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Where is the innovation when it comes to car engines?

by biergeliebter / June 2, 2009 5:51 AM PDT

Sixteen years ago I did my computing on an Amiga with 512K of RAM and no hard drive because I couldn't afford it. The add-on of a 40 MB hard drive was over $400. In December of 1992 I bought a $13,700 Honda Civic EX Coupe which according to the sticker would get 41 MPG highway and during the first four years actually averaged over 50 MPG. (On long trips where all the miles were highway, it would get 54) A year later my sister bought the Civic VX that had a sticker highway MPG of 50.

Here we are 16 years later and I am now computing on a Dell with several GB of RAM, a terabyte hard drive that cost me less than $200, and my mind gets twisted when I begin to think of the various innovations that have taken place with processors through those years, yet if I want a car that can get more than 40 MPG I have to get a hybrid and the Civic EX is rated at 34 MPG highway. Wait, what? No seriously, take a look.

So why is it technical advances have been made in so many of the products we use, with some products seeing technical advances many times over, but if I go get another Civic EX it will get 34 MPG highway, 7 less than the one I bought 16 years ago? If we had put the Maxtor and Seagate and other hard drive engineers in the car industry a decade ago, I think they might have had us up to 100 MPG by now. And while the hybrid is a great innovation for the auto industry, I'll be impressed when it can get better mileage than my 1993 Civic did.

I don't think government dictating a mileage minimum is a good thing, but shouldn't the industry be farther than they are? According to in 1994 there were 9 cars that could get highway mileage over 40; 4 of them were even made by American auto makers, including a Geo at the top of the heap with 51 MPG. Fifteen years later the VW Jetta is the only non-hybrid that is rated over 40 MPG highway.

Does anyone have some insight on this? Lazy engineers? Laws of physics? Government conspiracy? Since American auto makers were at the top of the heap 15 years ago and now only has a handful in the top 35, I'm leaning to the latter until someone tells me different.

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Laws of Physics / Cost / Consumer Tastes
by WildClay / June 2, 2009 1:35 PM PDT

It is not like there have not been significant advancements in many parts of the current cars of those 10 or 20 years ago but when it comes to gas mileage it basically gets down to physics.

Yes they can make a car that will get much better mileage but only with trade-offs that until recently have only been marginally accepatable by at least US consumers.

Taking the hybrids out of the mix, there is really only a few factors you can mess with the increase mileage in a gas engine based car and the biggest is the weight of the car or HP of the engine.

Making the car lighter you can use a smaller engine and thus less gas, however at about 40 MPG the trade offs get pretty significant.

Most of your gas when you are going over 35-40 mph is going against wind resistance on a flat road, so making the car lighter offers less and less. Making them more aerodynamic tends to make them smaller and often very ugly (odd how jets tend look cooler the more aerodynamic they are and cars uglier)...

There are some new tricks like how the fuel is injected, deactivating cylinders once you are at cruising speeds but these tricks tend to introduce other issues, like reliability.

So if buyers are willing to buy cars that can fit 2 people tops in comfort, are pretty ugly by current standards, have very poor accelaration, and a top end of 60-70 MPH with no head wind, and they load it with every gas saving trick in the book you can end up with a car that might get even 60-70 MPG and that costs 40,000-60,000 bucks, the problem is there is no market for a 40K ugly 2 seater...

So there is really one area in auto advancements that has pretty much hit the wall with technology, but so many other things have come a long way, my current car has built in GPS, bluetooth that senses my phone as I get in and auto-links to it, the GPS has traffic / cogestion avoidance (works ok where there is good data), it has side, front and lower air-bags, keys you can't lock in by mistake, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, USB connection, MP3 player connection, sat radio, anti-skid, auto traction control, On-Star with auto diagnostics and calls for help when the air bags are deployed, seats and mirrors that remember where I like them and the list goes on and all this in a car in the 30K range, what is amazing is most of these features can even be found in under 20K cars.

So I have to put it at laws of physics and consumer desires, most people want a car with reasonable power, enough safety features to make them as safe as possible, not ugly, air conditioning, power everything and you just can't have it all.

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Advancements in SAFETY, and Consumer Taste
by mnsobek / June 3, 2009 1:47 PM PDT

Did you ever think about how much of a death trap your civic was?

