Engineering pays evolutionary price

The romantic view of engineering — if indeed there can be such a thing as a romantic view of engineering — is of the brilliant egghead toiling tirelessly in a lonely laboratory, the singularity of his or her genius conjuring up novel and unique ways to make his or her ever-evolving widget better. And, indeed, at the beginning of any engineering revolution, be it the first metal sword, the first airplane or the cars that are the subject matter of this column, the engineering world is full of ill-conceived contraptions as the adventurous but often misguided struggle to illuminate what is, at the beginning of any development cycle, a very long and dark tunnel.

Of course, if this is a soap opera, the script has to devolve into the romantic notion that (pardon my Ayn Rand) the purity of the singular genius is continually being thwarted by an evil collective. Thus, Charles Nelson Pogue’s infamous 100-miles-per-gallon carburetor was quashed by the might of the oil companies, Ferry Porsche’s iconic 911 has been supplanted by Cayennes and Panameras thanks to a committee of share-price-obsessed bureaucrats, and automobile design has become stodgily homogeneous because the large automakers are all in cahoots.

In reality, the homogeneity that purists so despise in modern automobile design is just the historical cycle of engineering development. At the birth of any technology, there are no rules, no guidelines and few expectations. Since whatever our mad genius is slaving over has not been done before, he or she can’t look back on previous developments, her or his drawing board literally the proverbial clean slate.

Of course, those same scientists, if they are at all competent, quickly dismiss failure. Engineers are nothing but clever backyard inventors who simply keep on trying different widgets until one doesn’t explode. (Thomas Edison is said to have tested thousands of potential fibrils before “cottoning” — almost by mistake — on to the carbonized bamboo filament that became the first successful light bulb.) The more brilliant — and, one presumes, successful — of minds quickly rejects the cockamamie and hones in on the probable. Throw in 100 years of failure, the processing power of supercomputers to weed out the improbable as well as constant refinement and what one gets in the “mature” phase of engineering is a general consensus on what works and what doesn’t. Compare any current technology — be it airplanes, automobiles or even the relatively new world of computers — to the same products in their infancy and you will find an incredible sameness to the modern as countless engineers rejected the mistakes of the past and converged on consensus.

The perfect automotive example of this evolutionary conformity is the recent introduction by BMW and Mercedes-Benz of small turbocharged fours in their entry-level luxury sedans. Once an idea singularly championed by Audi with its 1.8 and 2.0T fours, both BMW (in the X1, 328 and now 528) and Mercedes (C250) have abandoned their classic engine designs — normally aspirated in-line and vee sixes, respectively — for these same small turbocharged 1.8- and 2.0-litre engines.

The reason for this conformity is simple and essentially the same whenever any previously diverse product range becomes homogenized: The criteria set before the engineers became increasingly specific. In the case, for instance, of the 3 Series, C-Class and A4, all faced the same challenge — retain their previous powerful performance while meeting new, very specific fuel economy standards all without complicated and expensive hybrid or diesel technology. The key word in the previous sentence is “specific.” Chances are that, had all the manufacturers simply been challenged to achieve the best possible fuel economy for real-world conditions, their solutions might not have been so uniform. Each might have accessed its customer’s needs differently and come up with a different design.

But the fuel economy criteria that these engines were designed to meet are far more precise. Regulations governing fuel economy, it must be noted, are precisely defined test cycles that favour engines economical under light load conditions (low throttle openings at relatively low speeds), a forte of turbocharged engines. Whether these engines might actually improve real-world fuel economy appears to be incidental — or, at least, a secondary criterion. A cynic might even postulate that, like American high school curriculums, these new designs weren’t actually designed to improve the breed but rather pass some very specific tests.

And I think we can expect many more of these turbocharger-based solutions from our German friends. BMW is already in the process of dumping all its signature high-revving naturally aspirated engines from its M cars in favour of equally powerful but more EPA- and Transport Canada-friendly turbocharged variants. Audi already uses relatively small-displacement supercharged engines for its S-line and Mercedes has already started reducing the displacement of some its AMG models and slapping turbochargers under the hood.

That all three German luxury marques — Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi — have converged on exactly the same solution is simply the result of very specific requirements demanding a very specific solution. French philosopher François de La Rochefoucauld famously proclaimed that hypocrisy was vice’s tribute to virtue. Had Monsieur de la Rochefoucauld been an engineer instead of an autodidact, he might have instead noted that conformity is the price engineering pays for evolution.

Photograph by: Audi, handout