five years to do all the engineering so all in all a totally new model may still be going strong a decade after the initial plan was agreed. And when you are investing billions in factories and engineering facilities you need to feel that your guesses will be fairly close to what the future will actually hold.
So many experts are consulted; economists, engineers, scientists, sociologists and pundits all make contributions in one way or another, and gradually a fuzzy picture of the future coalesces.
But times are changing.

Oil supply is uncertain, it’s not so much that it’s running out, more that politics and economics mean that prices will carry on going up and the reliability of supply is less certain than ten years ago. And when a critical factor like oil becomes iffy then long term plans become impossible to make, this means that it is far safer to plan for alternative fuels, and electric drives seem relatively easy to plan for (see a previous post). But even the role of alternatives is not clear cut, there is renewed interest in making fuel by reversing the combustion process with electricity. Petrol and diesel burn and turn mostly into water and carbon dioxide whilst releasing energy, so by combining water and carbon dioxide and putting loads of energy back in you get fuel. So depending on where the electricity comes from this has the potential to be carbon neutral and also has the benefit that the car industry doesn’t have to invent new engines. This could be the next big thing, really very big. Unless it’s easier to plan for electric drives or some other technology, in which case this will get too little investment and never get anywhere.
Fuel is a hugely contentious issue these days, both for its cost and its environmental effect.
Have you ever seen people complaining that they don’t get the claimed fuel economy from their car? The problem is drivers are hugely inconsistent, I am famed for squeezing higher fuel economy figures from almost any car, but a colleague of mine usually manages to use twice as much fuel as me on the same journey! And it’s not just MPG, its how many litres of fuel you have to pay for each month, and part of that is what route you choose and traffic flow.
But there are some bigger issues that will influence the future, did you know that road deaths in the UK have just started going up? About two thousand people are killed on the UK roads every year, that is an astonishing statistic, how the hell can we live with this situation? Almost all of these are caused by driver error.
These problems are contributing to the drive towards fully autonomous cars, although the main drive is the fact that most drivers hate driving and would rather be on the internet or chatting to friends, so having a robot chauffeur is a real selling point. We have already seen self parking cars gain popularity, and Volvo were the first to introduce collision avoidance where the car will do an emergency stop if it gets worried. All the car companies I know of are working on autonomous cars, they are still many years off, but within a decade they will be widely available.
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
But in the shorter term there is still a lot of work going on refining existing technologies.
You may have noticed that engines are getting smaller again, coupled with much higher boost levels, such as the lovely little Ford three cylinder unit or the sprightly VW Tsi. This trend is set to continue over the next ten years at least, with a greater presence of electric hybrid drives to ensure the engine is used only at its best efficiency.
But something is coming that might make these plans irrelevant.

And it’s the weather.
People have noticed that the weather is becoming increasingly inconvenient. The climate is warming up, in the UK this means that crops are getting ruined year after year. I’m fairly close to the farming community and a startling thing is that most farmers I’ve spoken to can’t remember when they last had two consecutive good years. This year our food prices will go up, although to be fair we have very cheap food in the UK to start with, and there may be shortages of certain types of food. Initially grains will be diverted from animal feed stocks to feeding us directly,, driving up animal feed and thus meat prices will be the first to go up. This will drive inflation up and this in turn worries politicians, and when politicians get worried they usually pass some badly thought out laws.
But it’s not just food, floods have caused huge damage and disruption costing the country a fortune.
You can see where this is going can’t you? Yes it’s our old foe climate change, for decades people have been warning that there was a problem, and for over a decade the car industry has taken this very seriously but the problem has always been that the message we’ve been receiving has been confused and complex, making it impossible to know who to believe and so what to plan for. This is partly because the climate is a hugely complex thing, and our understanding of it is still in it’s infancy, what’s shocking is the lack of funding for this science, which takes us back to politicians.

Politicians react to popular opinion, more so near an election. So no matter what the real truth of the matter is (how about massive investment and incentives for zero carbon drives and proper funding for climate research? No, ok then spend the money on nuclear weapons we will never use.) politicians now have a population with ridiculously expensive fuel, flooded homes and food shortages. The people want this mess sorted out, so the standard scenario is that in this situation politicians choose someone to blame and pass laws to restrict the ‘bad thing’ that is the alleged cause of the problem.

Car companies are a bit worried about this situation, not knowing what laws will be passed on emissions or what taxes will be applied to fuel and different types of car means that long term plans are near impossible. Obviously 6.0 litre V8s will get hammered, but what about a 2.0 or a 1.5 litre turbo unit? If the top of your current range has a 3.0 V6, what should you plan to be using in ten years time? Maybe even a sub one litre engine will still get hammered?
And what about the cars due for release in 2013, many years of work and many millions, sometimes over a billion, have gone into getting each one into production. They simply have to be in production for their intended production life span or the company may suffer serious damage, and for very high volume producers like Ford or VW loosing the market on a new car because it gets taxed to oblivion or fails new emissions limits could bring it to its knees. This is serious stuff.

But more serious is the very real change in our climate, if greenhouse gasses are the problem then we have to engineer a technical way of ripping it out of the atmosphere in astonishing volumes, after all we’ve been pumping tons of shit into the air for hundreds of years and there is one hell of a lot of it up there now. And it’s not just CO2, Methane is far worse and a lot of that comes from our passion for meat, there are many factors and it all needs sorting out.

If the politics dictate that petrol and diesel suddenly face being taxed to death, or even banned, then all of a sudden getting funding for reformed fuel or electric drives will become a lot easier, because investors can see the benefit.
But time is running out, and what we need is some sort of certainty so long term plans can be made and investments made. Tell the car industry that cars in ten years time will have to be all electric and we know what we have to work with, sure it will be hard but it will get done. If its gas or reformed fuel or whatever, just let us know.

So what’s the next big thing? Could be reformed petrol, could be hydrogen, could be electric, could even be banning cars and everyone working from home (ok, not that). One thing that I have seen across the board is that there is an increased focus on putting more fun into motoring, there are some fabulous drivers cars in the pipeline. Longer term there are loads of fascinating technologies in their infancy that could change our lives fundamentally, some are being funded and some are just starting out. But in all honestly it all depends on politics, and one thing no one can predict is politicians.

Computer crash

When I was little I remember listening to old people talking about a time when there where no cars, the feeling of excitement and wonder when they saw their firs one, a feeling mixed with a little fear as the mechanical marvel seemed to take over every aspect of life. Where once they played in the road now the car was king, and a ruthless one at that. Communities divided by a constant steam of deadly traffic.
Of course today we take the car for granted. Many have moved away from the workers slums into suburbia and now rely on the car to support this freedom.

ASL, DSC and other stability control systems allow even the clumsiest driver to enjoy supercar power in reletive safety. Technology can be amazing.

