In 2000, an automobile spokesman told Business Week that Al Gore’s concern over the internal combustion engine was “weird.” Times and attitudes have sure changed. The past two years have been an exciting time for the automotive industry—we’re not saying it was a good time, mind you—but interest in electric vehicles (EVs) has spiked the past couple years, with all sorts of start-ups and large firms like Nissan joining the frenzy.
So this should be a report about another EV firm receiving venture capital funding, right? Well, actually, a company that designs those internal combustion engines is receiving funding from a leading Silicon Valley green tech VC firm, as well as a check from Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Gates and Khosla Ventures are placing their bets on EcoMotors, a Michigan-based firm that designs more efficient automobile engines.
EcoMotors’ goal is to demonstrate that a 5-passenger car can gain up to 100 miles per gallon on the highway with its technology. How? EcoMotors’ engines operate on a 2-cycle principle, generating one power stroke per crank revolution in each cylinder. Two opposing cylinders are in each module with a crankshaft between them, and each cylinder has two pistons moving in opposite directions. Conventional automobile engines, on the other hand, are designed with cylinder-head and valve-train components that operate uniformly in the same direction, and in turn are less efficient. The result is an engine that is lighter, more effective and economical, and releases fewer emissions than engines featuring conventional designs. This Opposed Piston Opposed Cylinder (OPOC) engine, according to EcoMotors, can be used wherever traditional gas engines are the norm, and run on biofuels.
The company has an impressive background. Its CEO, Don Runkle, was General Motors’ leader of its EV1 project in the mid-1990s, and EcoMotors’ Chief Technical Officer Peter Hofbauer designed Volkwagon’s clean diesel engine.
Some may roll their eyes at this announcement, as it seems that a higher MPG engine has been technically feasible for a generation. Others feel that the focus should be on hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric technology. But battery powered cars have their issues, too, especially those rare metals such as neodymium, which require a lot of energy and water for its extraction—and are only abundant in areas that are remote and have little rainfall.
But another reality is that EV’s are still several years away from scale, and a mass introduction of fuel-efficient engines could only help with energy efficiency and independence in the long run. Mr. Gates and Khosla appear to understand this dynamic, and so EcoMotors gets a boost in an era where VC money is hard to come by.