Pinnacle Looks Beyond Detroit as the Market for Its Opposed-Piston Engine

When Ecomotors International set out to change the way car and truck engines are built, it set up shop in Livonia, MI, a suburb of Detroit, in hopes of eventually licensing its technology to the big U.S. automakers. It was a calculated risk. As radical as Ecomotors’ opposed-piston engine design may be, at least the company’s founder, Peter Hofbauer, has unquestionable auto-industry credentials—he’s the guy who helped Volkswagen build its first mass-production diesel engine.

Pinnacle Engines isn’t even bothering with Detroit. The San Carlos, CA, startup, which recently won the backing of the world’s largest venture capital firm, is also developing an opposed-piston engine, one that promises to marry the fuel efficiency of diesel technology with the lower cost structure of gasoline-burning engines. But Pinnacle’s founder, James Montague “Monty” Cleeves, is a veteran of the semiconductor industry; for him, designing engines and tinkering with cars was always an avocation, not a profession. He’s pretty convinced that Detroit will never listen to his ideas—so Pinnacle is looking farther east for its first commercialization opportunities. Much farther east. To India, in fact.

“This ought to be music to Detroit’s ears, but to them I’m just some whacko in California,” says Cleeves. “This is Silicon Valley, and what does Silicon Valley know about making engines? Folks in Asia have almost zero ‘not-invented-here’ issues, whereas it’s pretty prevalent all over the U.S.”

Pinnacle won its first funding in 2007 and has been testing prototype engines based on its patented “Cleeves Cycle” since the spring of 2009. This year, Pinnacle struck a joint development agreement with an Indian scooter manufacturer—it can’t yet reveal which one—that could see the technology move to the test track by next year and into commercial production by 2013.

But to buy a Pinnacle-powered scooter, you’ll have to go to Mumbai or Bangalore. With gas prices here stable at around $3.50 per gallon, “I don’t know what it’s going to take to get somebody in the U.S. excited” about fundamental improvements to the venerable internal combustion engine, Cleeves says. “But most of Asia is sensitive enough about fuel economy that they get it.” For many families in India, a two-wheeler is the main mode of transportation, and a scooter engine that consumes 25 to 50 percent less fuel, as Pinnacle promises, could be a big boon for the household budget.

Cleeves says his engine can also be scaled up for larger vehicles, and can easily be modified to run on diesel, ethanol, or even compressed natural gas, which means it could also turn up in light commercial vehicles or even cars in India or China. But the startup, which has raised $13.5 million from venture giant New Enterprise Associates (NEA) as well as Bessemer Venture Partners and Infield Capital, doesn’t see its engine as a cure for petroleum addiction. Instead, Cleeves describes it as a bridge technology, incrementally improving the efficiency and lowering the emissions of internal combustion engines as a warming world weans itself from carbon-spewing technologies.

“It’s going to take a long while for Detroit to adopt new technologies,” says Pinnacle CEO Ron Hoge, a veteran of diesel engine maker Cummins. “They may surprise us—it may happen faster than we think. But it’s not even important to us on a business level, because the opportunities we are uncovering in Asia are going to be massive and much more accelerated and have a bigger impact on world consumption of petroleum.”

The basic concept of an opposed-piston engine is so simple that it’s remarkable how long automakers have been ignoring it. In a traditional engine, each piston sits in its own cylinder, and combustion occurs inside the cylinder head, where intake and exhaust valves regulate the inflow of air and vaporized fuel and the outflow of exhaust. In an opposed-piston engine, there’s no cylinder head: two pistons move toward and away from one another inside the same cylinder, with … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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