C&B Notes

Improving Internal Combustion Engines

Interesting innovation continues in the seemingly mundane field of internal combustion engines as higher fuel prices and stricter emissions standards lead entrepreneurs to seek better solutions.

A flock of start-up companies are taking aim at the four-stroke internal-combustion engine’s century long hegemony, betting that giving new technological twists to some old ideas can yield big fuel savings for drivers.

These upstart, independent engine companies range from ventures backed by Silicon Valley venture-capital funds to a bootstrap shop run as a hobby by the owner of an aircraft-engine machining company.  Their designs vary, but they face many of the same obstacles.  Big auto makers are reluctant to take billion-dollar risks on untried technology.  Some of the proposed alternatives to traditional engine design offer fuel savings that aren’t that much greater than auto makers believe they can achieve through improvements to the designs they know. The testing required to demonstrate that a novel engine can meet stringent emissions standards and durability requirements is expensive and time consuming.

“It’s a very big risk to move to a new design,” says Eric Fedewa, director of global powertrain forecasting for consulting company IHS Inc.’s automotive practice.

Still, executives at independent engine start-ups say they are getting a hearing from some established car and truck makers, and in a few cases are landing agreements that could lead to production deals.