by Frank Priscaro

A recent issue of Scientific American postulates that if hybrid carmakers were really serious about saving fuel they’d turn their attention to building hybrid trucks. According to the article, one plug-in hybrid delivery van could save as much fuel as 9 Priuses.

It seems there’s no shortage of ideas about what kinds of fuel efficient vehicles should be built – that’s reflective of a typical technology incubation cycle where in the beginning people are trying to figure out the best way to solve a problem (in the early 1900s, the automobile industry was at the same point in the same cycle, which saw over a hundred different companies vying to have their design capture a substantial share of the fledgling market). And it’s good that we have so many ideas at this stage, too, because there is no shortage of problems to be solved.

For instance, as an interim step, some manufacturers are looking to build cleaner, greener more efficient diesel or gas engines. There’s no doubt that this is a top priority while alternative energy approaches are being developed, but even this endeavor is meeting some serious practical hurdles that are making good results easier said than done.

One manufacturer knew they could boost the efficiency of their engines by increasing the pressure under which the fuel was ignited. The initial testing they performed on their current design operating at the higher pressure looked encouraging. Further analysis (full disclosure here: we performed these simulations for them with) however, showed that the entire fleet production of thousands of units would have an unacceptably high rate of failure within their warranty period. So back to the drawing board they went, but at least this time, they knew what they were looking for, namely a stronger material that could withstand higher pressures at the same geometry.

Another company we’ve worked with wanted to add a new component to their engine. This addition would boost efficiency and at the same time, lower emissions. It looked like a good solution, until we got a look at the part they were thinking of installing. Our analysis showed conclusively that it did not meet their rigid specifications because the as-manufactured component (outsourced to a low-cost 3rd party provider) was not produced correctly. A processing defect that would only have been found after the component had been installed on thousands of their new vehicles had been missed in the initial incoming inspections..

The point is, we don’t know what the best, most fuel-efficient designs are going to be. To create them, we’re going to need to generate a lot of different ideas and try them. This is a time for experimentation and discovery, yes, but perhaps it’s also time to alter the methods we’ve used for making those great leaps forward. After all, we’re looking at creating not just new engines, but a whole new way of looking at how we use, store and produce energy, as well as a more enlightened management of the consequences of all those choices. To get there, we need to do more than rely solely on the traditional methods trial and error, and physical testing. The problems we’re trying to solve are too complicated. We need more sophisticated tools that are equal to the task at hand.

— Frank Priscaro


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