Are we on the cusp of something great? Or are we on the cusp of something awful? What about the great? Fuel cells, bi-fuelling, selectable CVT & Torotrak transmissions, drive-by-wire, telemetry and many more great new technologies. But what would be so awful? Driving a Premier Volvo and a 'blue oval' Ford - both with the same engines? Enjoying the delights of a Formula 1 inspired Honda passing a General Motors car with the same engine? Governments actively seeking to keep taxes on fuel as high as possible and controlling the penetration of cleaner alternatives?

Is it a good thing that future small Opel cars will be fitted with Fiat diesel engines, or that future Fiats (or heaven forbid Alfa Romeos) will be fitted with GM gasoline engines? Undeniably it makes good sense for the manufacturer, slashing costs and spreading investments.

What are the main themes leading us forward?

Modularisation

Platform and component sharing are certainly well-documented - but what of engine sharing? Are we heading so far down the sharing road that the heart and soul of a car is also faced with becoming another mere commodity to be shared by everyone? Pity the brand manager who has to work around that one.

In the 18 months to the end of 2001, in Europe alone, 22 engine families will disappear from the showroom line-up; from the venerable A-Series Mini engine, on the go since the sixties, to BMW's M42+ series of in-line four cylinder engines. Conversely from 2001 through to 2005, only 14 new engine families will be launched throughout Europe.

Technology and modern manufacturing techniques already allow manufacturers like Ford to stretch a small V6 family to be utilised in the Mondeo, through Jaguar right up to a V12 configuration in an Aston Martin and soon Land Rover. Where only a few years ago there was one engine plant in Europe producing over a million engines per year, by 2005 a total of seven plants will be producing that many. Engine families of the future, already on the drawing board, will range from the smallest I3 and I4 configurations through to V6 and V8 engines, even W16! Commonality will spread throughout the engine ranges, from the architecture of similar bore diameter and bore centres for production line commonality to the ancillaries which will be housed in front-engine modules not hung off the block in various configurations.

As engine plants fall in or out of the OEM's future plans then we will see the kind of rationalisation that continues apace in the vehicle plants. Engine production for Volkswagen Group's Audi has largely been transferred from Germany to a new plant, Gyor in Hungary; Skoda will contribute further to the drift east with its new engine plant. Ford's Dagenham diesel engine plant will lower production as Ford install more and more PSA diesel engines. Longbridge faces uncertainty as a new BMW engine plant nears completion just around the corner. Fiat's Mirafiori and Arese plants continue to drop production as Pratola Sera continues to increase output and Fiat opens a new plant in Poland.

Only four years ago demand for engines in both Western and Central Europe was 91% satisfied by engine plants within Western Europe. By 2005 that demand will have dropped to below 80% as plants such as Bielsko Biala, Polkowice, Mlada Boleslav, Gyor and Szentgotthard continue to increase their output at the expense of their Western relatives.

Technologies: Direct Injection

We've seen the forecasts and we have heard the speeches but where are the results? All manufacturers are running gasoline direct injection engines - but only a handful have been released onto the market place and only in low volumes. If launches in Europe go as planned to the end of the year, then Europe will be pushing only 1.5% penetration of DI gasoline engine production, and launches don't seem to be going as planned lately.

The refineries have only recently announced their plans to lower the sulphur content in gasoline and already findings are suggesting that legislation is not and will not lower the sulphur content fast enough. The oldest vehicles on European roads with DI gasoline systems are now approaching 40-50,000 miles of day-to-day usage and things are not looking good. Some of the engines are literally starting to suffocate themselves with internal particle build up and hence are requiring major servicing. All OEM's are looking at the situation with concern. Comments from some of the leading European auto-makers about 70% plus fleet penetration within a handful of years seem hugely optimistic in light of this.

We have the technology, we have the infrastructure, but we do not have the 'right' fuel.

Technologies: Alternative fuels

Fears over the cost of fuel have been growing for the last 12 months, in both Europe and North America. Recent demonstrations in the UK threatened to bring the country to a standstill and widespread unrest continues across mainland Europe. In North America the cost to the consumer of a gallon of petrol rises through the $1.5/gallon barrier and in Great Britain through $6/gallon.

