Mazda’s SKYACTIV-X engine – and similar innovations from other automakers – could slow down adoption of electric vehicles
While global automakers stampede into electric vehicles, Mazda has taken a different approach, announcing Tuesday that it has perfected a new internal combustion engine technology that will enable its cars to pump out 50 per cent less CO2 by 2030 and 90 per cent less by 2050. Mazda’s innovation suggests the traditional gasoline-powered car may be harder to displace from the market than analysts have predicted.
“Compression ignition” is based upon a principle similar to that a diesel engine, igniting fuel using compression rather than a spark plug.
“A proprietary combustion method called Spark Controlled Compression Ignition overcomes two issues that had impeded commercialization of compression ignition gasoline engines: maximizing the zone in which compression ignition is possible and achieving a seamless transition between compression ignition and spark ignition,” the company said in a press release.
The maximum theoretical efficiency of an internal combustion engine is 37 per cent, but in most driving applications it ranges between 15 and 20 per cent.
Diesel engine efficiency is much greater – sometimes over 45 per cent – because it squeezes the fuel/air mixture at a compression ratio 21 to 1, compared to a compression ratio of only 12 to 14 to 1 for ICE engines.
The higher compression ratio allows more of the fuel to be burned instead of being pumped out the exhaust pipe as heat.
The SKYACTIV-X engine uses compression ignition and a supercharger fitted to increase torque 10 – 30 per cent over the current SKYACTIV-G gasoline engine, according to Mazda.
“Compression ignition makes possible a super lean burn that improves engine efficiency up to 20 – 30 percent over the current SKYACTIV-G, and from 35 – 45 percent over Mazda’s 2008 gasoline engine of the same displacement,” the company says.
“SKYACTIV-X even equals or exceeds the latest SKYACTIV-D diesel engine in fuel efficiency. With high efficiency across a wide range of rpms and engine loads, the engine allows much more latitude in the selection of gear ratios, providing both superior fuel economy and driving performance.”
“It’s a major breakthrough,” Ryoji Miyashita, chairman of automotive engineering company AEMSS Inc., told Reuters.
In April 2016 I wrote a column about a Royal Dutch Shell concept car that was never meant to be mass produced, but was meant to demonstrate how much more could be done with existing automotive technology.
“Shell’s concept car represents a response to the innovation going on in the EV world. Elon Musk and his Tesla Model 3, with it’s 300,000 pre-orders, may get all the headlines, but the battle for the highways and byways of the world will likely be fought in Asian markets against EVs like the Solo by ICE cars like Shell’s,” I argued.
“If this early indicator turns into a trend within the auto industry, then expect EVs – and other alternate fuels technology, such as the hydrogen fuel cells favored by Toyota – to take longer to penetrate the market.”
This is an important point that electric vehicle boosters often forget: mature technologies don’t always just cede marketshare to the newcomer. Sometimes they fight back and slow down the diffusion of the new tech.
The Mazda innovation – and the innovations that will no doubt be introduced by other automakers once they peek under the hood of the first SKYACTIV-X car and figure out how to circumvent the Mazda’s patents – functions as a “constraint” to the adoption rate of EVs.
One of the best arguments for the eventual triumph of EVs is the much higher efficiency of electric engines, 93 per cent theoretical and 75 to 85 per cent in real life. What has been holding EVs back is the low energy-density and high cost of batteries.
But with new electro-chemistries likely emerging from laboratories in the US and Asia over the next decade or two, the combination of powerful batteries and high-efficiency electric motors threatened to assign the gasoline engines to the dust bin of history.
If the SKYACTIV-X engine really does perform at 45 per cent efficiency or better and delivers all the other performance benefits Mazda is claiming, then the efficiency advantage of electric was just halved.
How might that affect the adoption rate for EVs? Oil giant BP predicts there will be 100 million EVs in the global auto fleet by 2035 – 6% of the global fleet – just 17 years from now. That forecast seemed wildly optimistic even without SKYACTIV-X. Now it appears very unlikely.
And what about the next internal combustion engine innovation? Or perhaps innovations? What will they look like and how might they affect ICE efficiency, emissions output, and performance?
If Mazda can deliver on the promises inherent to today’s surprising announcement, then the death of the internal combustion engine may have been greatly exaggerated.