We've been hearing absurd claims from automotive inventors for years — cars that run on water, blinker fluid that won't burn your hands, soups that eat like meals — but the claim of incredible gas mileage from a big engine is one of the most common. Doug Pelmear claims to have a V8 engine that makes 110 MPG. It sounds like bullshit.
Now, let me be clear: I haven't had a chance to test Pelmear's allegedly 400 HP engine, which is currently installed in his 1987 Fox-body Mustang. I've been in contact with Pelmear and his company, HP2g, which markets the technology under the name "Skip Fire," and while I was offered the chance to have one of my cars fitted with the system for $1400, my requests for testing of an existing setup have so far gone unanswered.
Pelmear has been in the spotlight before, for dropping out of the Auto X Prize competition in 2009, showing up that same year at the Detroit Auto Show, and before that to SEMA. Last year he showed up on Motorhead Garage, showing off a diesel big rig with the Skip-Fire system and claiming almost double mileage.
Now, I'm all for garage engineers doing interesting things with their cars. But everything about this enterprise makes my skepticism gland secrete skepticol, like how he has a website that looks like it was designed by the poor crazy bastard in the tinfoil fez who steals wi-fi behind the Coffee Bean, but most of it is just that the physics don't seem to add up.
And the magnets. Of course his engine design includes magnets. The guy who trims trees in my yard sometimes and lives in his van also has a magic perpetual motion engine design that incorporates magnets.
We've been skeptical a long time, but this time I really wanted to know, so I enlisted the help of our resident physicist, Dr. Stephen Granade, to really give the patents and information a looking-over. Here's what he said:
I'm extremely skeptical of Douglas Pelmear's claims for several reasons.
1. Physics. His patent (https://www.google.com/patents/US2010...) describes putting permanent magnets in the piston head and electromagnets in the engine block or around the spark plug. The idea is that, by changing the current running through the electromagnets, you can help push the piston up and down.
Imagine that you've got two bar magnets, with a north and south pole on each. Pick up one of them and point its north pole towards the other magnet's north pole. The other magnet will scoot away from you. Now flip the magnet you're holding so that the south end points at the other magnet's north pole. The other magnet will scurry back towards you.
What Pelmear's describing is doing just that to help the piston move. The idea is that, by using magnetic fields to produce a force, you don't have to just depend on the gasoline's explosion in the engine to move the piston. In theory that lets you get more effective energy out of the gasoline explosion.
One problem, though: where does the energy to run the electromagnets come from? You're switching the current back and forth through them to move the piston, which uses energy. If you're running the electromagnets from the car's alternator, then you're using energy from the gasoline to turn the alternator to run the electromagnets, and that's less energy to turn the car wheels. There's no free lunch here — if you use gas to make electricity to make magnetic fields to push a piston, you're not going to save any energy. In fact, you're going to be worse off than before, because you lose energy with each extra step (from gasoline to turning crankshaft to turning alternator to electricity to magnetic field).
Aha, but what if you're running the electromagnets from a separate battery? You'll save gas, but the electricity in that battery had to come from somewhere. You're not saving energy overall, you're just shifting some of the energy source from gasoline to the battery chemicals or to the coal-fired power plant that produced the electricity that you put in your rechargable battery. It'd be like running a Prius just on its electric motor. You'll get infinite miles to the gallon...until your battery runs out.
This, unfortunately, is how most of these claims end up working. You may save fuel, but you're not saving energy.
2. Secrecy. Pelmear makes really huge claims. Huge claims require huge evidence. To date, he hasn't really provided it. Back in 2008, when he talked to his local news about the car, he wouldn't let them look under the hood (http://www.northwestohio.com/news/news_stor...). He claimed to be part of the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, but his team withdrew (http://green.autoblog.com/2009/06/05/hp2...). He has test data that he's generated himself, but to my knowledge no third party has ever reproduced those results. Their former partner in putting Pelmear's engine in the car said that they never got engine plans from him and never received external validation of the 100 MPG claim (http://www.toledofreepress.com/2010/05/13/hp2...).
3. Hallmarks of a crank. He's paranoid that people are going to steal his ideas. He writes self-aggrandizing press releases and news articles, quoting Mark Twain about how a patriot is "...a scarce man, Brave, Hated, and Scorned." This isn't a disqualifier in and of itself, but when you combine it with the serious physics questions I have about his claims....
Getting high gas mileage is hard. Upping gas mileage requires a lot of tweaks and improvements to cars. The Prius has harder tires than normal because that reduces rolling friction and thus means you don't lose as much energy when the car's moving. The first Insight put covers over the back wheel wells to decrease aerodynamic drag. If you look at the cars entered in the Automotive X PRIZE competition, you can see the kind of hoops you have to jump through to get crazy high gas mileage. I don't know for sure that Pelmear is wrong, but I've got to have far more proof than what I've seen so far.
Also, good luck in getting a car to test drive. I'll bet Pelmear won't provide it.
I sent these observations to Pelmear, but so far the only correspondence I've received was from before I sent the objections, and was this form:
Thank you for expressing your interest in being a part of the HP2g SKIP-FIRE test.
What it is - The HP2g Skip-Fire? is an engine management system capable of operating an engine on any number of cylinders upon demand. In testing Skip-Fire on targeted vehicles, reduced fuel costs by as much as 33%.
We are looking for 250 vehicles, cars and light duty trucks with gas and diesel engines.
[form questions edited out]
*** All customers of HP2g Skip-FIRE Test:
1 Must be 18yrs or older.
2 Customer cost of participation is $1400 per vehicle
3 After test is completed the HP2g SKIP-FIRE can remain on vehicle at no cost.
4 Not all applicants will be eligible for this test
5 No OEM participants
Mail or email this completed form
Which would be great if I wanted to pay $1400 for a system that, at best I don't even think does anything, and at worst will ruin my pretty new engine. Though, after the tests, I can keep SKIP-FIRE on my vehicle at no cost! Because that $1400 doesn't count for some reason! Wow!
So far, a number of publications have stated their skepticism, but I think it's time to go beyond that. Unless Pelmear or HP2g can provide a sample vehicle with this system to be tested by a completely independent journalist, I feel quite comfortable calling magnetic bullshit on this entire enterprise.
I'm frankly amazed this guy is still even trying to pull this crap off. If I'm wrong, then, please, by all means, Doug Pelmear, show me how wrong I am. I'd be delighted to discover that my snake oil filter was clogged, and you're actually running a 110 MPG V8 engine by shutting down cylinders and using magnets and getting free energy from compressing air.
But I'm not holding my breath.