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Hitting the Road: The 3 Men Behind Combustion Engines

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Wikimedia Commons

There are three fathers of invention when it comes to nearly every car on the road today: Otto, Diesel, and Atkinson. They all had one thing in common—a drive to improve the efficiency of the engines available in the late 1800s. Each man succeeded, though Atkinson’s success with his engine innovation wouldn’t be put into use for many, many, many years (more than a century, in fact).

1. Nikolaus Otto

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Nearly everyone has heard of a diesel engine, but nearly everyone actually has an Otto-cycle engine. Call it a four-banger, a five-point-oh, a V8, or any other gearhead term—they’re all internal combustion Otto engines.

Otto was a high-school dropout who worked in a grocery store, as an office drone, and as a traveling salesman in Germany in the mid-1800s. Lucky for us, he also had a mechanical bent. At the time, engines used external combustion—the fuel source fired up outside the engine itself. That meant the engines were stationary; they could only power machinery in factories, not fit under a hood and go tootling around the German countryside.

Having been a traveling salesman, Otto wanted a way to travel his route more quickly. So he came up with a way to introduce the gasoline into the cylinder itself, and thus was born the first two-stroke internal combustion engine in 1864. He used this first stroke of genius to found Otto & Cie, now the world’s oldest manufacturer of internal combustion engines (it’s changed names a few times over the years; it’s now Klockner-Humboldt-Deutz). He used his second stroke of genius to hire a couple of young engineering upstarts whose names might sound familiar: Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

The ensuing four-stroke engine was patented in 1877, though the patent was later disputed and revoked. In any case, the “Silent Otto” engine, as it was known, made 3 hp at 180 rpm. Hold onto your bonnet, Mildred! That is not powerful.

2. Rudolf Diesel

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Diesel was born in France in 1858, but he spent much of his young life in Germany, where the engineering field was hotter than bratwurst. He himself became a thermal engineer, and he held several patents related to refrigeration. But it was the other end of the thermal scale that would make Diesel famous.

He saw what Otto was doing and thought he could make the process of burning fuel to create usable power more efficient. His solution was to put air under such high pressure that it got hot. Really hot. Spontaneous-combustion hot. Then, when fuel of any kind was introduced—even peanut oil—it would ignite without needing a spark.

This went over like gangbusters when he filed the patent in 1894. By 1898, Diesel was a millionaire. But in 1913, Diesel’s body was found floating in the North Sea.  He had been on his way to England from Belgium to open a new engine factory and talk to the British Navy about using his engine in their submarines. Conspiracy theories flew: Was he murdered by Big Oil for his engine’s efficiency? Or by Big Coal, whose products powered ships and factories? Or by Germans afraid he was selling out to the Brits? Or did he leap from the deck in a fit of depression, as he was nearly broke at the time?

Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. But in the meantime, we can thank his pioneering use of peanut oil for our ability to dump biodiesel, French fry grease, and any manner of alternative fuels into modern diesel engines without harm.

3. James Atkinson

Let’s clear up a point of inventor-related confusion right now: this is not the same guy who built the mousetrap with the snapping wire. That’s another English inventor named James Atkinson. This is the guy who looked at what Otto and Diesel were doing and thought, “I can make that more efficient.”

Atkinson’s stroke of genius was singular and irregular. Singular because in the engine he created in 1882, all four strokes (intake, compression, ignition, exhaust) were completed in one turn of the crankshaft. Irregular because he figured out how use uneven strokes to shorten the intake stroke—which means less fuel is used—and lengthen the power stroke to maximize the effect of that fuel. It was a very efficient engine, and also very unwieldy, with its complicated linkages. It didn’t catch on at all in the early days of automotive history. Steam engines made more sense to people than this contraption.

But then, at the turn of the next century, gasoline-electric hybrids hit the scene. They had lots of power up front, thanks to their electric motors, but it petered out pretty quickly. Atkinson engines were exactly the opposite: The shorter intake stroke meant less fuel was being used, but it also meant that no matter how long that power stroke was after ignition, it wasn’t going to be as powerful as the one in an Otto engine.

It turned out that Atkinson-cycle engines and electric motors went together like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s cup. They combined to showcase their best sides and accommodate each other’s flaws. Of course, now the uneven strokes are achieved using variable valve timing and other electronic tricks, but the idea is the same as Atkinson’s original, even after a century of languishing, unloved, on the patent office shelves.

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Design
These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
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Courtesy Umbrellium

Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Hoversurf
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Dubai Plans to Outfit Police Force With Hoverbikes
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Hoversurf

Dubai is home to plenty of flashy fashion and architecture, and it has over-the-top police gear to match. The department already is outfitted with some of the fastest cars on the streets, including a Ferrari and a Lamborghini. Now, Autoblog reports that police officers in the United Arab Emirates city are getting hoverbikes to access hard-to-reach places.

The bikes, which were developed by the Russian startup Hoversurf, debuted in early October at the Gulf Information Technology Exposition (GITEX) in Dubai. Like Hoversurf’s Scorpion-3 hoverbike, the police version is battery-powered and uses propellers at each corner to float like a drone. The newly-released model can reach maximum altitudes of 16 feet and move at speeds of up to 43 mph. Though the quadcopter can only carry one passenger at a time, it can withstand weights of up to 660 pounds. A fully charged battery is enough to fuel a 25-minute ride.

The futuristic addition to the force’s fleet of vehicles isn’t designed for chasing bad guys. Rather, the city hopes to use it to reach out-of-the-way spots during emergencies. If there’s a car wreck at the end of a traffic jam, for example, the Scorpion hoverbike could simply fly over the congestion and reach the scene faster than the department could with cars on the ground.

While cities around the world are still figuring out how low-flying drones and vehicles fit into pedestrian areas, Dubai has been quick to embrace the technology. In 2015, the city invested in jetpacks for first responders. While it's still unclear when the gadgets will be used in an official capacity, the CEO of Hoversurf has confirmed that mass production of the bikes is already underway.

[h/t Autoblog]

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