June 15, 2007
Radical engines propel cars of the future

Where will the car of the future come from? Detroit, which fumbled the electric automobile and let Japan grab the lead in hybrids?

Not likely. Instead, try NASA, MIT's Media Lab or Silicon Valley, where the sizzling, battery-powered Tesla Roadster debuted last summer. New technology that promises to revolutionize the automobile as we know it is emerging from research institutions and startups -- and these innovations won't set you back $100,000 like a Tesla will.

U.K.-based PML Flightlink put four of its 160-horsepower electric motors in the wheels of a BMW Mini to produce a concept car that shoots from zero to 60 in about four seconds and hits a top speed of 150 miles an hour. The engines also act as brakes, recovering energy that charges a battery and giving the car a range of more than 200 miles. A tiny gasoline motor can be used to recharge the battery for longer trips, on which the car gets 80 miles per gallon.

Another British firm, the Lightning Car Company, has already begun taking orders for its Lightning GT, a sleek, 700-horsepower sports car powered by PML's wheel motors.

A team of researchers at MIT's Media Lab, meanwhile, hopes to use the same approach to reduce congestion in today's crowded cities. They're experimenting with small electric motors located in the wheels of the CityCar, a tiny, nimble and practically silent vehicle with wheels that turn 360 degrees, enabling it to slip neatly into tight urban parking spaces. Designed to stack like supermarket carts when not in use, the cars could be parked strategically in front of subway stations and office buildings, where people could grab one as needed for short-term, one-way rentals, says Ryan Chin, one of the MIT researchers.

Others are looking to revolutionize the automobile's engine, not replace it.

The radical new design of the Scuderi power plant splits the cylinders of an internal-combustion engine in two, compressing air in one chamber, then shooting it into a combustion chamber where it's mixed with gas and ignited. The Massachusetts startup's design allows recovered braking energy to be stored as compressed air. It also creates a highly efficient combustion environment, promising to double gas mileage while drastically reducing tailpipe emissions.

Colorado-based Sturman Industries is working on another type of under-the-hood innovation. Run by former NASA engineer Eddie Sturman, who designed an electronic valve for Apollo spacecraft in the '60s, the company uses digital valves to control the flow of air and fuel to internal-combustion engines, eliminating the need for camshafts. Read