We teach our children ‘road sense’ so they can cross the road safely. Most drivers are not deadly speed demons (although in town most people still speed, 40 in a 30 zone IS deadly). Society adjusts and we move on.
Now it seems that its my turn to sound old because I remember a time when there were no PCs.
I remember the excitement of my first Sinclair ZX80, the awe of seeing the colour ZX Spectrum.
But now I feel the fear.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I am a great believer in the usefulness of computers, I have a degree in computer systems engineering, I have made a career out of devising and tweaking computer control systems for cars.
The performance of this Lamborghini is only possible because of the massed computer systems doing highly complex things to make the engine, gearbox, suspension and brakes work to perfection.

But still, now I feel the fear.
When I was studying to become and engineer, every step of the way I was told of the importance of doing things properly. With a large computer program one has to exactly and correctly specify what it should do in every detail. One must also specify what it must not do! Once the program is written then it must be tested against this specification and every possible combination of circumstances must be tested. That way there are no ‘bugs’ and unexpected effects.
But life is not like that.
The software (and also hardware now) on almost everything is so complex that it requires a computer program just to be able to test it.
No one programmer can do the whole thing, its just too big, so we have teams. So now we have programs to help the teams work together without bits getting left out and prevent miss interpretations etc.
But we live in a capitalist society. Its not just the engineers that create products, its corporations. Many individuals with their own beliefs on how things should be done dictating the boundaries and detail of what the engineer can do but without a sound understanding of the technicalities.
Money has too be made (exceptions include Linux (three cheers)) and so whole chunks of code from other programs are grafted in to new programs, the people producing this new program may not know the details of how this chunk was written and all its effects. Sometimes there may be a ‘surprise’ effect caused by the interaction of this chunk with the rest of the program, other chunks grafted in or indeed other programs running on the same machine or network.
Testing takes time and money and delays the launch date. Some things just cant be tested completely due to their nature, for example if your program predicts the weather then how do you test every possible combination of weather across the whole world and still meet the deadlines.
The Jaguar CX-75 uses complex computers to manage a highly tuned engine plus high power electric motors to bring stunning performance with minimal fuel use, a fantastic use of technology.

Also the hardware too is so complex that it is not commercially viable to test everything, or indeed possible. With several million transistors on a single chip is never going to get tested for the effects of every combination of individual transistor failures.
So that’s where we are today. Our systems are only partially tested and often a patchwork of other peoples work all stuck together with hope and optimism. Or indeed sometimes cynicism.
Many consumer products are made by inexperienced teams and pushed out by unscrupulous corporations (particularly in countries where software standards are not enforced) and are largely unproven.
Many of us have experienced the result of this growing problem, such as the PC just locking up when you try a new program or simply getting slower and slower as time goes by. These bug and software faults are so common that many people think it is normal for computers to behave like this. For instance the PC I am writing this on is twelve years old, it still does everything it was designed to and since running Linux it hasn’t slowed right down or ground to a halt, yet still most people accept that computers need replacing every other year and expect it to slow down over time. It must be realised that it doesn’t have to be this way, technically, but commercial pressures will continue to make the problem worse and this will be compounded as more and more code is piled on to bring use ever more features.
Complexity is a big problem and is the subject of many a professors career, things are getting more and more complex and there is no proper engineering control on it.
Now, the reason that I am writing this is not just to have a good whinge about my computer crashing or indeed to complain about commercial forces ruining good engineering. Those things make me angry, but they are not the cause of my fear.
The fear stems from how we are using these systems as a society, how we are relying on the unreliable.
Computer systems are now increasingly being used as part of the law enforcement system, finance control, travel systems and even food production
Speed cameras always cause a good argument so I will stir thing up a bit further. Now I know very well that excessive speed increases danger of injury and general twisting of machinery and putting a speed camera outside a school is no bad thing.
The issue for me comes from the fact that the picture generates an automatic fine for a person. There is no human judgement in the loop, bang, guilty until proven innocent. And that’s wrong.
A friend of mine suffered from a theft from his car, not the usual sort of theft, the number plates were stolen. It turns out that persons of criminal persuasion are stealing a car then cruising round till they find an identical type of car and putting those plate on theirs. Then they can generate speeding fines and parking tickets with impunity and even commit serious crime knowing full well that the system will point the finger at some one else. It even cause the police to waste time with the wrong chap, keeping the heat off the criminals long enough for them to make their escape.
Guilty until proven innocent, trial by computer, not good, not very British.
Maybe soon we will all have ID cards. This means that criminals only need to forge one item instead of a string off items as at present, thus making their life easier. The systems used for security are simply to complex to be testable, and driven down on price so the quality is marginal. Its simply not reliable.
If you want quality you have to pay for it because quality systems take more time to engineer and more time to test and it all costs money.
We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….
In the near future there will be an attempt to make remote vehicle arrestors mandatory on all new cars. This system uses ABS systems that have full authority breaking and engine management systems to bring a car to a halt using a radio command that only police will have. In a simplistic world this is great, you report your car stolen and the police can bring it to a halt when the conditions are safe. No more getaway cars. Well, unless criminals use older cars, but that loophole is easily solved by making classic cars illegal and crushing them all!
The problems include accidental stopping of the car (you cant prove the software completely due to its complexity and you cant prove the hardware completely because you cant test every failure and every type of possible radio interference etc), incorrect use by the police or other agencies, vehicle being stopped by criminals equipped with illicit stopping systems for the purpose of car jacking. Finally there is always a way to bypass the system, always a loop hole, a bug, a back door or an ‘unintentional feature’.
I was on a train in Germany last year which suddenly stopped in the middle of no where without warning, brakes full on. Luckily I had finished my coffee so the cup was empty when it slid of the table. The cause of this potentially dangerous emergency stop was a software error in the very system that is supposed to protect the train from crashes.
Our corporate based society does not allow for well written systems to be made as profitably as the quickly written ones.
This is a real problem and is getting worse as more systems are used.
In my life I rely on a mobile phone, I rely on my car, my computer, email, bank direct debits, automatic payments, alarm clock, microwave, fridge, washing machine, traffic lights etc. The power feeding my home is controlled by systems all linked together in a network. The amount of chlorine in the water I drink is monitored electronically. Aeroplanes are flown expertly by computers over my head, the air traffic is controlled by other computers.
I use my switch card to pay for car tax, the little computer in the post office reads my details and talks to one of many networked computers at the bank, the figure in my account file is reduced and a message sent to the post office bank computer to tell it to increase the number in its account. Then a message is sent to a computer at DVLA and it changes the value of a variable in a file so that when another program does its daily check of who has tax it will not automatically send a message to another computer to send me a fine and automatically turn me into a criminal. I never see these computers and they never see me. But they can bankrupt me accidentally or send me to jail.
These systems are not designed completely by engineers, the specifications and design constraints are created by politicians and computer sales executives who simply don’t understand.
When I was a child, I was proud to be British, a country that believed in tolerance, understanding and fair play. I was proud of my country.
Now I am scared of my country and the automatic systems that rule my life.
My bank local branch has just got rid of all its cashiers, you have to use the machines now. Signatures have been replaced with PINs.
Make no mistake, these systems give us great ability as a society and as in individual. The principles of the systems are very good, it’s often empowering and can change lives for the better. Even this blog site gives me a platform to express my beliefs and concerns in a way that was impossible a generation ago. I am a great believer in technology.
But as far as I can see if we are to rely on systems then they must be reliable.
Also, there must always be a human in the loop when ever civil liberty is at stake.
And finally, there must always be a manual back up for those odd days when thing don’t quite work the way they should.

