Physics & Politics

I have always loved finding the non-obvious underlying truth, which is why I studied Physics and would be a sad failure in politics. My favorite part of TechCrunch New York was the presentation by EcoMotors, a company that wants to reduce oil consumption and CO2 emissions by producing a much better internal combustion (IC) engine.  That idea has no glamour, but I suspect it’s right.

EcoMotors' Next-Gen Internal Combustion Engine

In 1981, after the first energy crisis, a manufacturer of electric mass transit systems (subways, light rail, etc.) hired me (then a BCG partner) to find the applications for which these systems made economic and energy-efficiency sense.  We crunched a lot of numbers and, to our surprise, found that  almost no mass transit applications make economic/energy sense (the physics).  The capital cost of the system ($100s of millions/mile for subways) and the energy embedded in the capital are enormous, and while a fully loaded electric commuter train is energy efficient, it makes a return trip empty, and has to maintain a schedule all day, resulting in unimpressive overall efficiency.  Electrified mass transit systems are built as public works to express the greatness of society (politics) and alleviate congestion.  Buses make the most economic sense.  And, a wise person told us, IC cars can get a lot better if forced to do so.

In 1991, when Gulf War I raised energy consciousness again, I assessed the market for electric cars.  California had passed regulations requiring 10% “zero emission vehicles” (ie, electric cars) by 1997 (politics), and my client had advanced battery technology.  We concluded that electric cars are not very practical for most people.  They are not zero emission; they move emissions to the generating station.  Electric cars reduce total emissions primarily because they are low-powered and light on power-hungry accessories such as air conditioners and high-brightness headlights.  Most buyers want a powerful, well-equipped car that can be used to commute and also to drive 100 miles to the beach on the weekend.  And, we observed, the IC cars of the day could get a lot better at emissions and mileage if forced to do so.

In the event, California delayed its regulations for a decade and made them friendly to improved IC cars.

Electric vehicles are back again, although they still don’t make economic sense without subsidies (politics). EcoMotors proposes a radically redesigned internal combustion engine that delivers:

  • 50% improvement in energy-efficiency
  • 50% reduction in size and weight
  • A modular engine that can shut down cylinders not needed for city driving
  • Low carbon footprint (when you count everything)
  • Power and mission capability that people want from a car
  • Lower cost than a conventional internal combustion engine

This translates to an improvement of more than a 50% in miles/gallon (physics).  EcoMotors’ zinger:  “If all U.S. cars had our engine, the U.S. would import no oil.”

Is this real? The backers are smart, serious guys: Vinod Khosla and Bill Gates. IC engines have changed incrementally since the late 19th century days of Otto and Daimler: modern engines mostly use better controls and materials to implement a century-old design.  EcoMotors uses modern controls and materials to implement a radical redesign that exploits the existing manufacturing base.

Explaining how it works goes beyond the space I have here.  The picture above gives an idea.  One key concept is opposed pistons:  fuel/air mixture compresses and burns between two opposed pistons, each of which moves half the distance/cycle.  The cylinder head is gone.  Friction and heat leakage, the two main sources of IC engine inefficiency, are reduced significantly.   Learn more here.

My training and experience tell me that radical improvement to the dominant technology is a powerful tool to address energy and environmental needs.  But EcoMotors is not sexy:  what politician wants a photo op at an IC engine plant, if the alternative is electric cars or solar cells?

So I am glad that there are heavyweight investors like Khosla and Gates who pay attention to the physics, not the politics.  May they be successful.


June 17 2011
by William

Hey, back in 1981, you could find IC cars with a 40mpg+ rating from all the major makes. 1982 was probably the peak of the “vanilla” IC engine, with offerings from most makes of around 50 mpg. There was a steep decline, though, in gas mileage – I guess that correlates with Reagan’s presidency.

It’s taken almost 30 years just to get back to the 40 mpg mark, and most car companies would prefer to inflate the “inherent energy” in their cars by adding expensive batteries and EV systems, rather than to just make more efficient IC engines.

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