Saturday, March 20, 2010

The little engine that could

Back in the 1950s a book appeared on my book shelf about “the little engine that could”. The book also called the Pony Engine is a story about the value of hard work and optimism. Perhaps the book was written as a metaphor of the American Dream. While I was reading the book back in 1958 the US auto makers had forgotten the story of little and were into Big being Beautiful. The US cars of the late fifties had sweeping fins and much chrome to show off the might of the V8. Some may think those car years were the pinnacle of American Power. I certainly like the styling of 58 Buick or 59 Chev but in truth those cars were an expression of pure excess.

In the next decade we are going to witness the total rebirth of the “little engines that can”. Diesel engines in cars that comfortably seat five are already on the market and yield 40 mpg. Gasoline engines that mimic the performance of diesels will also become available in the next decade. Engineers now have the ability to model through computational fluid dynamics the flame fronts of the fuel within the engines. Research efforts into engines that inject gasoline or diesel in a super-critical state are yielding results. Dual fuel engines that use a secondary fuel to complete the combustion of gasoline within the cylinder are being tested. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius or the Ford Fusion make do with a small engine yet are not underpowered. Ford has a six cylinder engine with more power and torque than the V8 it replaced. Chrysler is now Fiat and the firm known for a Hemi will soon be known for Lilliputian engines.

About seven years ago the god of green named Amory Lovins wrote an essay on the 20 myths of hydrogen. Some of his essay was correct but most was pure hype. I countered with my five myths of hydrogen and entered into an email exchange with Amory. Without boasting I got it right and he got it wrong. My main argument was that the internal combustion engine would shrink and improve in performance and efficiency while fuel cells were a Betamax.

Amory runs the Rocky Mountain Institute that is the darling of Pinkos and also is the place where corporations run to in order to show they are into sustainability. I knew ahead of time that the internal combustion engine was going to be the little engine that can, and that fuel cells would only propel a train headed downhill. This may make me smarter than the next guy but it did not even help me get the ears of one one thousandth of the audience that gurus like Amory attract. I know why the average Joe and Jane love gurus. They want to be promised big things. They have to believe big change is coming. They have to believe that like the American cars of the late fifties they will fly into the future with fins and jet engines.

Little did anyone notice the Morris Mini Minor in 1959 that was the prelude to the little engine that could. This car was the first to have a transverse engine that was side to side instead of forward to back allowing for front wheel drive and major shrinking of the vehicle size. In 1964 the Chev Impala was the best selling car in the world and sold 1,074,925 cars in the USA that year. The highest volume of sales the Mini achieved was back in 1971 and sold 318,000 worldwide. The Mini essentially endures in the shame shape and form as it did in 1959 while the Chev Impala of today has zero resemblance to its ancient predecessor. My prognostication of fifty years hence is that the Green Machine that people follow will look like me. I have no clue what the Amory of the future will be doing.