The truth about electric cars

Or at least the truth from an engineering perspective. And that is an important distinction because of course the main catalyst for the change is political, there may be some very fine environmental and technical reasons for the change too, but politics holds all the aces. It can make oil prices prohibitive, it can subsidise new technologies that herald breakthrough innovations.
You see, every life changing new technology had to start somewhere, it usually starts off prohibitively expensive and a bit unreliable. Just think about those early mobile phones the size of a suitcase with a battery life of only a few minuets and call costs a hundred times greater than a normal land line. Or even the first computers, the size of a large room and less brains than a digital watch. The format is well established; pour loads of funding into research, laugh at boffins making experimental machines with questionable ability, wait for a company to spot the potential, get it into production and within ten years every competitor is developing better versions.

Rolls Royce are leading the charge (pardon the pun) in ultra luxury electric vehicles.

But electric cars are a bit of an exception because at the dawn of motoring they were a front runner, even Porche’s first car was electric. 130 years ago petrol was not readily available, you bought it in cans for quite a lot of money, car journeys were very short and cars were so expensive that only those with a large estate could afford one. Electric cars had the advantage over those first fledgling petrol cars in many ways, they were faster, quieter, much more reliable and had no starting problems. They didn’t even need a gearbox or clutch mechanism, so driving them was a far simpler affair than a crash box piston powered chariot.
But the materials technology needed to advance battery design was simply not there, the early EV hit a performance limit that it couldn’t break free from. The second problem was in motor control, all they had was switches, and as motors became more powerful the need for fine control at low speed became more problematic.
By comparison funding poured into petrol engine design, at that time it was far easier to improve than electric cars and oil companies were understandably keen to see this new product thrive. A couple of world wars forced engine design ahead very rapidly, not least to power aircraft from the humble Tiger Moth to the magnificent Spitfire.
Very rapidly it became far easier to make a high power, low cost petrol engine, opening up the possibility of cheap mass market motor cars.
Electric vehicles didn’t stand a chance. Half a century ago there was simply no reason to invest in electric vehicle research, emissions concerns had not yet manifested, climate change was unheard of and oil supplies were plentiful. A few enthusiasts continued to attempt to make electric vehicles, enjoying their simplicity and quietness, but materials technology would still limit their capability.
But times change, and now with political difficulties in oil supply, a far greater and ever developing understanding of emissions problems and climate change, coupled with massive advancements in technology there is an overwhelming desire to find alternatives to petrol and diesel.
This means that funding is now pouring into research in electric vehicles. But as mentioned above this is merely the first stage in a product becoming a commercial success, early adopters such as Honda with the Insight and more recently Toyota with the Prius have been suffering the commercial pain of subsidising less than ideal technology, but remember this is another essential stage in a technology’s development.
I hope that gives you an idea of where we are; about half way to getting a really useful, cheap and effective electric vehicle. There is now sufficient funding from a sufficiently large range of institutions, governments and corporations that the rest of the development process is pretty much inevitable, after all they all want to see a return on their investments.
Of course electric cars are not the only option for reducing CO2, existing piston engines could be re-engineered to run on hydrogen, and that fuel could be obtained by electrolysis of water. Storing hydrogen is a bit tricky unfortunately, but there are some exciting new developments that could make it a viable option. This has the advantage of using existing engine technology, but introduces large inefficiencies due to the process of hydrogen manufacture, its transport and the low efficiency of the internal combustion engine. You’d be lucky to turn 15% of the electrical energy used in hydrogen production into energy at the car’s wheels. and as ever you loose all that energy as soon as you apply the brakes.
The observant amongst you will know that lost energy from braking could be recovered by hooking up generators to the wheels and using the recovered energy to power the wheels on the next acceleration, as in KERS and other regenerative brake systems, but then you are carrying part of the weight and financial burden of the electric car but without all the benefit.
When you consider the total path from the source to the wheel the electric car can work out significantly better, potentially getting 50% of the source energy to the car wheels.
The other interesting possibility is gaining some, or possibly all, of the electricity from solar cells built into the car body. Various companies are developing composite body panels and special paints that act as solar panels that can be unobtrusively incorporated into the car design. In the UK the average energy from the sun through our legendary gloomy cloud is enough to power a small family car for about ten miles each day, so if all the car does is the school run and weekly shop then there could potentially be no fuel cost. Although as ever with new technology the first cars to have this feature will be hideously expensive and totally negate this benefit, but in time it will become a viable option.
Emissions are not the only reason for going electric, as the technology matures and becomes cheaper it will eventually become far cheaper to make an electric car than a combustion engined one. On a modern small car the engine and associated emissions systems can easily cost more than the rest of the entire car, getting this cost down is a huge incentive to car companies that struggle to make a profit at the best of times. in fact car companies have been trying to get up into electric cars for decades, remember the Ford Think?
There are many other benefits too, electric drives lend themselves to the ever increasing demands of advanced traction and stability control systems. As driver aids such as auto parking gradually evolve into fully autonomous self driving cars, having a simple method of accurately controlling the torque at each wheel becomes increasingly important.
When you put all these factors together the case for electric vehicles becomes compelling, and when you add in the political desire to reduce dependence on unstable oil producing countries the argument becomes overwhelming.
Obviously we are not quite there yet, historically the big problem has always been the battery. Old methods resulted in heavy, expensive and physically large units with limited range, they haven’t really changed in over a century. But in the last ten years or so there has been renewed investment, finally, and whilst there is still a long way to go we are definitely on the road to success already.
In fact as the ‘power density’ of batteries improves, eventually it will exceed that of petrol. This means that eventually electric cars will be lighter for the same power when compared to a petrol or diesel car, or more interesting to a racer like me, an electric car will be more powerful for the same weight. Imagine massively powerful electric supercars with precise control of the torque at each wheel from its four wheel motors, the ultimate in performance. The future world of electric vehicles is a very exciting place.
So there it is, electric cars offer huge benefits to the environment, car companies, drivers and world politics. They are not perfect yet, but within a decade or two they will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones.
And yes, before you ask, I still prefer the sound of a V8. But as long as the car accelerates as if it had one then maybe I could cope, after all we can always simulate the sound!

