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Runkle's vision: Small engines, big power

Automotive News reports on a new engine from EcoMotors.

Automotive News

DETROIT--Don Runkle enjoys telling people how he was smoked once at a stoplight by a rival's car--and then ordered the development of what would become the high-performance Buick Grand National.

Now the industry is downsizing engines and adding batteries, focusing on fuel economy, not horsepower, voltage, not varoom. Runkle doesn't buy it.

"The market will not accept underpowered vehicles. This industry has tried this many times in the past, and it never works," he told the Automotive News Green Car Conference/Exhibition on June 16. Instead, he says, automakers need to get the same amount of power from smaller, lighter engines.

Runkle, a longtime gearhead at General Motors and then Delphi, is doing that with a radical new engine design at a start-up company. He represents an archetype of today's auto world: The respected insider turned outsider seeking to revolutionize the industry through new technologies.

At GM, Runkle held several chief engineer positions and was vice president of GM's Advanced Engineering Staff, leading advanced concepts with high efficiency and performance, such as the EV1 electric car and the CERV III concept Corvette.

In 1996 he joined Delphi, where he was vice chairman and chief technical officer until mid-2005.

In 2009 he became CEO of EcoMotors International in suburban Detroit, which is developing what it calls the opposed piston-opposed cylinder engine. It is perhaps the most radical new engine architecture since the Wankel rotary engine.

The design puts four pistons into two piston cylinders. Runkle says the engine is half the weight and size of a traditional one, with the same power. It has 62 parts, compared with about 385 for a conventional four-stroke engine. Runkle says the smaller engine could cost 20 percent to 25 percent less than a conventional engine.

Some of those forecasts are theoretical. EcoMotors has built only five engines so far. Runkle says EcoMotors has talked with about 15 potential customers. But he doesn't have an automotive customer he can talk about.

Khosla Ventures, a venture capital fund set up by Vinod Khosla, owns 47 percent of EcoMotors. Khosla Ventures has backed cellulosic ethanol and other technologies meant to redefine vehicle propulsion.

Runkle doesn't have reliability data on the engine yet. "It's one of the last things you work on," he said. "First emissions, then efficiency, then power, then noise.

(Source: Automotive News)