The advancement in car frames and other safety equipment caused our cars to become heavier which affected the gas efficiency directly. These days people want more powerful engines. So what happens when you make the engine more powerful, it uses more gas. Also people like their cars to look good and most visual things that people find appealing are causing more wind resistance on our car which affects the mpg.

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Car Innovations
by Dan Filice / June 5, 2009 6:59 AM PDT

You bring up many excellent questions. In addition to the great replies from the other posters, one other large influence has been the bill of sale that has been given to the consumer. By this I mean the advertising that has influenced our car buying habit. For decades, the car advertising has focused on the message that sells this message: "Get of my way! I'm driving my huge, gas-guzzling monster that will eat your puny underpowered car if you don't move." Even though many car ads now try to sell fuel mileage, look how many car ads still try to sell the old message: BMW, Lexus IS, Mercedes and Audi all base a lot of their advertising on racing through the streets, beating the other drivers, plowing through corn fields and a little pillage and plundering.

On the other hand, my 2002 Acura CL-S gets 29 mpg on the highway, and it has 260hp. Not bad considering.

Speaking of nothing innovative, why do many American cars still use the old pushrod engine design? Inefficient compared to overhead cam designs. Does it cost more money to make overhead cam engines? Yes. But screw the American car-buying public. The car companies want to make money, not save gas.

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Simply put...
by drajah / June 11, 2009 10:51 AM PDT

oil companies do not make money if the vehicle manufactures make more fuel-efficient automobiles, 16 years ago the world wasn't focused on a shortage of gas, now that it has come to the point where it's a necessity, lifeblood of transportation, such that we "need it to breathe" sort to speak, we are at the mercy of these companies.

if you find this hard to yourself, where is the electric car, and don't give me that crap about the Volt.

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Okay, I'll bite.
by antuan.goodwin Roadshow staff / June 12, 2009 7:10 AM PDT

Engine technology has advanced significantly in just the past few years. But, the problem doesn't lie in the engine. The fact is cars are just heavier with more creature comforts, safety equipment, and emissions hardware.

So, the 2900-pound 2009 Honda Civic EX is about 32-percent heavier than the 2200-pound 1992 Civic EX. But at 34 highway mpg and 41 highway mpg respectively, there's only a 17-percent deficit in fuel economy. Pound for pound, I'd say the 2009 engine is more efficient.

In the computing world, software scales with hardware. Today's programs require the more powerful hardware, because they're more complex. I'm sure there was a time when you never thought you'd fill up that 40MB hard drive, but that's just one episode of a podcast these days.

To the same extent, today's vehicles have to carry around so much more equipment and weight, that the actual gains in efficiency are hidden from the MPG rating.

But your question is a good one and I'm glad you asked it. I just finished ranting over on the Car Tech blog, if you care to hear more of my thoughts on the subject:

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Point taken, but...
by biergeliebter / June 22, 2011 2:25 AM PDT
In reply to: Okay, I'll bite.

Well, after I originally posted this it wasn't long before I saw you Car Tech guys start doing vids of cars with CVT and direct injection and some of the other new technologies you mention in your rant - Brian Cooley explaining how direct injection worked was awesome! It makes things like that much easier for non-car guys like me understand whats going on.
So the auto industry is finally thinking outside the box when it comes to designing an engine and drive train. But what took so long?
Its exciting to see that Ford was at CES and the auto industry is finally 'getting it'.
And thanks for your rant. Because we always hear about gas prices and gas mileage to the point that the government feels the need to set a minimum mileage, I really hadn't considered other factors like the cleaner emissions.

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When gasolene goes above $4/gal, the public will take notice
by gary85739 / June 14, 2009 4:53 AM PDT

Don't expect much from ANY car marker, foreign/domestic, they're all the same.

There have been smaller vehicles, mostly in Asia/Europe for DECADES that get 50mpg!

There will soon be "diesel hybrids" that will get nearly 100mpg...

Vehicles have only wasted technology for decades, lighter weight, more plastic and at the same time increased horsepower...

Unless you're hauling a trailer,etc you rarely need over 200hp!

Seeing so called "green" machines out now...well, they're about as green lead batteries that MUST be recycled in 100,000 or so...

MANY little econo boxes will NOW get over 40mph...

I get upset seeing so called "green tech" wasted by jacking up the HP, instead of trying to get better fuel economy!

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