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

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larger partnerships and perhaps strategic fundraising opportunities. “I am confident that when we have that happening, there are manufacturers that will be able to look at our designs and take us seriously,” says Hoge.

But right now, all Pinnacle has is a working model, which it’s been testing for months on dynamometers (devices for measuring torque or power) in Berkeley and in its own just-completed test cell in San Carlos. The prototype—complete with colorful plastic knobs and Plexiglas windows so that testers can view the camshafts—is clearly just that.

Given time, elbow grease, and thousands more hours of testing in the lab and on the track, Pinnacle could have something big, as Hoge predicts. But when you talk to people from the big automakers, the skepticism you hear toward new engine architectures is striking—and you begin to understand Cleeves’ decision to detour around Detroit. Even some of the most forward-thinking engineers at these companies doubt that Pinnacle, Ecomotors, or Achates can come up with something better enough that it would be worth retooling engine factories.

“There are 50 opposed piston engine companies out there, and they all haven’t gotten to the point where they’ve figured out what their Achilles’ heel is,” says Byron Shaw, general manager at GM’s Advanced Technology division in Palo Alto. Shaw’s job, as I explained in a September profile, is to interface with the Silicon Valley software community to make sure GM has access to the latest technologies for in-car information and entertainment systems. But Shaw says he’s an engine guy at heart, and that he’s seen it all in his time.

“It’s unlikely that [the engine startups] have discovered something that isn’t known,” he continues. “Let’s say they really improve the ability to run air flow ratios super lean, but then they haven’t solved the NOx problem [nitrogen oxides, a by-product of combustion and the source of smog and acid rain]. There is always a ‘but,’ and most of these companies haven’t gotten to the ‘but’ yet. In India and China they don’t have any idea what the ‘but’ is. They are a pure growth trajectory. But as those markets mature, so will their expectations.”

As if to illustrate Cleeves’ point, Shaw tells a story from his days as a young, just-out-of-college engineer at GM in 1988. “I came up with this change to an internal part of the air conditioning compressor,” he says. It was part of a project to switch over to a new, environmentally safer coolant. “It passed every test. I was rocking and rolling. I was going to change the world. My boss said, ‘Okay, why don’t you get on the plane and go down to the plant and tell them all about it.’ So I go down there and I start to give my spiel. And the plant manager says, ‘Let me give you a tour of the factory.’

“He shows me where the blank aluminum comes in and where it’s machined and processed. And then he takes me down this line of machines. There are 320 steps and each machine does one step and it’s really fast and precise. And at the end of the line this part rolls off. And he says ‘The part you want to change is machined on step number two. And on every machine after step number two, that’s where they grab the part and hold it to do all the subsequent machine steps. So we’d have to retool 320 machines. Is your change that good? How much more are people willing to pay for their cars based on the improved performance from your little part change, versus what it’s going to cost the company?’ That was a really interesting lesson for me.”

In a world where big innovation costs big money, in other words, all the incentives are geared toward encouraging smaller, less costly changes. That’s exactly the problem Hoge says he wanted to help solve when he decided to … Next Page »

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

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