For more news about electric cars why not follow Robert Llewellyn, a superb ambassador for the EV revolution:bobbyllew

And you must follow Jonny Smith and his fabulous drag racing electric car ‘Flux Capacitor’: Carpervert

Sterling Engines

One of the great problems with a conventional car engine is that most of the fuel’s energy gets thrown away through the exhaust (about 30%) and radiator (another 30%ish), in fact your car engine is lucky to extract 33% of the energy from the fuel, and that’s only at full load, at low loads your petrol engine will be below 10% efficient! So wouldn’t it be great if there was a way of trapping all that heat energy and getting more out of it.

I like this design, purely because it's weird!


Enter stage left the Sterling engine, invented by an eccentric Scottish vicar in 1823 and now used in many combined heat and power systems for large buildings.

The name is now applied to a whole range of ‘hot air’ engines – the idea is that you have two pistons and cylinders that are connected in some way. A hot cylinder heats up the gas inside it, causing expansion, the gas is then pumped to a cold cylinder and contracts, thus pulling that piston up. As the heat energy can be totally used up by the engine, in theory it could be 100% efficient. Sounds simple doesn’t it.

Small Sterling engines have been made that work on a temperature difference of only a few degrees, so holding it in the palm of your hand makes it work! The trouble is that they are not very powerful for their size because you need a lot of surface area to transfer the heat energy into the working gas in the cylinders. This gas, often helium because of its excellent heat transfer ability, is trapped permanently in the engine. The more gas you have the more energy can be pumped round, improving efficiency, but this requires high gas pressures and very good piston seals which has been the downfall of some optimistic designs over the years.

Because the fuel is burnt outside the cylinders, this is called an external combustion engine, same as steam engines. And as the combustion is continuous, there is very little noise, almost silent. And they can work on pretty much any fuel, petrol, diesel, coal, chip fat or even junk mail.

It’s unfortunate that in practice, complete heat transfer never happens so the total fuel efficiency ends up being only 10% better than a conventional internal combustion engine. But the main benefit comes when the two types of engine are used together, the exhaust and coolant from the internal combustion engine being used to run the Sterling engine, together extracting up to 70% of the fuel’s energy. Obviously this ends up being a big, complicated heavy lump, but that hasn’t stopped people putting it into cars.

A simple version of a Sterling engine has two cylinders driven 90º apart, one cylinder is heated up and the other is cold. The two cylinders are filled with your working gas, possibly helium, and joined by a big tube which contains a regenerator. That is a posh word for a sort of radiator, or heat exchanger, that keeps the heat on the hot side of the engine and the chill on the cold side, this is a very important part and has a massive effect on the engine’s efficiency, a good one will recover 95% of the heat energy.

You may be surprised to hear that one of the most successful Sterling engines was made by Phillips, better known as purveyors of electric shavers and expensive tellys. The Dutch company of boffins started on the design in 1938 but were delayed by an inconvenient world war. The work lead to a very nice portable generator set that enjoyed modest sales success, but the focus of my ramblings this month is the 4 cylinder engine, based on their work and made by United Sterling of Sweden, that was fitted to a Ford Pinto in 1974. The V4X31 used base engine parts from the Saab V4 and was the first car to be driven directly by a Sterling engine. It produced 115bhp at only 3500rpm and worked at about 40% efficiency.

The V4X31 was an early insight for Ford who were working with Philips on a 4 cylinder 170 bhp swash plate engine, that’s where the crank is replaced by a tilted disk, as each piston rod pushes down on the disk; pushing it round in a circle.

Cunningly, in both these engines, they managed to get both the hot and cold cylinders in the same bore, the lower piston having a hole in the middle for the con rod of the top piston. At this point you really need to look at my hastily crayoned diagram, because I am now going to say ‘rhomboid drive’!

Apart from being a great phrase to baffle the pub expert with, rhomboid drive is the way they managed to get both con rods to move up and down with absolutely no side movement, essential when one con rod goes through the middle of a piston, hopefully without any gas leaking out of the hole.

The system uses two cranks in parallel which are geared together at the bell housing end of the block. Each piston has a fixed con rod dropping down to a joint where two articulated con rods are attached, one going to each crank. Who ever thought that one up probably didn’t get out much.

To stop the gas leaking out, which was nitrogen at 150 Bar, the piston seals were nylon sleeves that rolled up and down, a little like rolling nylon stockings down, funny lot the Dutch. It also had the added benefit of having virtually no friction.


Of course the home mechanic could possibly try constructing a simple sterling engine by converting a V twin bike engine to run with one cylinder being heated from the coolant or exhaust from a conventional engine, the other cylinder being water cooled. You could remove the valves from the heads and connect both inlet ports together with the pipe containing the regenerator, which could be an old intercooler cut down, and something similar nailed on to the exhaust ports too. Then belt drive it onto the conventional engine’s front pulley.

It wouldn’t be light but on something like an old Range Rover it could bring the fuel economy up to diesel levels and deliver something like another 50bhp for free. Which is nice.

Running cars on water

Can you run your car on water?

There have been many stories of genius inventors making a car that runs on water, only to be silenced by the evil oil companies, never to be seen again.

Can you run your car on water? Well, not like this, obviousely.

I was intrigued by the sheer volume of technical claims, despite decades working at the cutting edge of automotive technology and being immersed in scientific theory I am acutely aware there is always room for doubt, and for new ideas to surprise and change the way we think. Ideas like these are rare but happen often enough to make keeping an open mind and essential part of the make up of the modern engineer.

The traditional view is that water is basically hydrogen that has already been burnt, so it has no usable energy content left. Because of this fact there is a tendency to think that all these people who believe in water power are all nutters who probably have been abducted by aliens and experimented on for a laugh and are a tiny minority. But nothing prepared me for the depth and complexity of the technical explanations and the shear volume of conspiracy theory’s involving governments, car makers and oil companies all in cahoots to keep us buying expensive oil.

Well, let me assure you that car makers would quite happily stab the oil companies in the back if they could sell a few more cars, and one that ran on water would sell rather well, don’t you think?

So, how do you run your car on water?

Well, you will need a big plastic jar (screw top with a good seal), a small plastic jar, some tubing, a few strips of metal, some small bolts, a fuse and some wire.

But before I go into details, I want to talk about electrolysis. I found a number of amusing web sites that propose the use of hydrogen made from passing current through water. So far that’s not a bad idea, many car companies are investing quite a lot in converting petrol engines to run on hydrogen.

Where these sites go off the rails is when they generate the gas on board the car, using electricity from the alternator, which is of course powered by the engine.

