Plenty in the tank

5 min read

Ricardo’s Prof Neville Jackson believes there’s plenty more mileage in the internal combustion engine as technology makes it ever more efficient. Jon Excell reports

A chat with Prof Neville Jackson is a refreshing reminder that there is life after recession for the UK automotive industry.

Talking to The Engineer at the launch of Ricardo’s Innovation and Sustainable Transport Centre, the group’s enthusiastic technology director outlined a brief that looks beyond the downturn to the technology that will keep us on the road when the 2009 slowdown is little more than a history lesson.

‘We maintain a roadmap of what a vehicle might look like all the way up to 2050, in terms of what we’re going to get the energy from, what the vehicle will do, what its specifications will be, and what kind of powertrain it will have,’ he said.

With a dizzying range of powertrain technologies — from all-electric to hydrogen — vying to prove their worth, it is a mind-boggling brief, but Jackson frames the challenge in simple terms. It boils down to improving efficiency and, for the foreseeable future, he thinks the internal combustion (IC) engine is our best hope of achieving these economies.

‘If you take a barrel of oil out of the ground you lose about 15 per cent of energy getting that into the tank of the vehicle. But the vehicle can only use about 25 per cent energy maximum — the rest is lost as heat and friction. There’s an awful lot of lost energy and there’s a huge opportunity to reduce that. Our job over the next 20 to 30 years is to use more and more of that energy that we take out of the ground.’

He claimed: ‘The internal combustion engine will still be the primary powertrain in vehicles for the next 20 years at least. There are many alternatives and we are as engaged with them as anyone. But we won’t bring in the alternatives until we say that’s as far as we can go with the combustion engine, and there’s a long way for it to go. Within 20 years we’ll be doubling the fuel economy.’

To get to this point will require a lot more than the incremental tweaks that some claim characterise IC engine development, but Jackson is confident there are some major breakthroughs waiting to be made.

A promising concept is, he believes, Ricardo’s 2/4Sight concept, a petrol engine claimed to deliver fuel savings of up to 27 per cent by switching between two and four-stroke operation. This prototype engine is being taken forward into a vehicle demonstration programme.

The other big breakthroughs in traditional engines will come from improvements in thermal efficiency — the hush-hush focus of much of Ricardo’s advanced research. ‘The typical thermal efficiency of a diesel engine at peak is somewhere between 40 and 42 per cent,’ said Jackson. ‘Petrol engines at their most efficient point are down at 32 to 33 per cent. One big gain for us is to get petrol engines to operate at the same thermal efficiency as a diesel engine. With a diesel engine we can try to use more of the exhaust energy — truck engines have started using turbo compound systems — and there are all sorts of programmes going on looking at putting this on cars. On bare thermal efficiency of the engine I would be disappointed if by 2020 we weren’t increasing those efficiencies to 50 per cent for both types.’

Despite Jackson’s belief that traditional engine architectures still have much to offer, a focus of Ricardo’s research is alternative powertrains, particularly hybrids. Since 2000 the company has been responsible for more than 100 hybrid powertrain and vehicle programmes, most recently developing the engine for China’s first indigenous hybrid car, the Chery A5.

An interesting hybrid initiative is the Technology Strategy Board-funded Premium Vehicle project. Led by Jaguar Land Rover and including Flybrid Systems and Xtrac, two of the companies behind one of the kinetic energy recovery systems being developed for F1, the aim is to develop a flywheel-based system for production cars that will recover and store the energy generated during braking.

While most hybrids use batteries to store recovered energy, Jackson believes the mechanical approach holds great promise. ‘It’s looking very interesting. Batteries enable energy to be stored for long periods of time but are expensive and inefficient — flywheels are much more direct and much simpler.’

Reducing fuel consumption is not just about powertrain improvements, and Jackson said no area of vehicle technology is left unexplored in the search for improved efficiency.

For instance, through the Sentience vehicle project, Jackson’s team is working alongside Orange and the Ordnance Survey to develop advanced mapping and telematics systems that can help improve fuel economy. ‘We know where traffic lights and hills are. We also get a signal via the telephone system on traffic and weather. It’s all fed into a controller and from that we adapt how we control the energy stored in the powertrain, and how we control the adaptive cruise control. Plug all those things in and you can get significant fuel consumption. If we were able to pick up all this information from around us we could operate a vehicle more efficiently. The technology is already with us and the incremental cost per vehicle is relatively low compared with the gain you will get.’

And what of the so-called ‘zero-emissions’ vehicles, the all-electric city cars, and hydrogen-powered SUVs, touted by their champions as the only viable future of motoring? Both technologies undoubtedly have a role to play, said Jackson, but he doubts they will have the impact that some predict.

When he talks about hydrogen, he does so from a position of authority; Ricardo led the EC-funded Roads2HyCom project to co-ordinate and plan European hydrogen research and demonstration activity. ‘Hydrogen is a long way off, the big problems are the fuel tanks and the infrastructure. If you look at where we take hydrogen from at the moment it’s not renewable, all the routes you get it from have a carbon content — we need a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in the amount of carbon we produce making hydrogen before it becomes useful compared with the other routes we can go down.’

Likewise with electric vehicles. While the company is pioneering much of the research, questions about storage capacity, durability and cost- effectiveness will, he claimed, hold back all-electric cars. ‘You can build a perfectly acceptable battery electric vehicle that has a 100-mile range, but it doesn’t replace a conventional vehicle. It doesn’t have the same utility, takes longer to refuel, has less range and costs more. There is going to be a market for those vehicles, but not as a direct replacement for your conventional vehicle.’

He also questioned whether small city cars, such as the Gwhizz, are the right way to go. ‘You could argue that the best thing is to have a vehicle that sometimes operates like an electric vehicle and sometimes like a normal vehicle.’

Jackson believes that, ultimately, no single technology will have a stranglehold on the future of motoring. ‘There is no silver bullet — our roadmap says you have to do everything. You have lower carbon fuels, you improve your efficiencies, you use more electricity, you use hydrogen in some places where it makes sense. All sorts of things combined will solve the problem.’

But back to the present. What does the economic climate mean for Ricardo? The opening of the centre and a commitment to spend an extra 13.5 per cent on advanced technology research is a refreshing antidote to news of four-day weeks and plummeting production figures. But will the slowdown in the economy lead to a
slowdown in technology development? Not necessarily, believes Jackson. ‘If car companies sell fewer cars they have less money and they do less research and development (R&D). On the other hand, a key requirement for the future is fuel economy and we’ve got to change our products to get there. There has to be an accelerated change in products to improve fuel consumption and that requires lots of R&D technology. Our customers are going to go through a very challenging time, but if you’re focused on the environment, reducing CO2, improving efficiency — that’s the right space to be.’