Let’s start with what John Major Jr. refers to as a “thought experiment.”
First, picture your traditional, four-stroke, inline six-cylinder engine.
“Now take the cylinder heads, valve train, camshaft, head gasket—take it all off there and throw it in the trash. You don’t need it anymore,” Major says.
“Then, take that engine and chop it in half, right down the middle. And, now, flip it over, one half on top of the other.
“So, what you have now is an engine with two pistons in [each] cylinder that oppose each other.”
More specifically, it’s an opposed-piston, two-stroke engine, and it’s what the team at Achates Power in Southern California has spent 11 years and roughly $110 million designing, developing, testing and perfecting.
Major is Achates’ regional vice president of Midwest operations. The engine, he says, creates a 30–80 percent improvement in fuel efficiency when all other vehicle factors—aside from the swapped-out engines—are equal. Achates Power, a company founded as a developer of “radically improved” internal combustion engines, already has numerous (confidential) partnerships formed with automakers for its opposed-piston design, and recently received a renowned government grant to ramp up its efforts.
The engine is a breakthrough, Major says, the type of breakthrough the auto industry has been waiting for; the type of breakthrough that has the potential to push the auto industry across the finish line in its frantic race to meet CAFE standards by 2025.
At least, that’s the goal, he says.
Reducing CO2 emissions is priority No. 1 amongst all automakers today, and it’s “the overarching driver for powertrain technology change” in the industry, according to Bob Lee, a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles vice president, who oversees the company’s powertrain team. And it’s within the powertrain that many believe the largest strides can be made in achieving fuel efficiency standards.
But, the truth is, not many agree on what that “powertrain of the future” will look like. Will Tesla’s (or a Tesla-inspired) electric platform win out? Will Toyota’s new fuel cell vehicle change the industry’s perception of hydrogen? Or is the answer found in an internal combustion engine, or one greatly improved, like Achates’?
No one has a precise answer, and, meanwhile, the auto service industry is left waiting, wondering how shops will need to adjust.
Major, a former vehicle engineering manager at Ford, likes to think of it in terms of a phrase one fellow executive at Achates regularly uses.
“‘To have mass effect, you have to have mass adoption,’” Major recites. “What will provide the most gain with the least amount of factors inhibiting its adoption? That’s the question.”
SHIFTING THE STATUS QUO
Justin Ward grew up in his father’s service shop. He watched firsthand how the repair industry can be complex and ever-changing.
That’s not ever going to stop, he says.
As the general manager for the hybrid vehicles and drivetrain department at Toyota, he has a very different vantage point today, particularly as it pertains to the powertrain.
“Toyota has a long history of continuous improvement when it comes to conventional engines … as well as engines modified to use alternative fuels, such as compressed natural gas (CNG),” he says. “Those advancements continue to move forward.”
In October, Toyota introduced the 2016 Mirai, the first commercially viable, mainstream hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
“At Toyota, we believe that in order to reach a sustainable transportation system, we need to diversify fuel feedstocks as well as the powertrains that use them,” Ward adds. “Today, oil is the main source of automotive fuel, but as we move forward … we expect to see more renewable feedstocks become available.”
Moving forward is the key there, according to John Tisdale, assistant vice president of test development operations for ASE. Tisdale’s role is to understand what skills, knowledge and training technicians today need to know to properly work on vehicles—and then help create the tests to certify those techs.
The tests need to be universal, he says, which means he needs to take into account that independent shops, most likely, won’t see the majority of vehicles until they are out of warranty.
“As a rule of thumb, we develop tests that include technology three to five years behind what [automakers] develop,” he says. “The goal is to provide an accurate assessment of what the majority of technicians see in the shop right now, and then we regularly update the content to keep pace with changing technology.”
As part of ASE’s Advanced Automobile Engine Performance Specialist Test, the ASE team created what it calls a “composite vehicle,” a fictional car that is intended to emulate the “typical” vehicle on the road today, Tisdale says.