Here are some basic figures for you, a good car engine will convert 33% of the energy released from the fuel into usable power at full throttle, it goes down to about 10% at light loads. An old carb engine might be as poor as 20% at full tilt. Oddly enough big engines can be more thermally efficient than small ones, its all to do with heat loss and the ratio of volume vs surface area, the most efficient piston engines in the world are the cathedral engines in super tankers, such as the 25 thousand litre Wartsila-Sulzer RTA96-C turbocharged two-stroke 14 cylinder, which gets up to 50% efficiency. You may recal I did a blog post about it last month, its very impressive but at 2300 tons you would struggle to get it in a car.

So, going back to our in-car hydrogen plant, with the precious little power left at the crank we drive the alternator, which usually has quite a good efficiency, converting about 90% of the power fed into it into electrical energy.

Then there is electrolysis, at the molecular level, the energy you put in to separating water into hydrogen and oxygen is the same energy you get back when you set fire to it. Interestingly, some of that energy can come from heat from the environment, ie the heat from the engine.

So, when you add up all those efficiencies up, to produce 1bhp worth of hydrogen, the engine has to burn nearly 4bhp worth to make the process work.

Guess why it doesn’t work!

Mind you, if you generate the electricity away from the car, say from a wind turbine in your back garden, store the gas in huge explosive bags attached to the roof of your car then you are on to a winner. Until it imitates the Hindenburg.

So once again I have shown that you can’t run your car on water. So now I will finally get round to showing you how to do it.

One of the reasons that the efficiency of car engines is so low is that not all the petrol gets burnt, and some gets partially burnt. The actual combustion process is very complicated, with molecules decomposing into sub species before reforming into exhaust gasses. The flame front travel across the cylinder is also semi-chaotic and some molecules get passed by entirely. Some start burning then hit the cold cylinder walls and stop burning, some start burning at the end of the process when the piston is to far down to convert it into usable energy. Petrol mixtures burn at a rate of about 40 to 50 centimeters per second depending on loads of factors like pressure, turbulence and temperature. That’s one of the reasons that big engines run slower as it takes longer for the flame to travel across the bigger combustion chamber, for instance that super tanker engine I mentioned produces 5 million ftlb of torque at just over 100 rpm.

If we could speed up the burning process then more of the petrol’s energy can be converted into useful work on the piston. Also, if we could put in something that would mix more readily with the air and bridge the gaps in the fuel mixture we could avoid those dead spots.

Ooh, hydrogen does that, it mixes very readily and burns faster. So all we need is a very small amount of hydrogen and we can improve the efficiency of the petrol.

The difference in power at part load by introducing a sniff of Hydrogen.

Well, if its so good why hasn’t it been done before? Well, it turns out that this method has been used for many years and some reasonable research has gone into it, have a trawl through the SAE web site and you will see that many respected institutions and big companies have published papers on the subject. Some use methane which is broken into hydrogen and carbon dioxide by the use of rather hot steam. Of course you then have a hydrogen car that produces co2 which is sort of bad really.

So here is the theory; you get a bucket of water strapped to the car, stick two bits of metal in it (electrodes) connected to the battery (via a switch and fuse). The lid on the bucket has a hose to transport the explosive hydrogen and oxygen gas to another bottle where any water is removed (don’t want to hydraulic the engine). Finally the hose is stuffed somewhere in the intake to allow the gas in.

Great, but how much gas do we need? Well, to make 1g of hydrogen you need to apply 285Kj of energy to the water, luckily the water tends to use energy from the environment during the process, so potentially about 48 Kj of heat will come from the engine bay, leaving our electrics to provide about 237Kj per gram.

Now, power in Watts is Joules per second. So 1.4Kw (1 HP) is 1.4Kj per second. Which works out equivalent to burning about 0.006 grams of hydrogen per second, or in volume terms that’s about 0.066 litres per second, a steady stream of small bubbles.

So for a cars electric system to put in 14Kw of power at 14v the current will be 100 amps, which is a lot.

But remember we are not talking about using the hydrogen to power the engine, but to help get more useful energy from burning the petrol. So the big question is how much do we actually need? The web sites suggest one litre of water will last up to 900 miles. That works out at about 1.1g per mile, and of that 1.1g of water there is only 0.12g of hydrogen per mile. At average speeds this works out at about 0.0013g/s, about one fifth of a bhp, less than 1% of the overall fuelling and will draw about 10 amps in the electrolysis bucket.

To get a sensible answer to all this, I nailed some scrap metal into an old washing powder tub and tried out some combinations.

First attempt, stainless steel wire in plastic formers.

The first version was one recommended on an American web site, claiming up to 40% gains in efficiency. It consists of a one litre plastic container with two bolts in as electrodes. But even with a little salt added to my copy it only managed to draw 0.1 amps and no detectable gas flowed out of the outlet hose. In short, it was useless and had no effect on the engine.

Clearly we need more power, one of my favourite sayings. So next we have a system with drastically increased conductor length by using wire, wound round a cross shaped former, still in the one litre pot. This has the effect of drawing 10 amps, about where most of the internet products are, and a steady stream of bubbles.

Second attempt after a few thousand miles. Third version ran cleaner.

This very small amount of gas will have the most dramatic effect on the engine at lower loads and idle because that is where it will be the biggest proportion of the total mixture, so I fitted the system to the intake and watched the injector pulse widths and lambda compensations so see what effect it had. Well, the web sites suggest a 30% fuel saving overall, so at idle it must be huge, but no, there was absolutely no difference on average.

I even drove it round for a few weeks, and at first I though I could just detect an improvement in power and the fuel bill seemed to be dropping. But then it went up again; it turned out that it was just me driving more carefully as I paid more attention to what I was doing after fitting the kit. This is a very common phenomenon.

First instalation, about to test current and voltage on my long suffering Land Rover, subject of a great many experiments...

So how much gas do I need then? Well, some very useful research has been done by NASA and various universities. Basically to get a 30% increase in efficiency (power out vs fuel in) we need to run 90% hydrogen/10% petrol!

At 50 % hydrogen the efficiency improvement is only 15%, but what does that mean in a normal car? Well, if you are cruising down the motorway you might be using about 20kw of engine power, if you only run 50% HHO then that’s 10kw of electricity running through your jam jar, at 14v that’s over 710 amps out of your alternator! But then that power comes from the engine so it would now have to produce over 30kw, which would mean a 30% increase in petrol use in order to gain a 15% efficiency saving….. Hmmmmm..

Now, bear in mind that the average driver can improve their fuel economy by up to 30% just by learning better driving techniques, and that on an average commute fuel economy can vary by 20% easily depending on what mood the driver is in. So subjective assessment of 10% economy gain is meaningless, it has to be checked on a proper test facility.

