Attendees at the Society of Automotive Engineers recent convention watch a presentation about the Scuderi air-hybrid engine.
Attendees at the Society of Automotive Engineers recent convention watch a presentation about the Scuderi air-hybrid engine.

New engine's a family affair

DETROIT -- In the back aisles of the Society of Automotive Engineers recent convention, past the displays hawking springs and sprockets, one family's dream began to take shape.

Scuderi Group of West Springfield, Mass., didn't have to look far to fill its offices. Salvatore Scuderi, company president, has engineering and law degrees. So does Stephen, his brother, the company's patent attorney. Another brother, Nick, runs marketing; sister Deborah handles accounting. Six of the eight Scuderi siblings made the trip to Detroit's Cobo Center, in service of their late father Carmelo Scuderi's invention.

The results of the years of work on his ideas were shown on screens above the company's stand: a computer image of an odd-looking engine, its pistons moving in an old-timey stutter step, with an air tank on the side.

It's the model for the Scuderi air-hybrid engine, an invention the Scuderis say breaks longstanding barriers to generating more power with less fuel. By their reckoning, a Scuderi engine could power a hybrid vehicle that doubles the fuel economy of a typical vehicle for a fraction of the cost of today's gasoline-electric systems.

''We're basically preserving technology that's been around for a century, but we've tweaked it a bit and made it better," Sal Scuderi said.

They won't have a working prototype until next year, but the Scuderis have:

  • Verified their unique engine ideas with outside experts.

  • Raised $8 million to fund the company.

  • Patented their designs in 45 countries.

    The moves put them several steps ahead of the parade of engine inventors who have made pilgrimages to Detroit over the years to tout engineering breakthroughs.

    Most leave empty-handed, but the Scuderis believe Carmelo Scuderi's ideas are too compelling to ignore.

    ''When our dad did the original design and with every effort we put forward, we go back to thermodynamics. That's everything in an engine," Sal Scuderi said. ''A lot of people we deal with are good at understanding how engines work, but they're not good at how thermodynamics work."

    Over the decades, scores of inventors have tried to make history with new engine designs. Automakers have toyed with gas turbines, rotary engines, and two-stroke engines.

    Modern engines have a 120-year head start. Today's engines have doubled their power in the last 20 years with no reduction in fuel efficiency. And the exhaust from a low-emissions vehicle driven on a typical city freeway is cleaner than the air that goes into it.

    ''They have to make a convincing argument they have the best idea," said Anthony Pratt, director of global powertrain forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates. ''The biggest challenge they're going to have with their engine is that, it seems so easy, I think a lot of people are going to think it's too good to be true."

    Any new player ''has to have all the costs, which are in the hundreds of millions of dollars to do an engine line, already developed to make it worthwhile," said Casey Selecman, an industry analyst with CSM Forecasting.

    The Scuderi design revives an evolutionary dead-end in auto history known as the split-cycle engine. Each piston in a car's engine does four jobs: draw in air, compress it, burn fuel, and push out the exhaust. A split-cycle engine divides those jobs between two pistons, one for pulling in air and compressing it, the other for burning fuel and pushing out exhaust.

    Split-cycle engines were first patented in 1914 but had too many problems to work properly. A similar design did catch on in air compressors, where Carmelo Scuderi made his name over a 50-year career, and where his inventions are still in use today.

    In retirement, Scuderi turned to vehicle engines. He filed his first patent for an engine in July 2001 and commissioned an engineering study in 2002. A month later, he died at age 77.

    ''He was the true genius," Sal Scuderi said. Improving the efficiency was ''the big, big innovation, and, once he did that, all the rest fell into place."