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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Hitting the Road: The 3 Men Behind Combustion Engines

Wikimedia Commons
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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Amazon Will Now Deliver Packages to Your Car Trunk
Amazon
Amazon

Delivery drivers call them “porch pirates.” It’s a derisive term for people who take advantage of the fact that many residents aren’t home during the day and swipe packages from doorsteps. Bad weather, nosy neighbors, or general privacy concerns may be other reasons you’re not comfortable leaving shipments unattended. Now, Amazon has a solution: Today, the company is introducing Amazon Key In-Car Delivery, a new method for dropping off packages that virtually guarantees they’ll be in one piece when you get home.

When shoppers opt for Amazon Key at checkout and own a vehicle that supports app-based unlocking, the delivery driver will be able to pop open your trunk and deposit your items inside. Essentially, your car doubles as a storage locker.

Your car may be sitting in your office parking lot during the day, but that’s no problem. Drivers will be able to pull up to your car there and make the same drop-off. When you’re done with work for the day, your packages will be waiting. Your car can be parked anywhere within a two-block radius of the delivery address and still be eligible for the service.

But how would a driver find it? The In-Car Delivery program requires a few things in order to work. For one, you need Amazon’s Key app; you also need to give the company permission to lock and unlock your vehicle. Your car must support app-based access, like 2015 or newer GM cars with OnStar subscriptions or recent-model Volvos with a Volvo On Call account. These vehicles have partnership agreements with Amazon that make them compatible with the Key software, as well as GPS functioning that allows drivers to find them when parked offsite. You’ll also need to be in one of 37 markets where Amazon dispatches their own delivery staff.

If this delivery approach is embraced, it’s likely that other carmakers will help Amazon widen their distribution platform. Amazon Key also offers in-home delivery service in select cities, which allows drivers entry into your home to leave packages inside.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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iPhone’s ‘Do Not Disturb’ Feature Is Actually Reducing Distracted Driving (a Little)
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iStock

While it’s oh-so-tempting to quickly check a text or look at Google Maps while driving, heeding the siren call of the smartphone is one of the most dangerous things you can do behind the wheel. Distracted driving led to almost 3500 deaths in the U.S. in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and even more non-fatal accidents. In the summer of 2017, Apple took steps to combat the rampant problem by including a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” setting as part of its iOS 11 upgrade. And the data shows that it’s working, as Business Insider and 9to5Mac report.

The Do Not Disturb While Driving feature allows your iPhone to sense when you’re in a moving car, and mutes all incoming calls, texts, and other notifications to keep you from being distracted by your phone. A recent survey from the insurance comparison website EverQuote found that the setting works as intended; people who kept the setting enabled did, in fact, use their phones less.

The study analyzed driver behavior recorded by EverDrive, EverQuote’s app designed to help users track and improve their safety while driving. The report found that 70 percent of EverDrive users kept the Do Not Disturb setting on rather than disabling it. Those drivers who kept the setting enabled used their phone 8 percent less.

The survey examined the behavior of 500,000 EverDrive users between September 19, 2017—just after Apple debuted the feature to the public—and October 25, 2017. The sample size is arguably small, and the study could have benefited from a much longer period of analysis. Even if people are looking at their phones just a little less in the car, though, that’s a win. Looking away from the road for just a split second to glance at an incoming notification can have pretty dire consequences if you’re cruising along at 65 mph.

When safety is baked into the design of technology, people are more likely to follow the rules. Plenty of people might not care enough to enable the Do Not Disturb feature themselves, but if it’s automatically enabled, plenty of people won’t go through the work to opt out.

[h/t 9to5Mac]

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