On Oct. 4, "Frontline" on PBS broadcast a truly amazing report. An airplane was built faithfully to drawings that Leonardo da Vinci made about the time Columbus discovered America. This ancient-technology glider was launched from a hilltop into the wind, and its pilot flew like no human had flown before the Wright brothers flew in 1904.
Why was da Vinci's airplane not built until now? How is that relevant to cars? Let me explain.
Why, after more than 100 years of gasoline engines, is typical (excluding hybrids) tank-to-wheel efficiency (the amount of energy in the gasoline in the tank that actually gets to the wheels to make the car go down the road) only about 16 percent, when the theoretical limit is more than
Years ago, car companies increased sales by making the existing fleet obsolete. Why not now? How better to make older cars obsolete than by offering big mpg increases?
Tens of thousands of patents preserve ideas from more than a century of efforts to improve fuel economy. Is that a gold mine waiting to be mined? Perhaps, like the da Vinci airplane, the patents may never be researched. The nature of things seems to be for ideas either to be developed when they are new or to be forgotten and never revisited unless they are reinvented.
Will history repeat? Many years from now, will someone invent a way to make gasoline-powered cars get more than 100 mpg? Will the "Frontline" of the day report on an engine built faithfully to a design by an automotive pioneer of the late 1800s or early 1900s that approaches the theoretical maximum efficiency?