Why Elon Musk Is Wrong and Nikola Tesla Was Right: Diesel/Petrol Engines Haven’t Peaked Yet

I’m happy with the potential consequences of the VW Dieselgate scandal. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the German carmaker’s engineering efforts, and I wish to see it emerging from this series of events even stronger. And I won’t hide the fact that I’m pleased with a little discipline that has the potential bring us internal combustion engines that are truly modern.
Elon Musk vs, Nikola Tesla meme 1 photo
Photo: image edited by autoevolution
As VW itself has explained, this scandal has the potential to see the company emerging as an even stronger technology developer. I’ve been waiting for this to happen ever since the 2000s, when the diesel engines started their quest for European market domination.

About a decade or so ago, the VW Group still insisted on its pumpe duse diesel technology, despite most major oil burner-developing carmakers on the Old Continent having switched to common rail technology. Fast-forwarding to 2015, we see VW facing the consequences of having chosen to cheat instead of developing diesels that are actually clean.

Three hundred dollars. That’s how much VW would’ve have to spend extra on each of the 11 million cars included in the Dieselgate scandal in order for these to truly meet emission standards.

Then again, adding urea exhaust after-treatment would’ve only solved the problem for a relatively short while. And that’s because the cold, polluting truth is that ever since Rudolph Diesel came up with the compression-ignition engine back in 1892, nobody bothered improving on the design intensive enough to actually turn glowplug motors into decently clean engines.

I’m sick and tired of seeing the entire world pointing their fingers at VW and demanding retribution, when what we should do is ask the carmaker to lead an industry-wide revolution that would bring us the next-generation internal combustion engines.

No, I’m not referring to start-stop and reduced internal friction gimmicks here, but to actual breakthroughs that would allow us to improve the poor thermal efficiency our engines show today.

Do you think I see diesels as necessary because I enjoy their rattle or have a fetish for low revs? No, like most of the people who buy them, I agree with current diesels simply because, on average, they manage to convert up to 50 percent of the heat they generate into movement, while gasoline engines generally peak at around 30 percent. And the annoying thing is that we could climb to well over 60 percent, for instance on a combined cycle. That would require thinking outside the diesel-vs-petrol box. However, don’t expect this to be a priority for carmakers and the petrol industry, who prefer milking the cash cow.

Then we have Tesla, whose Elon Musk recently said we have reached the limit of gasoline and diesel development, explaining we need “a new generation of technology”.

When the man leads Tesla and Space X, I’m not expecting him to refer to the future generation of internal combustion engines when he talks about fresh tech developments. But the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, whom I otherwise respect, is wrong. We need to look no further than into Nikola Tesla’s work to figure that out.

Seven years before Ferdinand Porsche built the Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid (1900) that combined electric and gasoline power, Nikola Tesla was granted a patent for an electric generator. Electron bits aside, the design covered some of the requirements used by the free piston engines, which could revolutionise our cars.

Sure, the Serbian-born American inventor envisioned a piston pushed by steam or compressed air, but a part of the solutions he used could very well be employed by a modern internal combustion engine design.

But I won’t stick to mentioning the free piston units. What about the axial engine? The latest design comes from America’s Duke powerplant, but I’ve been waiting for a viable commercial application since 2011 or so.

Have I mentioned the split-cycle engines or the Miller cycle units? Engineers have played the role of the Sleeping Beauty for too long and I wish to see businesspeople finally deciding to invest in the awakening operations.

These are not tales about how I got locked inside an automotive engineering facility during my college years. I enjoyed those studies, but I also have examples that take us much closer to reality.

For instance, the variable compression ratio has been some sort of a Holy Grail for the car industry and yet we’re still waiting for the patents to be put into practice.

By the way, the latest news on the variable combustion ratio topic comes from none other than Porsche.

Mercedes-Benz has already shown major improvements can be made with their Diesotto work, but there's nothing to put in a showroom for now. Smaller carmakers like Mazda have also made diesel engine progress. However, Mazda admitted its Skyactive-D oil burners still can't reach the US market without urea aid. Unlike VW, the Japanese carmaker decided to wait until its engineers could find a viable solution.

Was Audi cheating when it won Le Mans by burning oil? Nope, and neither was Porsche when it returned in glory with its petrol-electric hybrid. That's the kind of development pace we need for our road cars to advance. Not defeat devices.

We all enjoy the clean air of Spring, right? Well, one development flower does not make a spring, we need the entire industry to jump the development bandwagon and return to the engine drawing board. Now.

PS: since I didn’t want to add another thousand words to this story, I came up with the picture above. Those who are willing to get over my questionable photo editing skills might recognise a few figures that have become representative for the Dieselgate shenanigan.
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About the author: Andrei Tutu
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In his quest to bring you the most impressive automotive creations, Andrei relies on learning as a superpower. There's quite a bit of room in the garage that is this aficionado's heart, so factory-condition classics and widebody contraptions with turbos poking through the hood can peacefully coexist.
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