With the consumer loath to turn away from gasoline, and diesel in Europe, a 'soft' approach is required by the OEM's to propose anything different. Electric vehicles have come and gone with little success in the consumer's eyes. Fuel-cell vehicles are presented as the next 'major' alternative for wholesale dumping of the Otto engine, but this is a few years away from commercial realisation.

What the consumer needs is an alternative that provides immediate advantages over costly gasoline yet maintains the familiarity of the Otto engine. It is available. Compressed Natural Gas and Liquefied Petroleum Gas currently sell for half the cost of gasoline (in the UK around $3) with only minimum (if any) drop-off in engine performance against the gasoline RON rating. CNG/LPG have been around for some years as alternatives for 'bi-fuelling' the Otto engine. They have however been confined to after-market conversions for specialist fleets and only recently have started to enter the realms of the Original Equipment Market. (Over 1 million conversions have been made in Italy alone on the after-market.)

In 1999, less than 10,000 factory vehicles were equipped with bi-fuel engines. Presently, only a handful of models in Europe are available with bi-fuelling - mostly restricted to estate cars, which are the easiest in which to house the additional fuel tank without severely restricting luggage capacity. Typically, production has been less than 1% of overall model output at best but in 1999 something has contributed to change all that. The Fiat Multipla was produced with a 7% penetration of bi-fuel engines with nearly 3,000 units fitted. As we move through 2000, the penetration of the Multipla bi-fuel has risen to a staggering 21%.

We are slowly seeing the move into more mainstream vehicles and indeed into the Light Commercial Vehicle market. Major growth will come from the LCV fleets - vans are easier to bring to market and the fleet buyer is more interested in overall operating costs. In contrast, the private buyer has historically needed to be swayed into a new train of thought or technology but may now be ready to accept a bi-fuel car offering a 66% reduction in fuel costs.

The OEM's are realising that the consumer is awakening to alternative ideas and the fact that motoring may not need to be as expensive as it is currently. Interest is growing in offering these alternatives as original equipment, albeit in relatively low numbers.

Some governments have actively re-balanced the fuel duty in favour of these alternatives, helping to kick-start the market. Other governments with more experience of bi-fuelling have actively encouraged the increase in fuel duty on alternative fuels to ensure their revenue does not take a catastrophic nosedive.

So who exactly is in control of the future of bi-fuelling? The manufacturer? The consumer? Or the government?

The way forward with technology is exciting and never-ending. But these technologies may be used to mask the underlying modular trend within the supply of the engine: Take a basic engine and try as many different technologies to distance it from its origins. Direct Injection, turbo-charging, supercharging and differing head configurations.

Is it so different an approach than the ubiquitous PQ34 platform? Dial in driveability for the Volkswagens, torque and turbo-charging for Audi, high-pressure turbocharging for Seat, and simplicity for the Skoda.

Put a Jaguar diesel engine in a Citroen! As consumers should we not be bothered by the future of cross-fertilisation of engines? Take MG Rover, they do not even own an engine plant. Then there will be Mitsubishi engines in Mercedes Benz - albeit small ones. Does an Audi TT driver care that the Skoda Octavia has his engine?

Lear, Magna, Delphi, Visteon all huge global Tier 0.5 suppliers. Which component manufacturer will be the first to supply an engine? Probably not one of those listed but the day may not be as far off as you think. It is already apparent that cross fertilisation of engines has an appeal to the OEM. It will not take much to develop along the lines already witnessed in other areas of component supply, namely whole modular outsourcing to component manufacturers capable of research and design through to manufacturing.

If an OEM is happy to have a whole interior delivered and fitted as one, then why not the engines brought in too? Indeed the component supplier will be providing similar engines to different OEM's. He will be designing, manufacturing and supplying the complete component. Maybe Lotus will be the Delphi of the future?

Maybe we are on the cusp of something very big…


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