So, what does today’s powertrain look like? The engine: a “generic, four-stroke, V6 design,” equipped with four chain-driven overhead camshafts, 24 valves, hydraulic valve lifters, variable intake camshaft timing, and variable intake valve lift. The transmission is a 6-speed, automatic transaxle with overdrive that, among other specifications, includes a transmission control module, an electronic pressure control solenoid, five shift selenoids, and a torque convertor clutch solenoid.
This will shift in the future, possibly the very near future. But in which direction? So far, Tisdale says, automakers seem to have outlined two paths.
THE POWERTRAIN’S PATH, OPTION 1: IMPROVED FUEL INJECTION
In a presentation at FCA’s most recent Investor Day event, Lee said that “electrification has been overblown by media” as a solution to fuel efficiency gains.
While Chrysler has a number of plug-in hybrid vehicles planned, gasoline is where the company is putting its focus. Lee’s presentation stated that FCA’s new 8- and 9-speed transmissions have led to fuel efficiency gains between 6 and 10 percent, depending on the vehicle, when compared to their 4-, 5- and 6-speed predecessors. And FCA’s V-6 Pentastar engine, which the company has sold more than 3 million of since 2010, has improved efficiency by 7 percent.
General Motors, of course, has the Chevy Volt, its oft-touted hybrid, but also has highlighted the all-new 3.6L V-6 engine it’s putting in 2016 models. The engine is the fourth generation of GM’s DOHC family, and includes a number of new features like “Active Fuel Management” (cylinder deactivation) and stop-start technology. In all, GM expects the new engine to improve fuel economy by 9 percent when compared to the previous 3.6L model in 2015.
Toyota, Ford, and nearly every other major automaker is pushing new fuel-injected vehicles, as well, in order to help boost efficiency.
Still, it’s difficult to see those incremental improvements giving the industry the gains it needs by the 2025 cutoff date.
That’s why Major feels that companies like Achates Power will make up the difference.
Currently, the company’s opposed-piston, compression ignition engine runs on diesel. The $9 million grant it received in December marked the start of a three-year contract with the U.S. Department of Energy to work with Delphi Automotive and the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago to create a gasoline version.
When completed, it’s expected to be 50 percent more efficient than a downsized, turbocharged direct injection gasoline engine, and should reduce the overall cost of the powertrain.
Major says the platform will lend well to gasoline; the company simply needs the time to develop and test it. Its diesel model currently has more than 7,000 hours on a dyno. He says the gasoline version will be in the same state within that three-year period.
Major expects full production to be possible sometime around Year 5.
“Production is what takes time,” Major explains. “As a general rule, our technology can improve any internal combustion engine. … It’ll just depend on how aggressive our customers (automakers) are [with their timetables].”
That puts the engine in line to potentially help make a substantial difference in the race to CAFE compliance.
And remember Major’s “mass effect-mass adoption” line? Well, this is where that comes in.
The internal combustion designs have a $4 billion engine-manufacturing industry standing behind them. They don’t require a change to societal perceptions, lifestyles, or infrastructure like electric or fuel cell vehicles might, Major says, and, overall, the internal combustion engine simply has the least amount of inhibitors to its long-term success.
“The internal combustion engine isn’t going away. It’s just that good,” Major says. “It’s been optimized, re-optimized, and it’s just gotten better and better and better and better.
THE POWERTRAIN’S PATH, OPTION 2: HYBRIDS, HYDROGEN AND ALTERNATIVE ENERGY
Tesla Motors was created to disrupt the auto industry. From the vehicle itself to the way consumers view vehicle ownership, Tesla wants to see mass changes, company spokesperson Alexis Georgeson says.
And with its eccentric billionaire owner and lavish vehicle launch events, Tesla certainly isn’t hiding that fact.
The company may do just that, but the lack of nationwide infrastructure to support charging on a large scale, as well as its high cost of entry, have been large inhibitors so far. Still, ASE’s Tisdale says it’s clearly obvious how large an impact zero-emission vehicles could have on overall fuel efficiency.
