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2012 SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) World Congress in Detroit

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Slowly Shrinking But Still Full of Surprises

By Steve Purdy
Photos By Bob Benko
Michigan Bureau

There once was a time when the main hall of Cobo Center in downtown Detroit was filled with exhibitors vying for the attention of automakers and engineers touting everything from bearing balls to engines - every conceivable piece it takes to build a car, truck, boat or plane. Many years of a rapidly restructuring industry has resulted in a much smaller show, but we still find plenty of surprises to grab our attention.

Now, as regular readers will know, I’m not much of a technology guy and I write mostly about cars, the people and places, but I love to come to the SAE show to discover tidbits of knowledge that shed light on how cars are developed, how they are made and what’s coming next. So, here are a few highlights:

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How often do we find an entirely new type of engine? I found one here - the Doyle Rotary Engine. I think we would more accurately call it a radial engine since the two banks of six cylinders, displacing a total of 4.2-liters, each rotate around a central, shared combustion chamber. One bank of cylinders provides intake and compression. The other bank is for power and exhaust. We’ve never seen a radial engine with an even number of cylinders, nor anything of this odd configuration. Developer, Lonny Doyle, has been working on this by himself for over 20 years, and it’s a long way from practicality, but he’s here showing it off at SAE.

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Over at the TARDEC booth we found their just-completed Army fuel efficient concept vehicle called FED for Fuel Efficient ground vehicle Demonstrator, is an attempt to show what can be done to drastically increase fuel economy for a vehicle that can do the job of the venerable HUMVEE. TARDEC (the Army’s Tank Automotive Development and Engineering Center) located in Warren, MI is the facility that does just about all the military’s vehicular R&D. This concept vehicle, partially designed byt students at the Center for Creative Studies gets an amazing 9.5-mpg (a 90% increase over the 4.5-mpg of the HUMVEE) with it hybrid powertrain, low rolling resistance tires, regenerative braking and every other innovation they could think of. This one is not destined for production. It’s just a concept to show off the possibilities. They’ve promised me some seat time as soon as we can arrange it, so look for a feature on this one.

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Another surprise was the concept car from Tata Engineering. You may recognize that name as the maker of the cheapest (they would say least expensive) car in the world the Tata Nano, little Indian put-put car. Well, the Nano is made by an entirely separate company, Tata Automotive. This fully electric Tata Emo (Electric Mobility study) with 100 mile range features a raft of innovative design details focused on reducing cost and complexity while still being a comfortable, practical conveyance for four. I was most taken by the vertical, one-piece, polycarbonate rear window with lights integrated therein. Think of all the parts that would save. They say this electric car would cost just 20 grand.

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Nearby on the FEV stand we were stuck by the big marine engine on display. Somehow they packed a 557-horsepower V8 engine into a vertical configuration encased in a shroud that looked like the packaging of an marine engine half its size. The challenge, they said, was in engineering the vertical output for a horizontal engine.

A big part of the SAE World Congress is the presentation of hundreds of technical papers, sort of like an academic having to be published to gain prestige. To show how cerebral these guys are here is the title of one of the technical papers that won an Award of Merit: “Applying Detailed Kinetics to Realistic Engine Simulation, the Surrogate Blend Optimizer and Mechanism Reduction Strategies.” If you understand what that means then I guess you’re one of them.

We also heard from top executives of EV programs at Ford, GM, Chrysler and Honda echo The Auto Channel opinion that EV's will not now and may never have a meaningful impact on America's NEED to replace gasoline with a sustainable and domestic fuel. The title of that session was "Kissing frogs while seeking petrol alternatives"

We always love to browse the SAE show in spite of its ever-shrinking size, always finding fascinating tidbits to write about.

And, watch for our story on the big TARDEC concept vehicle.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Producitons, All Rights Reserved