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Valeo tests camless system for gas engines; supplier hopes to produce fuel-saving technology by '08

RICHARD TRUETT | Automotive News
Posted Date: 10/14/05
Valeo SA engineers say they are close to perfecting camless technology for traditional gasoline engines.

A camless gasoline engine would reduce fuel consumption drastically -- 20 percent, according to Valeo -- challenging hybrids and diesels in the race to improve fuel economy.

Tough technical challenges have kept camless technology off the market. Engineers have grappled with a variety of issues, such as precisely opening and closing the valves electronically, packaging the system to fit inside the engine and developing the software to operate the valves. Cost also has been an issue.

Valeo CEO Thierry Morin says his company has two development contracts for the system.

"As far as we are concerned, we are between 14 and 16 months from market. So you see that we are there," Morin said in a recent interview. He said he expects to have the system in production in North America and Europe as early as 2008.

Valeo engineers have built and are testing two Peugeot 407s with the system. Morin says both cars have worked well in different weather extremes and under strenuous testing.

How it works

In all automobile engines, the crankshaft is connected to the camshaft with a belt, chain or gears. As the crankshaft spins, it turns the camshaft, which in turn opens the intake and exhaust valves in sequence. Much of the energy produced by the engine is lost because the crankshaft has to spin the camshaft.

In a camless engine, the valves are opened and closed electronically.

The advantages are numerous:

  • Internal friction is reduced greatly because there are fewer moving parts. At low speeds, about 25 percent of an engine's friction is caused by the valvetrain.

  • Horsepower, torque and fuel economy are improved because the crankshaft's power is driving only the wheels.

  • Emissions are reduced because the computer-controlled valve timing is infinitely variable. Each valve in each cylinder can be opened and closed independently, something not possible with a traditional engine.
Valeo's system uses electromagnetic actuators to open and close the valves. The actuators are placed on top of each valve under the valve cover.

Valeo, of Paris, specializes in transmissions, motors, actuators, switches and electronics. The company would not say who its customers are, but it's likely PSA/Peugeot-Citroen SA would be a customer. Valeo already supplies a mild hybrid for a Citroen model.

Valeo ranks No. 13 on the Automotive News list of top 100 global suppliers with worldwide original-equipment automotive parts sales of $9.9 billion in 2004.

The Holy Grail

Camless engine technology long has been a holy grail of engineers from automakers and suppliers. BMW AG, for instance, has spent millions trying to perfect a camless system. But no one has developed a camless engine system that delivers the reliability of the camshaft for anywhere near the same price.

But Morin says the reliability and cost are no longer the biggest obstacles. "With a camless system there is a strong need for the automaker to change the architecture of its engine. And this is what is time-consuming. It will have to start initially on low-volume engines," Morin says.

Peter Brown, vice president of powertrain engineering and design for Ricardo Inc. of Detroit, says his company also is working on a camless engine system. He says a 20 percent reduction in fuel usage is more than Ricardo engineers would expect a camless system to deliver.

Brown says perfecting a camless engine is one of his company's most important projects. With fuel prices hovering at $3 per gallon, there is a renewed emphasis on developing such a system, he says.

Engine improvements rarely yield more than a few percentage points of fuel economy gains. To get 20 percent with just one system would be a colossal jump.

"It comes to down to complexity and cost," Brown says. "Technically there is enough knowledge. People have experimented with all sorts of techniques."

Brown also warns of the dangers of camless engines. A computer glitch or electrical problem, for instance, might cause a vehicle to fail to meet emissions standards. Or worse, if the valves opened at the wrong time, the pistons might hit them, destroying the engine.
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