A Century of Internal Combustion

BLUF: With over a century’s worth of changes, updates and tweaks, the modern internal combustion engine has gotten us as far as it can go. It’s time to embrace the simple efficiency of the electric motor.

Ever since the first Model T rolled off the production line in 1908, engineers have evolved better and better ways of burning fossil fuels to get us from A to B very, very quickly. But the modern internal combustion engine is extremely dense. There is maze of interlocking, delicate and precisely-calibrated parts working in unison under the hood. Each piece has been optimized to minimize weight and cost while maximizing performance and efficiency.

Fact: the modern engine has around 10,000 moving parts!

It wasn’t until recently though, when performing repairs on my Subaru Forester, that I finally appreciated that number. Look at the modern V8 engine, for example. This photo shows just how expansive it is, and keep in mind, if any one of those parts fail, the engine could be toast in seconds. And yes, that’s what happened to my Subaru.

Last winter my Subaru was sidelined with a long list of repairs: shredded timing belt, blown head gasket, and a rusted sub-frame, as well a check-engine light which I was certain meant replacing the catalytic converter, again…

Our loyal Subaru had 200k miles on it, so none of this was surprising, but it brought me an interesting revelation: none of these problems could happen on an electric car. NONE! An electric car doesn’t have a timing belt, a head gasket or an emissions system. The electric motor has one moving part, the rotor in the center.

The point was further driven home as I replaced the timing belt, a system used only to synchronize the engine so that it sparks in the correct order, at the correct speed. Not only that, but each part of the timing belt system must be replaced at the same time, including several pulleys, belts, and my personal favorite, the belt tensioner. Now the belt tensioner is there just to keep the belt taut, and to be honest, it’s an engineering feat! It’s essentially just a very tiny hydraulic piston, but it’s very strong. So strong in fact, that it needs to be compressed in a shop, where a pin is inserted to hold it down until you’re ready. Think of it as a grenade pin — after its installed it, you remove the pin and the piston is released.

How many years do you think it took automotive engineers to arrive at this fine piece of engineering? Just by looking at it you can tell it’s the product of a century of incremental engineering developments. It’s amazing, yet totally unnecessary when compared to electric cars. We’ve come a long way in evolving the internal combustion engine since the Model T, but it seems we can only take it so far before we need a game-changer to keep seeing improvements. The simplicity of the electric motors opens up all sorts of doors to better efficiency, better performance, and of course, cleaner emissions.

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