Fred Starr recollects... end of the road

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2017

When I began driving, it needed a long downhill stretch of the M1 to hit 70 mph. A couple of years later, 70 was officially imposed, but until the coming of the speed camera it was a limit more honoured in the breach than the observance. Choice of 70 was not arbitrary. It took account of 1960s-type reaction times and braking distances, set at suboptimal but sensible levels.  

The real risk in reaching for 70 was the engine. In those far off days, when the UK Government freely bestowed on students the lifestyle we deserved, three of us at Battersea College – Ken Goodwin, Lynn Jones and myself – had to get under the bonnet after putting ‘the pedal to the metal’. The radiator in Ken’s Hillman Huskey boiled over. Lynn soon found out the piston rings had broken in his motor – fumes from burning oil enveloped him. After my attempt on the M1, the inlet valves of my Ford Anglia burnt through.  

By 1980, even the average vehicle could cruise at 70 without fail. In his book The Component Contribution, Alan Baker showed how this was done. Advances in design, materials, testing and fabrication were giving great performance. Given the increase in traffic, maximum speeds were unusable – even on the German autobahns, where the only limit was that discovered by Albert Einstein. 

Nevertheless, it is performance and speed that sell, not reliability – something I did not really understand until my latter days at British Gas. We were working on steels heavily alloyed with aluminium. A possible application was a lightweight poppet valve. R&D had come up with a combined heat and power package based on gas fuelled car engines. Electrical efficiency was, however, just a bit too low. A lighter valve would help – it requires a surprising amount of power to drive a valve up and down 5,000 times a minute. Another issue was valve wear. Like unleaded petrol, natural gas does not lubricate. New materials might give a different tribology. 

The real challenge would come in getting the modified engines built. In my innocence, I suggested that car manufacturers would really go for a more efficient engine, giving better mileage. No way, I was told, but your valve will let engines run faster, producing more power. That will get manufacturers hooked.

30 years later, the even lighter titanium is the up-and-coming poppet valve alloy. But automotive technology is moving in unexpected directions, which was the thinking behind three recent meetings organised by the Advanced Propulsion Centre at the Royal Institution, UK. The first was on the internal combustion engine of the future, which will be running on hydrogen. Here, although metallurgists might lick their lips at the ‘challenge’ (or R&D funding) of hydrogen storage, I remain dubious. 

Second in the set was on electric vehicles, and the third meeting was on the digitisation of transport. Delegates were wafted upwards on a euphoria of superb in-car entertainment, infallible communications and driverless vehicles. One speaker advocated a utopia where it would be senseless to own a vehicle. A quick press on the iPad would bring a driverless taxi to the front door. Gone would be the hassle of ownership, looking for parking places, or having to ration the consumption of what my boss used to call ‘refreshments’. She sat down to wide applause. 

I had to stick in my oar. If, I asked, we didn’t need to buy a car, which tells the world so much about our status, where was the incentive for manufacturers to be continually investing in better performance, looks and road holding? Would not wireless technology make it impossible to break speed limits? Wouldn’t this nirvana of the digital economy be the end of the road for automobile engineering and its R&D? There was a sharp intake of breath on the platform and among the audience. Some made lame suggestions that there would still be a market for the super-sports car, to be let loose across parts of the country on ‘Grand Prix’ weekends. But another speaker, a proponent of virtual reality, suggested sardonically that his company could give petrol heads an even more excitingly realistic and safer event. I left the Royal Institution no longer feeling uplifted. As one of my own recollections reminded me, every technological advance has unexpected consequences.