Dream big, but maybe not that big.
Humanity: our reach exceeds our grasp. Mostly, this is a good thing; otherwise, we’d still be living in caves. Still, there is an optimal amount by which our reach should exceed our grasp. The Apollo program was solidly ambitious, but a steam powered space program would have been a disaster, albeit a fascinating one.
Some of our most brilliant ideas have to wait until the right time, when technology finally catches up to our imaginations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the automobile.
Variable Displacement (The Cadillac V8-6-4)
“There’s no replacement for displacement.”
By the tail end of the 60s, automotive manufacturers were engaged, not in a horsepower war, but an all-out horsepower party. The muscle car, fed on a steady diet of cheap fuel, rose to prominence as a uniquely American thing. Engine size soared. 2 barrel carburators gave way to four-barrels, then to dual four barrels, capable of delivering massive amounts of gasoline to equally massive engines. The Chevy 396. The Mopar 383. The Ford 428 Cobra Jet. The 426 Hemi. All names whispered reverently by gearheads, even today.
Cubic inches ruled the roost, and everybody happily laid huge strips of rubber at the dragway – even little old ladies from Pasadena.
Cadillac, not to be outdone by lesser automobiles, introduced a 500 cubic inch (8.2L) monster capable of a pavement rippling 400 horsepower and 550 ft-lbs of chassis-twisting torque. The future was going to be fast.
Then in 1973, OPEC shut the party down. The price of oil quadrupled, and the American muscle car ceased to be. Six years later, the Iranian Revolution drove the price of oil even higher. Suddenly, American automakers were looking for ways to quell the thirst of the monsters they’d created, while still providing that kick-in-the pants rush that only horsepower can adequately provide.
In 1981, Cadillac – always a brand synonymous with pushing the limits of engineering – decided to work with Eaton engineering to produce an engine that was capable of shutting off cylinders when massive amounts of power weren’t required.
The result was the Cadillac V8-6-4. While nominally a 368 ci motor, The V8-6-4 could, through a clever engine computer and solenoids to disconnect the valves, vary its displacement while running. The ECU would cut fuel delivery while the cylinders idled, thus improving fuel economy.
At least, it improved fuel economy in theory.
While the idea was a sound one, early 80s microprocessors just weren’t up to the job. Their limited numerical range (due to being 4 or 8 bit) and lethargic operating frequencies just couldn’t keep up with what was happening inside the motor.
Fortunately for us, Moore’s Law marched along, and by 2005 Mercedes Benz, Honda, General Motors and others had licked the problem.
Hybrid Electric Cars (The Hybrid Buick Skylark)
Unless you’ve been asleep since 1997 or so, you have no doubt heard about the hybrid electric car. Equipped with both an electrical motor/generator (or several) and a traditional internal combustion engine, the hybrid auto switches between electric, IC, and mixed mode propulsion in order to increase fuel mileage.
The hybrid drivetrain is older than you might imagine. Ferdinand Porsche was tinkering with something he called the Mixte as early as 1900! By 1931 Erich Gaichen had constructed a half-horsepower hybrid auto with a top speed of 25mph. It even featured an early regenerative braking system.
By the early 70s, Victor Wouk was working on a hybrid Buick Skylark with a 21hp electric motor. While he and others had the broad strokes exactly right, the hybrid languished until computer and electrical engineering state-of-the-art had caught up. A modern hybrid auto requires a great deal of finesse and integration in its ECU and various other control systems – and while computers certainly existed in 1972, nobody particularly wanted to haul around a DEC PDP-11.
In-Car Navigation (Honda Electro Gyrocator)
Our older readers may remember a time when humans in automobiles navigated by way of the humble paper map. Widely available, hard to fold, and prone to disappearing into the detritus of the glove compartment, paper maps were less than ideal. Most of us just gave up in frustration and asked gas station attendants or toll-booth operators for directions.
While satellite navigation was available by the middle of the 1960s, positional accuracy was poor for anything but stationary targets. A fix just took too long to compute. And just as early hybrids weren’t suited to carrying around a microcomputer, neither were Honda’s internal combustion autos. Engineers, as they do, sought a better way.
Enter the Honda Electro Gyrocator.
Honda engineers, familiar with dead reckoning and inertial navigation, started working on a gyroscope-driven navigation system in the late 1970s. Such navigation systems had been used in aircraft, ships, and other vehicles for decades, but all relied on precision-engineered, fussy, delicate, expensive gyroscopes. The Honda breakthrough was in the helium gas gyroscope. Much like a mass airflow sensor determines airflow via temperature changes in a heated wire, the gas gyroscope tracks rotation through 2 heated wires crossed. By carefully comparing the temperature between the wires, heading could be determined.
At least, it worked that way on paper.
The rest of the Electro Gyrocator was similarly, brilliantly simple. The maps were printed on clear plastic sheets, behind which was a simple computer display. Sensors attached to the wheels and transmission also fed data to the 16-bit microprocessor running the show.
Despite the clever engineering, the Gyrocator was just too expensive to see widespread adoption. Offered as a dealer option, the Electro Gyrocator was approximately a quarter of the price of the cars it was intended to guide. It is unclear whether any were ever sold to the general consumer at all.