Are You Ready For A Future Where Displacement is Replaced?
There is an often quoted saying in the motoring world that there is “no replacement for displacement”. This means that in order to maximise performance, a large capacity (displacement) engine is required.
Ladies and gentlemen, in case you haven’t noticed—even the Porsche 911 will be (mostly) turbo-only from next year—we are currently in the midst of a revolution in engine technology, and there most certainly is a replacement for displacement…and it is here already.
The internal combustion engine, the “traditional” engine that we all know and love, hasn’t changed very much in the past 100 years. Yes, there have been huge efficiency improvements during this time through electronic control systems, advances in materials and engineering, etc., but the fundamental principles of the motor have hardly changed at all. Until now.
For quite some time now, electric motors have been quietly augmenting the combustion engine in the form of hybrid power units—with remarkable results.
For example, in the racing world, modern Formula 1 engines deliver around 850 horsepower from only 1.6 litres (less than 98 cubic inches) of displacement, by using turbocharging and a regenerative hybrid electric motor. The electric motor not only gives additional power, but it can be deployed extremely precisely to enable smooth torque delivery throughout the entire operational rev range, filling the gaps around the peaky turbo power delivery and effectively eliminating turbo-lag.
The net result of this is that the engines of 2015 can deliver approximately the same performance as the previous generation of larger displacement combustion-only engines, and also use 30% less fuel. The electric motors have also added to the racing spectacle by allowing additional power to be deployed at strategic points during the races to assist overtaking, for example.
It’s the same story at Le Mans. The top LMP1 category in the famous 24 hour endurance race has been won every year since 2012 by cars with hybrid engines. In 2015, the winning car had only 2 litres (122 cubic inches) of displacement in its combustion engine, and this car finished the race 59 laps ahead of the nearest non-hybrid car from the same racing class. That’s progress for you.
Similar technology can now be found in road cars, too. The McLaren P1, the Ferrari LaFerrari, and the Porsche 918 Spyder all comprehensively outperform their predecessors by using clever hybrid technology, delivering greater performance yet using less fuel and producing lower emissions. A true win, win, win situation.
And it’s not just exotics, either, with almost all manufacturers currently either already offering, or actively investing in hybrid technology. The BMW i8, for example, in its first generation currently delivers a combined power output approaching that of the legendary BMW M3, from a displacement of only 1.5 litres (91.5 cubic inches) across 3 cylinders.
Similar technology can also be found in our every-day commuter cars too, with Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford, and many others, all offering hybrid electric models in their range. With such a new technology already delivering major benefits, and with the relative stagnation in development of the combustion engine, it is no surprise that almost all manufacturers are spending large chunks of their R&D budgets researching ways to make electric motors and hybrid-electric engines even better.
So where is this taking us? Currently, the electric motor is doing a great job in supplementing the combustion engine, but the technology is not there yet for it to replace it completely. It’s not about performance. We see cars like the Tesla Model S delivering performance that can humble many established supercar manufacturers, and it does this with a displacement of precisely 0. That said, it doesn’t yet have the range to allow it to act as a suitable replacement for anything other than short journeys, and the relative sparsity of recharging stations and lengthy recharging times do not help this either.
However, with the massive investment in this technology, we will see rapid progress resulting in electric motors quickly gaining in prominence before (likely) ultimately taking over and replacing the combustion engine as the primary power delivery mechanism in our vehicles. The combustion engine could still be there, but it will play a smaller and less significant role, eventually being relegated to little more than an on-board charging station for the electric motor, before disappearing altogether.
Also, in time, the fuel source is unlikely to be gasoline, with hydrogen appearing to be the most likely candidate for replacement, either as an alternative fuel source for the combustion engine or in the form of hydrogen fuel cells powering the electric motor.
So, one thing is clear: the days of large capacity gasoline engines in mainstream production cars are coming to an end. This saddens me in one way because I love the visceral experience of a big V8 as much as anyone, but I am also excited about what the future holds. Sports cars and supercars, despite having smaller capacity hybrid engines, have lost absolutely nothing from the overall experience.
They still sound as fantastic today as they always did, but now they have even greater performance thanks to their incredible technology, and deliver this despite tough environmental and efficiency requirements. Our every-day commuter cars will become more boring and mundane, but the new generation of sports cars are both exciting and charismatic, which is exactly how it should be.
If we can learn anything from this, it is to look after our current cars because they are the last of a dying breed, but also to embrace the future: because it really is full of promise.