I am both impressed by and grateful to the individual inventor. The would-be Thomas Edison toils away in lab or garage, working against the odds sometimes for money, but more often for glory and to make the world a better place. Inventors' interests mirror the concerns of their times: in the Dark Ages the inventor was often an alchemist, seeking to turn lead into gold; in the frenzy of the Industrial Revolution the race was on for ever-more-exotic labor-saving devices, from the sewing machine to the self-propelled harvester combine. Since the rise of the automobile, therefore, it is not surprising that inventors turn their attention to cars, specifically to the improved power plant. And indeed, AXP hopes to encourage more and more of these thinkers and tinkerers to come forward and test their concepts on the road with us.
However, there has always been a dark side to the automotive invention tradition, that of the more paranoid or isolated tinkerer, who is absolutely convinced, much like his (for they are mostly men) forebear the alchemist, that there is a Secret Formula out there which can overthrow the laws of nature and unleash a miraculously efficient new engine concept. Most often there is an accompanying view that some evil force, most often referred to as "they," is already aware of the Formula, and has acted to suppress it. (And sometimes this is true!) Thus the inventor becomes a crusader as well.
I am in no way poking fun at these engineers and theoreticians: without them we'd probably still be painting on cave walls. And a misguided initial idea can lead to great things... there is a more than some serendipity and even a little alchemy in the history of inventions such as nylon, penicillin, and even aluminum. On the other hand, their rate of success is disappointingly low: even in mainstream automotive powertrain development we can point to struggling concepts, such as the Wankel and the Orbital two-stroke, neither of which has lived up to expectations (yet).
Our readers may be unaware that the American government, specifically the EPA, dutifully attempts to test and evaluate the more promising of the MPG-enhancing concepts, although to date the success rate has been pretty close to zero. For those interested, this page covers dozens of such EPA investigations over the years. I was stunned to see all this: the breadth and depth of the ideas are staggering. If AXP can harness even 10% of this energy, maybe brought to a higher level of technical sophistication, we should have no problem delivering to the American public a new range of green vehicle choices.