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BMW pursuing a range of future technologies

Don't be too hasty in writing off the internal combustion (IC) engine

Published: April 12, 2012, 12:00 PM
Updated: November 22, 2021, 3:45 PM

BMW i3

Hybrids, plug-ins, pure electrics, fuel cells – there’re the buzz words in the car business these days. These technologies are being touted as the solution in our quest to terminate, or at least reduce, our dependence on fossil fuels.

Some experts, however, say we shouldn’t be too hasty in writing off the internal combustion (IC) engine. They say that it, too, can play a strong role in powering the industry’s future – that no single silver bullet will resolve this issue. Gasoline- and diesel-fuelled engines should be one of several solutions to our future driving needs. 

Tom Baloga, vice-president of engineering for BMW of North America, is one of the voices speaking out on behalf of IC engines. He says the current situation in the industry is not unlike the computer business. There’s a battle in that industry between PC makers and Mac – each wanting to dominate. Baloga says, however, the marketplace needs both systems.

“There needs to be a variety,” says Baloga, “and it’s the same in the automotive industry. We need a portfolio of solutions – we don’t need companies picking winners and losers, we don’t need governments choosing one technology over another. The public will decide which works best for them.”

Baloga notes that numerous options are being explored, including clean diesel, high-efficiency gasoline, battery electrics, various forms of hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells, but ultimately no single solution will answer everyone’s needs. Ultimately, individual consumers will make their choices based on the technology that best suits their own requirements.

IC engine far from dead
Baloga says the IC engine will be well suited to the needs of some consumers and he predicts it will continue to play a significant role in the industry for many more years, perhaps into the 2050s. Engineers will continue to develop technologies that make IC engines even more efficient than today’s fuel-sippers, and those refinements will be instrumental in helping the industry make the transition to alternative systems in the future. 

“We’re not about to give up on it,” says Baloga. “The IC engine is going to be around for a while because we can continue to improve its efficiency through developing better electronics.” 

Advances in electronic fuel injection, for example, are already helping improve the efficiency of IC engines. Today’s electronically controlled injection systems have enabled engineers to develop far more precise fuel metering systems than was possible even a few years ago. Electronics is also enabling these systems to operate at extremely high pressures – 29,000 psi for gasoline systems, even higher for diesels – to enhance efficient, precisely timed fuel delivery.

These systems are also allowing engineers to develop injectors that open multiple times during combustion – four or five times per engine stroke – to ensure cleaner, more complete combustion within the cylinder.

Electronics are key
“These systems are only possible through electronics,” says Baloga, and, as electronic technologies advance, even greater strides to better efficiency will become possible.

Another interesting technology that will help improve the efficiency of IC engines is combining the capabilities of the navigation system with a vehicle’s engine management system. Baloga explains that the navigation system in your car will “learn” frequently travelled routes, such as your daily commute to work. It will then anticipate the demands that will be placed on the engine during that daily drive and adjust the management system accordingly. For example, it will know “from experience” when you will be accelerating onto a highway. At that point, the engine is most efficient when it’s running cooler, so the electronically controlled water pump will circulate cooling fluid more aggressively to help reduce heat in the engine and make it more efficient. Once in cruising mode, a warmer engine is more efficient so the pump will alter the rate of circulation accordingly.

Similarly, if the management system recognizes the battery needs charging, but is told by the navigation system that a long downhill stretch is coming up, it will delay engaging the electronic alternator, allowing the battery to get a “free” recharge using regenerative braking on the downhill run.

“These types of systems will allow us to squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of an engine – and it will be electronics that make it possible.” 

While such engines will continue to burn up non-renewable fossil fuels, Baloga says they’ll be doing it a significantly reduced rate. By reducing consumption, demand will also decline, enabling North America to satisfy its needs using locally sourced oil, rather than having to depend on foreign suppliers.

Electric vehicles will play a role
While the IC engine will still play a prominent role in the future, Baloga says automakers such as BMW need to have other options in their powertrain portfolio. That’s why his company is also developing battery electric as a powertrain alternative. 

The revolutionary new i3, introduced as a concept at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show, will be using a battery electric system when it goes into production in 2014. The i3, which will also incorporate ground-breaking carbon fibre components to dramatically reduce weight, will be primarily a pure electric vehicle. However, a range-extender option will also be offered for those consumers concerned by range anxiety. 

The BMW system, unlike the Chevy Volt’s propulsion technology, is intended only as a backup to the battery. A small IC gas engine will engage when the battery reaches a critical level, powering a generator that will supplement the battery.

“It’s like overdraft protection,” Baloga explains. “You may never need it, but when you do, it’s there.”

Baloga says the i3 is expected to have a range of about 160 kilometres, but the range extender, with its small fuel tank, will add about 120 to 140 km – enough power to ensure you get home.

While the Volt, which is considerably heavier and has an electric range of about 60 km, is designed to handle about 60 to 70% of the typical daily commute on battery power alone, Baloga says the i3’s system will be closer to handling 90 to 95% of the run.

Having the range extender on board will help relieve those range anxiety issues that are limiting the acceptance of electric vehicles. “I think it will be extremely rare that i3 drivers will be using the range extender, but it’s there if they need it – and that’s reassuring for some consumers. We don’t want to take them out of their comfort zone.”

Hybrids costly
Hybrid technology, too, has a role to play, but Baloga says the costs involved with such systems will be difficult to sustain in the future. “There are other systems that deliver the same efficiencies, but at less cost.”

Hydrogen has an advantage in the mix of possibilities because, as Baloga notes, its refuelling scenario is familiar to consumers – they can pull up to a pump at a typical fuelling station, hook up the hose, refuel and be quickly on their way. Electrics, however, require more time to “refuel,” even with quick-charging units. The infrastructure supporting those rechargers is also going to be more difficult to implement.

Hydrogen still an alternative
The big issue, Baloga says, is we love to drive cross country, to cover long distances, and that will be difficult and expensive using pure electric power. Granted, the infrastructure to support hydrogen filling stations still needs to be developed, but it won’t be as a difficult to create as electric charging facilities. 

Baloga notes hydrogen is not only very clean to produce (depending on how it is done), it has zero tailpipe emissions, other than water. Hydrogen also has none of the upstream power generating issues that critics of electric vehicles are prone to note. “It’s clean from start to finish,” he says.

Baloga predicts 2020 will be a realistic target for the development of infrastructure to support hydrogen refuelling. In the meantime, BMW and others are continuing to refine the fuel cell engine. “It’s developing very well, and solutions to the onboard storage of hydrogen is coming along well.”

BMW is actually working on a cryo-compressed system that uses hydrogen in both liquid and gas forms. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Baloga, explaining that liquid hydrogen, which requires less pressure, works best when used for long-distance drives – the “premium grade” of the gas – while hydrogen in gas form, which is less expensive (or the “regular grade”), is more economical.

As Baloga notes, there are many possibilities for the industry to pursue, and they all may play a role in the vehicles we drive in the future.