There are of course other ways of generating hydrogen on board a car, using chemical reactions, and this would take the alternator problem out of the loop, but generally the chemicals are rather nasty/expensive and leave a chemical waste problem.

One of the favourites being explored by the car industry is called ‘reformate’ where the petrol is partly separated into CO2 and Hydrogen using a catalysts and exhaust heat. At the moment the fuel savings don’t justify the expense of the extra equipment, but I am sure that will change in time.

Water has a number of other benefits in a traditional engine, I am sure you know about water injection which turns a bit more of the heat energy from combustion into pressure energy. It also reduces cylinder temperatures and so reduces knock, allowing a bit more advance. But also a small amount of water, up to 5%, if well mixed in the fuel before its injected can increase power by up to 7%. Unfortunately you cannot just chuck a cup of water in the fuel tank, because it wont mix, you need some reasonably clever and accurate mixing machinery.

In short, there is a lot you can do with water. However, if you google ‘water car’ then the myriad of websites that appear generally talk complete twaddle and make excessive claims for there own brand of hocus. Whilst I am talking about the web sites, there were a few claims that I feel are potentially harmful.

First is the matter of your cars warrantee, unlikely anyone thinking of doing this will have any, but the point is that despite the various web site claims, fitting absolutely anything to your engine will invalidate the warrantee. In the car industry we spend a huge amount of time and effort checking the car works under all sorts of conditions, it takes years for each model to complete all the tests before being ready for production. Modern engines are so finely tuned that any disturbance will cock things up, and that includes those plug in chip tunes by the way. So plumbing in a bottle of water to your intake will definitely lose any warrantee.

Next, some sites sell you electronic devices to bias engine sensors to make it run lean, best fuel economy generally happens when you run 10% lean of stoich, which is fine at part load on a non cat car, but obviously not at full load because things overheat and fail, and if you have a cat it will stop working eventually. And as these are sold without checking the engine on a dyno the potential for detonation or catalyst damage is rather significant.

Then there is the matter of additives in the water, remember it all goes somewhere and some chemicals will put quite nasty things into the atmosphere. Some sites advocate volatile fuel additives too, again the reason the car industry doesn’t do this is that it poisons the catalyst and puts very nasty stuff into the air. Fuels with super chemicals that don’t pollute as much are readily available, such as Shell Optimax or BP Ultimate which have over 200 chemicals in to get the best performance.

Safety seems to get a fairly low priority too. Remember that as we separate the water we get a perfectly explosive mix of hydrogen and oxygen, albeit in very small amounts. If the pot you generate the gas in is not ventilated then any slight spark could leave you pot-less and potentially destroy things under the bonnet. Luckily most of these systems produce so little gas that it is unlikely to be a problem!

So in summary, yes you can run your car on water, but not using a jam jar and some wire.


Don’t just take my word for it; here are some of the research papers I used in my research:

SAE 841399 1984

Water/fuel mixtures

SAE 740187 1974

Lean burn with Hydrogen supplementation

General Motors Corp.

SAE 810921 1981

Lean burn with Hydrogen supplementation

University of Michigan

SAE 2004-01-1270

Hydrogen reformate (H + CO2)

Robert Bosch GmbH

SAE 760469 1976

Hydrogen reformate in aircraft engines

Jet Propulsion lab

What are the losses?

The heat released from fuel is mostly wasted, about a third goes down the exhaust pipe (turbos can recoup a small fraction of this) and another third goes into the oil and coolant. A smaller amount is wasted as noise and vibration.

At part load the throttle causes an obstruction that wastes power too. A better solution at part load is to replace the unwanted air with an inert gas, this allows the throttle to open up and reduce losses. That is why Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) can improve economy by 5%.

What is reformate?

This is where the petrol is broken down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The CO2 is inert and at part loads is used as ‘padding’ allowing higher throttle openings, this reduces the throttle losses and also improves efficiency. This double benefit is why the car industry is concentrating on this way of making Hydrogen. But with the petrol engine’s days numbered, the technology may never mature.

What is HHO, Oxy-hydrogen or ‘Browns Gas’?

This is what you get from electrolysing water, it is simply oxygen and hydrogen in a gas. There is a lot of myth about it, but here are the facts: It burns at about 2800 C, compared to about 2000 C for petrol in air, or about 3000 C for oxyacetylene welding kit. In fact it was one of the first gasses for welding, but in slightly richer proportions. When HHO is burnt in air, as in our engine example, the flame temperature drops to similar values to petrol.

When it burns it expands, and so can be used to power piston engines, then it forms water vapour and starts to condense, rapidly contracting into just water.

The gas has been the subject of many hoaxes, frauds and misguided optimistic claims.

It’s not magic, just nature. Although personally I thing nature is pretty magic.

Innovation Awards

This year I have the great privilege to be one of the judges on The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Award for Automotive Innovation 2011. Defining ‘Innovation’ well enough to be able to judge the relative merits of the entries is not a simple task, so the short-listed entries will present to a ‘Dragon’s Den’-style panel of industry leaders. The winner will be announced at SMMT’s Annual Dinner on 22 November at the London Hilton, Park Lane.

The six short-listed entries showcase the cutting-edge R&D work currently taking place in the UK automotive industry. An industry that is developing at a phenomenal rate whilst battling an extraordinarily difficult world economy. It’s an industry that has suffered very hard times in the past yet seems to have come out of it stronger and fitter than ever.

Innovation is a key ingredient of this recovery and is essential for the industry’s long term survival on the world stage. Please take a moment to look at the SMMT page on the awards at:

Award for Automotive Innovation 2011

Please also take a few moments to look at these excellent projects and let me know which one you would choose, and of course why:


End of the road for big engines?

We live in amazing times, the latest range of high power engines is sweeping in like a tidal wave of thrust, new technical developments have unleashed the piston engines true potential, so much so that 500bhp saloon cars are common, and that used to be the exclusive territory of supercars and racers. Now there is talk of 2000bhp hypercar monsters smashing the 300mph mark.