Today, Tisdale says that hybrids have been a great start to this transition. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, nearly 4 percent of all vehicle sales are hybrids; that means they’re more prevalent in the U.S. than vehicles from Kia (3.6 percent), Subaru (3.3 percent), Mercedes-Benz (2.1 percent), Volkswagen (2 percent), BMW (2 percent), or Audi (1.2 percent), according to a sales numbers from The Wall Street Journal. ASE added a hybrid specialty certification last year—a sign, Tisdale says, of the prevalence of the vehicles in the market place.
And it’s Toyota that has led that charge, starting with the company’s first Prius in 1997. The company has adapted the vehicle over the years, Ward says, and has sold more than 8 million hybrids over the last 20-plus years.
The 2016 Prius “achieves a groundbreaking 40 percent-plus therma efficiency.”
“Since its foundation, Toyota has continuously strived to contribute to the sustainable development of society through the manufacturing of innovative and quality products and services,” Ward says. It’s that mindset that led to the Mirai, a vehicle 20 years in the making. The Mirai is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell that stores hydrogen on-board and combines that with oxygen from the air to produce electricity to move the vehicle. Its only emission is water.
The vehicle will be released in limited quantities, in regions that have infrastructure set up for hydrogen charging.
Ward foresees a future that will utilize a number of different alternative-fuel innovations to power America’s vehicles, whether it’s hydrogen, CNG, plug-in electric, or hybrid technologies.
“Motor vehicles greatly expand the freedom of mobility, but are also related to and affect a number of social and environmental issues,” he says. “The spirit of sustainable mobility is what drives Toyota to develop advanced technologies.”
MEETING IN THE MIDDLE: THE SHOP’S FUTURE
Thinking back to his father’s shop again, Ward says he doesn’t see the task of today’s technician being any more difficult than it was decades ago. Proper diagnostics requires the right tools and training. Vehicles may be more advanced today, but so too are the tools used to work on them.
“Maybe it is more fair to say the challenges are not more difficult, just a different kind of difficult,” he says.
Difficulty is “relative” to a technician’s experience, Tisdale says. Technicians have always had to be analytical in their work; it’s the nature of the job.
And, while Tesla may be an oddity with its company-run service centers, mainstream automakers claim to have the aftermarket in mind when designing new vehicle systems.
The Achates Power opposed-piston engine isn’t any more labor intensive or complex than a traditional engine, from a repair and maintenance standpoint, Major says.
Regardless of the powertrain options that become available over the next decade and beyond, Major says it’s not difficult to picture the automotive aftermarket adjusting swiftly, and becoming adept at whatever comes off the production line from automakers. It’s what the industry has done for decades.
No thought experiment required.
“Technology will continue to move forward,” he says. “It’s always been that way. It always will be.”
TESLA’S SHOP OF TOMORROW—TODAY
Simply put: Tesla Service Centers do not look like the traditional auto repair shop, company spokesperson Alexis Georgeson says.
No oil or gas means the shops are able to stay impeccably clean, and free of many common pieces of equipment that are necessities in other shops. While Georgeson says that Tesla can’t provide a list of tooling for its facilities, it’s clear from the photos what an allelectric repair facility would look like.
There also isn’t a traditional lobby or waiting area. Instead, each service center also has a Tesla showroom in the front of the facility.
“Tesla’s approach to service is quite different than that of the traditional automotive industry,” Georgeson says. “We’re reinventing the car-buying experience and revolutionizing auto ownership.
“All Tesla locations (stores and service centers) worldwide are company-owned and operated. This allows Tesla to maintain strong relationships with owners and allows us to build locations that provide customers a consistent Tesla experience around the world.”
Tesla vehicles are designed to be “easy to own,” and many simple fixes are done through over-the-air updates. When in-person repairs are needed, Tesla has its service centers, and also its Tesla Ranger network of mobile repair technicians who will come to a vehicle owner to perform the necessary work.
“We take care of our owners unlike any other automaker with 24-hour service, free pickup and delivery, and free loaners leading to a service experience satisfaction rated consistently above 95 [percent],” Georgeson says.