During the dotcom boom, Bill Gates made a speech where he explained how if the auto industry had kept up with the computer industry we would be driving $25 cars which get 1,000 miles to each gallon. GM was said to have responded with a press release which among other things said if Microsoft designed cars they would crash twice a day and occasionally, for no reason, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed the radio antenna. The complete list is here and sadly the GM press release was never released - it is internet folklore.
But Gates it seems really does want to change the way the auto industry works as there was a recent patent filed by Intellectual Ventures which describes an electromagnetic engine with the potential for opposing pistons and the ability to have pistons move without the need for sparks - meaning electrically controlled pistons. A traditional piston compresses a mixture of gas and air and a spark causes an explosion which causes the piston to move and eventually move the wheels.
Oh and by the way, Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology officer runs Intellectual Ventures, which explains the Bill Gates connection.
This patent is interesting because the engine is configurable which means there is potential for software to continuously alter the way it operates. The patent further describes that sparks may not be used at all to get the engine to move and like diesel fuel, compression alone will be enough to generate a reaction which moves the piston(s).
TechFlash seems to have broken this story and mentions in a post that this engine one ups the Wankel, rotary engine and they could be right. The Wankel, currently powering the Mazda RX-8 consists of a triangular piece of metal called a rotor in what is effectively a large pot or keg. Instead of pistons which go up and down, the triangular rotor spins in the same direction. First fuel and air are pumped into a chamber and as the rotor spins the air and fuel are compressed in a smaller chamber. Next a spark ignites the mixtures which continues the process. Wankel engines by the way are not great on gas but they provide a good amount of power for their size and weight. It is this engine by the way which allowed the last generation Mazda RX-7 pictured to be one of the greatest sports cars of all time (extreme personal bias at play - beware :) ).
I haven't read the patent but for those car/tech people out there it will likely be very interesting.
Here is an excerpt:
In some embodiments, engines include permanent magnets or electromagnets. In either case, the engine may include thermal shielding, insulation, or other thermal control apparatus (e.g., a cooling system) that functions to maintain temperatures of selected engine components within a desired range. In particular, a thermal control system may act to maintain a magnetic material below its Curie temperature.
The Figures depict several different configurations of single or dual pistons in cylinders. In some embodiments, an engine may include a plurality of cylinders, which may be of the same or of different types. Pistons in different cylinders may operate independently, or may be operatively coupled (e.g., mechanically coupled as by connection to a common crankshaft). In particular, an engine may include control electronics that select whether to operate a piston, and which piston to operate, in response to a determined actual or predicted operating condition (e.g., incline of the engine or of a vehicle powered by the engine, temperature, current draw, speed, acceleration, braking, load such as gross vehicle weight, fuel composition, engine emissions, power, local rules such as emissions limits, or engine settings). For example, when power draw is relatively heavy, the control electronics may run pistons more frequently or run more cylinders. When power draw is relatively light, the control electronics may run fewer pistons, including not running a piston at all.
In embodiments in which the pistons are not coupled to one another in a configuration that maintains their relative phase (e.g., via connection to a common crankshaft), they may be operated synchronously or asynchronously. As used herein in connection with piston timing, the term "asynchronous" means that the cylinders are operated with at least one stroke having a different duration or velocity profile from cylinder to cylinder, so that a constant phase relationship is not maintained between substantially simultaneous piston cycles. Examples of asynchronous piston operation include operating two pistons at different cycle frequencies or operating one piston while leaving another substantially stationary.
In each of the illustrated embodiments, a converter (which may include coils or another variable reluctance or variable inductance circuit) is connected to an energy management system. The energy management system operates as an energy source and sink, drawing power from the piston during the power stroke and returning power to the piston during other strokes. Power conversion systems that can accept power inputs of variable length or amplitude and convert them to supply a substantially constant voltage are described, for example in U.S. Pat. No. 4,399,499, which is incorporated herein by reference. Such conversion systems may be used to condition power intake from the engine to make it more useful for other purposes, such as for driving a vehicle. The energy management system may also accept power inputs from other sources, for example from regenerative braking systems. The energy management system may store power in an energy storage device such as a battery or a capacitor (including a supercapacitor, ultracapacitor, or hypercapacitor). U.S. Pat. No. 6,590,360, which is incorporated herein by reference, describes a switching circuit designed to transfer energy in both directions between a battery and a motor/generator that may be used for this purpose. In some embodiments, the energy management system may also power auxiliary devices such as water pumps, oil pumps, fuel pumps, fans, or compressors.