Cars like the excellent Jaguar XJ and Audi A8 dally with around 500bhp seem to be popping up all over the place. Don’t get me wrong, they are all truly fantastic cars, it is bristling with innovation and simply superb engineering. The GDi engines are nothing short of remarkable, more power and yet more economy, a very neat trick.
But these cars are also a turning point, a major historical event. You see, I am fairly certain that this will be the last decade of the big piston engine. All car companies are going through the same changes.
Oh sure there will be upgrades over the years, there will be trophies to be won as they morph into race engines with even higher outputs. But the basic engines will not be replaced.
Even in the USA, where big V8s roamed the earth for decades, customer demand has shifted to smaller and more efficient cars, the giants of American car production were staggered when the best selling car became a Japanese compact. Then the recession hit, and some of the giants fell, only kept alive with government life support, their only hope is to match the foreign efficiencies with smaller engines and hybrids. They even have a dictate from the government to meet these new challenges, so there is absolutely no way a proposal to develop a new big V8 would stand a chance. Yes folks, its the end of the American V8 too.
Ferrari have just launched their fastest road car ever, with a fantastic engine also using the latest direct injection technology, they have had a wonderful history of designing some of the best V engines in the world, but even they are not immune to the forthcoming emissions requirements, the problems the planet faces are global and effect every manufacturer in the world.
The thing is, it usually takes at least seven years to bring a new engine from an idea into full scale production, there is a hell of a lot more to it than just making a few race engines, there is durability testing in far flung places, running cars for hundred of thousands of miles and fine tuning any glitches out, building production tooling and testing it out, the list goes on. In short, its a big job.
The mighty new engines of today started life on a piece of paper when Bill Clinton was still president, they recognised that we demand more performance, but also that emissions regulations and CO2 targets would be tougher too. But what has happen since then is that the world has realised that absolutely no CO2 is acceptable, not just less. And also the oil prices have gone silly, and are likely to get worse. The world has changed, drastically since then.
So the plans for a decade into the future have to be zero carbon, not just a little bit of carbon, none.
For decades all the big car companies have had vague plans for electric cars in ‘the future’. Prototype and experimental cars have been trundled round for years, but the plan to put them into production always got pushed back.
Until now.
After the huge problems of the last couple of years, all those ‘future’ plans have been pulled forwards with astonishing speed, the first step will be hybrids as the infrastructure and familiarity builds, then once customers are used to the idea everyone will go full electric across the board. And this will probably happen over the next ten years, so there is absolutely no point in anyone designing a new big piston engine.
But that doesn’t mean the end of performance cars, on the contrary, as electric drive technology finally gets some proper funding the performance will match, and then exceed that of even the fastest petrol cars. Imagine having a 1000bhp hub motor on each wheel, ultimate control over traction and stability, but with the power of four Veyrons. You see there is one thing that always drives engineering forward, and that is human desire. As car enthusiasts our basic desire is for obscenely powerful cars, no matter how that is achieved. Make no mistake, the future is bright.
If we look back into history we can see people lamenting the end of steam power, but very soon after the big corporations started putting real resources into the internal combustion engine the technology matched and then exceeded the performance of even the finest steam engines. Much the same thing is happening now with electric drives. And I think there will similar parallels to the past in the future, there will probably always be piston engine enthusiasts, just as there are steam enthusiasts today. There may well be a few niche companies still making one off piston engines in the far future, and crowds will gather as these relics of a bygone age are fired up. I suspect I will be one of those enthusiasts, there is nothing quite like the growl of a V8 or the howl of a V12 at full chat to stir the soul.
In fact that engine noise is a very emotional thing, it changes the way we act, alters our mood and effects our decisions. You can buy plug in gizmo’s that make a V8 noise that matches the speed of your real engine, plug it into a Civic and it feels like driving a NASCAR racer, and it messes with your head, you feel like keeping your foot on the accelerator that little bit longer, pushing that little bit harder. It’s a strange phenomenon.
It’s such a powerful thing that companies such as Lotus are doing serious engineering work on synthesising the sounds and integrating them as a part of new car designs. It might sound like cheating, a bit artificial, but the fact is that it works, and even electric cars could sound like your favourite Ferrari or Aston.
Going back to the high power saloons of today, if you can afford one then buy it, seriously. Not only because they are such good cars, but because it is the triumphant finally of over a century of car development involving the good old piston engine. The next ten years will see developments of these engines, special editions, race versions and hybrids in a superb closing chapter, like the final chord of the most rousing orchestral piece ever performed, it has all built up to this moment and the audience should be on their feet cheering.
Its a rare moment in time, a turning point, something that will be written into the history books. So enjoy the hec out of it.

Web Poll:
What will you miss about piston engines, will it be the noise, or the smell, or the way the power is delivered, or even having to change gear?

The Mystery of Mr Yunick

Mystery is a funny old thing; life is generally richer for it but when it comes to engineering, a mystery is like having worms, it constantly gnaws away in a really irritating way. So, dear reader, I am going to give you worms.
As you may know, a traditional car engine struggles to turn 30% of the fuel’s energy into useful power, although bigger engines are better in this respect and the largest piston engines can reach up to 50% efficiency.
There have been many attempts to make a better engine, but not content with these options, a legendary NASCAR mechanic and top racer Henry ‘Smokey’ Yunick started thinking about the main losses – coolant and exhaust heat – and how that energy could be re-routed back into producing useful power. And as he was a very practical kind of chap, having also invented a silent tyre, extended tip spark plugs and reverse flow cooling, he not only devised a theory but set about building some working engines, based on bog-standard road cars.
After building a number of amazing engines, one of which was used regularly by his daughter as a daily driver (see correction below!) , he also set about patenting the system all over the world. Once he had the relevant protection for his idea he was going to show the world.
Unfortunately, and rather frustratingly for the world in general, he then died. His company and family are still pursuing world wide patents on the various clever bits that make it work and are reluctant to let anyone else play with his creations.

(Please see the fantastic reply from his daughter below for corrections!)

