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The Urban Legend of the Hyperefficient Engine

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

The Urban Legend of the Hyperefficient Engine

Bill Crittenden
December 23, 2010

Popular urban legends of the 20th century tell of a gasoline engine that could travel great distances on just a tiny amount of fuel, as much as 200 miles per gallon in some versions of the story.

They center on various nefarious plots by big automakers, oil industry men, or government agents controlled by either of the previous conspiring to keep fuel mileage low and profits high.

The most interesting of the versions has a regular consumer buying a miracle car mixed up with the regular cars and sold to the public by mistake.  When word gets out of this motorist's spectacular mileage, he goes out to his car one morning to find someone under his hood.  The automotive intruder runs when seen, but the car is left with normal fuel milage.  The idea that some easily removable gadget that has been supressed by a profit-hungry oil industry bereft of morality has captivated the public on occasion for decades.

This version of the story, and more, can be found under the title, "Nobody's fuel" on Snopes.com.

Since it's almost impossible to disprove that a specific event occurred, I'll attempt to explain how such an invention would be impossible to supress in an industry as big as the automobile industry for as long as this legend has persisted.

First of all, lets get the automakers out of the way as Suspect #1.  Automakers have for years competed to produce the most efficient cars.  If a technology existed in a car company's R&D department, they'd rush it to production.  The company that produced it would sell hundreds of thousands of cars equipped with it.  Even if the invention did something to the engine to make it last forever, they need not fear the end of the automotive industry.  The rest of the car eventually gets rusted and eaten up by the miles of salt-crusted roadways, ensuring that people will still need to buy new cars every several years just as they do now.

The same principle takes most governments out of the equation as well.  Governments of countries dependent on oil imports would love the positive change in their trade deficits such an invention would provide.  That should take the United States government out of the running as prime suspect behind the plot to keep the hyperefficient engine quiet, but what if you believe that the U.S. government is controlled on some level by a powerful group funded by oil money?  Having George W. Bush in the White House with Halliburton's Dick Cheney at his side defintely gives that theory some plausibility by conspiracy theory standards.  Most likely a government of a country dependent upon overcharging the rest of the world for its oil would feel its livelihood threatened enough by such technology to take action against it, but could they?  Could a government control the automotive industry across the world?

As Jeremy Clarkson says, "How hard could it be?"

As for the automakers, despite what some Americans may say, the auto industry is more than the "Big 3" in America.  While a small automaker in China is unlikely to invent world-changing automotive technology, there are automakers in Japan, Germany, and Italy capable of serious technical innovation.

If the one automaker that invented it was kept quiet by someone from the outside, how would the others even know?  History has shown that it wouldn't matter if the other automakers know about the project or not.  There are examples in the past of multiple people working on the same invention simultaneously.  Even if General Motors kept its project quiet, the same technology could be invented independently at Ford, or BMW.  If one person invents something and no one else could if that person hadn't is to say that nobody would have figured out the light bulb if Thomas Edison was a bartender.  It may have taken longer, but it would have eventually been done by someone else.  The best example of multiple simultaneous inventors is the independent invention of the jet engine in Britain and Germany, both projects successful with differences in designs and both projects working independently and supposedly unaware of each other's research.  So to keep such a project quiet, whoever was doing so would have to keep tabs on and keep quiet engineers and technicians across three continents and speaking at least four languages.

It's not just major automakers working on production engines for family sedans that could invent fuel economy technology.  Although on the whole racing engines use far more fuel than a regular street car, fuel economy wins races and hundreds of engineers across the world who know how every bit of how internal combustion engines operate have spent millions of dollars trying to squeeze the last lap out of a tank of fuel in the pursuit of championships in Formula 1, Le Mans, at Indianapolis, and in other racing series.  Now in addition to the United States, Japan, and Germany you have dozens of major racing operations in Great Britain, Australia, and France to control.

To actually do so would require the willing participation of all the governments with a potential inventor on their shores or the ability to work in those countries against their interests without their governments' knowledge, all while risking their diplomatic wrath should it be discovered that agents of or from another country were working against them within their own borders.

While I can't account for what every oil company representative has been doing for the past half century to prove beyond a doubt that nothing of this sort ever happened, I hopefully have explained just how impossible it would be to keep quiet a simple device capable of such drastic changes in a car:  the enormity of the task should now be apparent.  Such a thing could possibly be done, but for such a long time without any credible information or leaks from the hundreds of participants that would have been needed over the years surfacing in the internet age where data can be copied and distributed to millions with the push of a few buttons?  Nothing is technically impossible, but I'm going to say that if it sounds too ridiculously unbelievable for a Hollywood film industry that produced the Transformaers series of films, it's probably not going to happen.

I'd be beyond happy to be proven wrong, though, should anyone have a simple device that would help my minivan get more than 25 miles a gallon...



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