As we know, in the present day, we are all talking about the digitalization of everything and, if we think for a minute, there is hardly anything around us that has still not undergone the process of digitizing.
This fact, on the other hand, is absolutely valid for automobiles as well – nowadays, most of the parts and subsystems in cars are digital and communicate between each other, making our life easier and, most important of all, safer. Digitalization has already engulfed one specific and, actually, pretty important part of automobiles as well – the internal combustion engine – the heart of cars and everything that moves.
All modules of the internal combustion engine (also commonly abbreviated as ICE) have been transformed so that computers can monitor and control them via sensors – this includes the process of movement of the pistons and rods (the exact location of each of them is known every (mili-) second, as well as some of the cylinders can be switched off in order to save fuel), the process of fuel injection (fuel quantity and pressure are precisely calculated), the process of combustion and so on.
However, there is one module of the ICE which has so far not been digitized and is still analog (without any exclusion) – this is the air intake system.
It is represented by the air intake valves in the engine’s cylinder head – they are all lined up on one or two of the so-called camshafts which, on the other hand, are mechanically rotated by a belt connected to the engine’s crankshaft.
In other words, the rotational movement of the crankshaft (which is also controlled by numerous digital sensors and actuators) is mechanically transferred to the air intake’s camshaft(s) which open or close the air valves.
So, why is this mechanism still not digitized and why big car manufacturers don’t at least try to do it for mass-produced cars?
There is actually a company called Comcon Auto Ltd. who has created the first computer-operated system for air intake valve control called IVA (i.e. Intelligent Valve Actuation). Essentially, what the system does is it gets the engine rid of the camshaft(s) and the belt which connects them to the crankshaft and provides a single electric control unit for each of the air valves. The control unit itself consists of an electronic module and an electric motor which does the actual valve opening or closing. A computer sends precise commands to each valve’s electronic control module and decides what each valve can do at any particular time frame.
So, without such a system, a full valve lift (opening) can be achieved via a full 360-degree rotation of the camshaft to which the valve is attached, while via the electronic valve control system any intermediate percent of valve lift can be achieved in a matter of milliseconds. In other words, the system provides precise separate control for each air valve without any dependency to the other valves and each movement action can be performed in a fraction of a second – all of this without taking care of the engine’s combustion, piston/rod and crankshaft movement. How cool is that?
What this system can give the world of automobiles are engines that run on petrol but have an economy and efficiency level better than those a diesel engine can provide. The reason why big car manufacturers have not done it so far? Well, the system is still very complicated, needs refinement and will, of course, increase the prices of cars in general (not dramatically, but palpably).
It is expected that the IVA concept, also referred to as “Breathe-by-Wire”, will quickly gain success in the field of automobiles, since it can easily be adapted and fitted to any conventional petrol engine in the world, thus eliminating the distance between the petrol and the diesel engine. The positive impact of all of this will be that, besides high performance and low fuel cost, the system will reduce the environmental impact of petrol (respectively diesel) engines in general.
So, I believe that soon the only analog part of the internal combustion engine will be digitized and I hope this will happen before the ICE is retired because of the quickly developing electric engines and lithium batteries.