Putting Old Tech In The Internal Combustion Engine Nets One-Third More Mileage

Using an engine design that was largely abandoned after World War II, new engines find fuel savings where big auto companies–weighed down by the inertia of their designs–can’t.


Decades of refining today’s automobile engine technology has come to this: We’re investing more and more, but getting less and less in terms of efficiency, performance, and durability. What if we took a wrong turn with the internal combustion engine?

Pinnacle Engines thinks we did. Its founder, James Cleeves, a former semi-conductor engineer, has spent the last three decades reconfiguring engines to achieve what Pinnacle calls a “fundamentally more efficient architecture” with 30% greater fuel mileage compared to traditional engines in tests. The final product is a powertrain that cuts fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions without increasing the vehicle cost or pollution compared to today’s vehicles.

Pinnacle’s apparent breakthrough is a four-stroke, opposed-piston engine with sleeve-valve technologies that were once installed in World War II fighter planes. The designs’ early 20th-century incarnations were unable to meet post-war pollution and efficiency standards, and were largely abandoned. But when put together with some modern engineering, the technologies’ original virtues–smaller size, higher efficiency, reliable operation–can be had without their vices. Ron Hoge, CEO of Pinnacle Engines, says it was mostly a matter of breaking out of what came before. “I’ve run large multi-billion dollar companies, and the law of incrementalism is what drives you,” he says. “You do the best with what you have.”

Other companies are pushing the limits of what internal combustion engine can do with a gallon of fuel, too. EcoMotors, a Detroit startup backed by Bill Gates, and Achates Power, a San Diego engine startup, have deployed similar opposed piston technology to create more efficient internal engines (diesel, in their case) to compete with hybrids and electrics on the road.

Asia is a targeted market for this technology. Redesigned engines are harder to sell in the developed world where vehicle manufactures have already spent billions of dollars in R&D for conventional technology, and the premium on fuel savings are modest. “The developing world has no such luxury,” says Hoge. Low incomes and high fuel prices make efficiency a necessity. The company plans to roll out more than 50,000 engines in Asia by 2013, mostly for motorcycles and three-wheel rickshaws, and other licensing deals with major manufacturers are in the works.

With millions of motorcycles, rickshaws, cars, and trucks expected to be sold worldwide, mostly in Asia, we may find India and China becoming the innovative vehicle proving ground for the rest of the world.


[Image: Pinnacle Engines]

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.