His patent applications make interesting reading, and generate as many questions as answers. What he describes is a way of recovering almost half of the waste heat from a standard car engine, some of his conversions are claimed to double the car’s acceleration and its mpg at the same time. His daughters VW Golf is said to produce 150bhp (up from 110 as standard) and average over 60 mpg (up from 30mpg).
One of the problems with using petrol in an engine is that it tends to form clumps of molecules which can only burn on the surface, leading to un-burnt fuel and partially burnt fuel being thrown away down the exhaust pipe, these are the hydrocarbons (HC) you see on the mot test results.
Interestingly Smokey’s design uses carburettors, the heat is used to evaporate the fuel giving a more homogeneous mixture which burns more completely. This is a technique used even today by the car industry on injection systems, at part load fuel is injected onto the back of a closed intake valve to use the heat.
Heat is the key to Smokey’s design – in simple terms it first uses the coolant to heat the air fuel mixture to 90ºC at which point the fuel is almost entirely gaseous. It then uses the exhaust, which completely surrounds the intake, to increases the charge temperature to 230ºC. At this point the mixture has expanded quite a bit so a turbo or ‘Homogeniser’ as they call it (not a turbo in the traditional sense because it further heats and mixes the fuel with air) blows down the manifold to stop the mixture escaping back up the intake. The heat will have increased the charge pressure quite considerably, thus turning more heat energy into pressure energy that the engine can convert into torque. And the turbo, sorry – homogeniser, will have boosted things a bit further too, but of course the density will be quite low unless the turbo is running very high boost, and there is no intercooler to waste heat energy. With very high intake pressure it is also possible to re-design intake cam duration to get more cylinder filling, although it is not clear if this is part of his design.
Now the piston compresses the mixture which heats it up further to 820ºC. Now normally this would have detonated and blown the engine to bits, petrol mixture goes bang at about 350ºC, so clearly Mr Yunick was doing something very clever here and the info he had released may be deliberately misleading to buy him time whilst he got the patents, but what ever he did there it is his main secret and you will no doubt be very disappointed to hear that I have absolutely no idea how he does this. Clearly the nicely mixed charge is not really at 820ºC if combustion is going to start with a spark in the conventional manner, although enough energy has been put into it to reach this temperature. If combustion starts in a diesel type compression ignition then the whole charge will go bang at once, rather than a diesel’s controlled gradual burn, and blow the piston. Something must control the combustion?
Could it be water injection? Water mist would reduce the mixture temperature and itself expand in the fierce heat and generate more pressure and thus power. But that’s just a guess on my part and no mention of any other substance exists on the patents.
On the cars he converted there is a very small radiator and no fan, allegedly coolant volume is very small too, helping warm up time. These cars have been driven by a number of journalists and the performance and fuel economy have been verified, so in that respect the design has been ‘shown’ to work.
The only clue comes from some of the mechanics that worked for him who have alleged that the engines were very prone to pinking and melted pistons, but to be fair so do many ordinary mass production engines when they are in their prototype stage.
It’s a strange situation, undoubtedly Smokey was a great mechanic and built some of the best race cars in the world, so he was no amateur and knew what he was doing. Some people have wondered if it was an elaborate hoax to poke fun at the establishment, but why would you fund world wide patents for a hoax and what about the cars’ performance? And why are his ‘prototypes’ still in use? Why won’t the family let anyone else take the engines apart? So many questions.
It’s interesting to note that these revolutionary high efficiency engines are still only using 60-70% of the fuel’s energy, so it’s not in the league of infeasible perpetual motion machines, the energy balance makes sense. It’s just the combustion control that makes no sense and is without any explanation. These ‘Hot Vapour’ engines, if they turn out to be real, have amazing abilities and could herald a new era for piston engines. Just imagine a 600bhp V8 that does 60 mpg. It’s a beautiful idea.

How much power does a sports car need?

I was testing a compact SUV the other day, it’s spec sheet fits in nicely with the current competition; about 240bhp in a 1400kg car, 4WD and 0-60 in the region of 7.9s. Although this may not be earth shattering performance by modern standards it set me thinking, about two decades ago I was working on a car that some of you may of heard of; the Escort Cosworth.

Now the Cossy set the world alight with its ‘blistering performance’, even that bloke Clarkson had one of his own and spent far too long telling everyone. Part of the Cossy legend comes fro the fact that in full rally cross tune it could hit the dark side of 600bhp, but even the standard version was in reality rather quick.

But now the Focus five pot has more than 300bhp and luxury saloons must have 500bhp to be a serious contender. Things have clearly moved on, but surely an old quick car is still a quick car? If I hopped into a Cossy today would I be bored rigid with it’s hum drum performance?

So I did a highly un-scientific poll on Twitter, asking people what felt quick to them, and the results were remarkably consistent, although that might just be an indication of the type of people who follow me!

Allegro fan extraordinare @OneCarefulOwner commented “the goalposts have moved in a major way; my Maxi 1750HL had a blistering 96bhp, nowadays small diesels have more grunt.”

@racing_waiting pointed out that defining quick was a well trodden path “tricky question, drivers republic struggled, imotor struggled, road my previous mag stuggled.”

On the subject of the old XR3i @HairyCalahan observed “times have changed. expectations too. xr3i fine for it’s day”

But getting down to numbers @vHenryk considdered that “pretty much. A ‘sports car’ doesn’t have to be a ridiculously expensive 0-60 in less than 5 secs thing to deserve the name.”. Whilst @torquespeak said “Puma convinces me anything above 120 has a decent shot. 8 secs to 60 not first degree rapid but a hoot on the twisty bits!”

Of course power and weight are only part of the storey as student and car nut @MrPA sugests “On a decent road anything can be fun. I have a few corner-filled favourites which are brilliant in my mum’s 1.2 Clio (75bhp!).” a fair point and one echoed by @cotswoldracer “Indeed , my old AX GT 700Kg & 85bhp , and going by memory about the same as my 145 in terms of acceleration (8ish secs to 60), my Alfa 145/950kg/150bhp quick-ish , another 35 bhp would make it even more fun :)”

@carpunk observes the importance of weight in its own right “Guess 100hp in a 1000kg car will always feel much quicker than 250hp in car 2x the weight because of inertia, braking mass etc “ and @jonbradbury agrees “I think modern expectations have increased, & so has most weights. Though 160hp in 1T 944 shifted lot better 115hp Gti & the 115hp GTi shifted better than the 115hp XR3i.”

The consensus seemed to be that a ‘sports car’ of between 1 and 1.5 tons should have between 180 and 250bhp.

Which brings up some interesting points, firstly that a lot of ordinary family cars are actually high performance sports cars, and it may well be that the only reason that they are not regularly parked in hedges and Armco is the astonishing amount of technology dedicated to combating incompetence behind the wheel.

But going back the that point about the way cars feel, this fantastic driver assistance seems to have come hand in hand with a duller edge to the driving experience. Back in the day a sports car would engage and entertain the driver, not only with its performance but also with its ability to snap back and slap the unwary in the startled face. Putting your foot down in a high powered car not only thrilled but also surprised many a driver when glancing at the speedo to see the needle significantly further round than expected. Over enthusiastic cornering could result in the car suddenly swapping ends or having less wheels on the ground than is healthy. Motoring enthusiasts call this sort of thing ‘fun’, but unfortunately normal people call it dangerous, and so because there are more of ‘them’ buying cars than there are ‘us’ cars have become less dangerous, and sometimes less fun.

But from an engineering point of view fun and safe can co-exist. Some manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that whilst safe and dull is best for the mass market there is still a significant market for thrilling cars, and having driver aids set to only come in when disaster is otherwise inevitable yet allowing a reasonable degree of sideways progress makes good sense.

For instance if you turn off the traction control on a Jaguar XKR you can light up the tyres and do doughnuts, but you will still struggle to accidentally oversteer backwards into the vicars rose garden because the system is still active and helping the driver achieve their intended trajectory. I have driven one with the traction control completely removed, and to say one needs ones wits honed and ready for extreme service is an understatement, it’s not fun on a wet B road – it’s simply scary.

Maybe 500bhp is fine when controlled by modern electro-wizardry, but has the same thrill factor as a raw 200bhp in a car with no aids at all. So how much power does a sports car need? Well it would seem the definitive answer is ‘it depends’.