If you’ve bought a car in the past decade, the chances are it is packed with computing technology designed to let you know if something is broken, a service due, a seatbelt unfastened, or a door not shut properly. Those are just the bits you can see. Behind the dashboard and under the hood, computers are also monitoring engine emissions, spark plug and fuel injection rates, brakes, air conditioning and air bags.
This technological revolution is transforming the design and manufacture of our everyday vehicles, keeping drivers safer, while helping companies such as Ford to meet growing societal expectations on improved fuel efficiency - the distance a vehicle can travel on a single tank of fuel - and emissions reductions. The big challenge is to do all of that and still create a vehicle that the customer wants to buy. “It’s about finding a balance between meeting our legislative commitments while remaining competitive,” says Andreas Schamel, director global powertrain, Ford Research & Advanced Engineering.
Since the early 20th century, the internal combustion engine (ICE) has dominated car manufacturing. It’s easy to see why, with the availability of large quantities of relatively cheap oil, combined with the simplicity of the chemical reaction inside an ICE – oxygen in the air reacts with the fuel to create power, while the waste heat, carbon dioxide, water vapour and other minor combustion products are released back into the atmosphere via the tailpipe.
There is more computing power in today’s average car than there was in the Apollo 11 space shuttle when it landed on the moon in 1969
There are more than three million hybrid cars on US roads
It takes 30 minutes to charge an electric car to travel 100 kilometres
But, what makes it cost effective also brings challenges. Much of the energy created in the chemical reaction between the fuel and the oxygen is lost as heat. Lubricants can help reduce friction and, therefore, heat, while improvements such as boosting and injection technologies, as well as in-air flow management, are in development and could improve the thermal efficiency of an engine to 45%.
Environmental impact is another challenge and both the automotive and energy industries are subject to their own legislative requirements to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases a vehicle produces.
In the oil and gas industry, decarbonisation of fuel is the main challenge and currently this is being met by the incorporation of biofuels. In vehicle manufacture, catalytic converters are now fitted as standard to reduce the amount of pollutants in the exhaust gas, while higher pressure injection systems deliver evermore precise amounts of fuel into the engine, reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide emissions leaving the engine. Turbochargers can also help by forcing more air into the cylinder, which means more fuel can be added and combusted completely, giving the vehicle more power. As a consequence, engine size can be reduced while producing the same power as a larger engine and using less fuel to travel the same distances.
Some of the advances that have been made in both fuel and vehicle have come about through closer working relationships. BP has a number of relationships with vehicle manufacturers and has worked in co-operation with Ford for more than a decade. Indeed, Ford’s engineers and BP’s oil formulators worked together on a joint engineering project: while Ford created a new engine – one member of its new direct injection petrol engine family called Ecoboost – that reduced carbon dioxide emissions without compromising on power, BP developed a specially-formulated engine oil – called Castrol Magnatec Professional ‘E’ – to support it. So successful was the venture that the oil was jointly branded. “These relationships are very useful,” says Schamel. “They help us to understand the nature of each other’s challenges, which helps us to plan for the future.”
So, where might the passenger car be headed? Hybrids – which work by capturing and recycling some of the energy released during braking to power other parts of the car – look set to become more popular. “The ‘stop-start’ applications in use now are basic levels of hybridisation and we can see opportunities to develop that further,” says Schamel.
Hybrids still rely on efficient combustion engines, however, and pure electric and hydrogen fuel cells offer alternative solutions, although they, too, have their own challenges. “Unlike a combustion engine, a battery must carry the fuel, the reactant and the waste product within it,” says Schamel. “And, so, there are limitations on a car’s performance and travelling range. The other challenges are about fuel source – is the electricity produced from sustainable sources or from fossil fuels? – and battery charging speed.
“By comparison, we see hydrogen fuel cells reaching a point in the next five to 10 years where the cost can compete with the ICE. The challenge there is about infrastructure and energy source for production. Unlike fossil fuels, you don’t extract and refine the hydrogen, so do you use sustainable sources, such as solar, or create it as a byproduct from fossil fuels. In which case, in an environmental sense, you haven’t gained anything.”
Engines aside, some of the next steps in computational technology could fundamentally change the way in which we drive. “We’re not far away from producing a car that handles traffic jams on motorways for the driver,” says Schamel. “Once the jam clears, the driver is back in charge. Obviously, this sort of technology wouldn’t work on a rural road, but these automated systems can work in highly controlled environments when the car knows exactly what it’s doing.”
With the number of new passenger cars on roads rising every year – in 2012, the number globally exceeded 60 million for the first time – it’s clear that we remain a species deeply attached to our vehicles. By pushing the limits of technology, companies such as Ford continue to find more efficient, more environmentally-friendly ways of keeping the world moving.