From my moderately recent uptake of running to attempt a Marathon in October it's struck me just how incredibly close the mechanics of motor vehicle engines are to the mechanics of Humans. A Heart Surgeon recently described to me that opening up the chest cavity and looking inside as "it's just mechanics". That got me thinking about just how right he is. Perhaps it's no accident that the two are so close in the way they work either; we've now had just over 100 years' of enhancement and refinement of car engines, so the natural process should follow the best formula for working with physics, proving that evolution is the ultimately the best judge. I'll try and explain how I think the two things match each other, and how they differ. By comparing them we can actually have a good guess about how cars will 'evolve' in the future, by looking at how the Human Body is better than an internal combustion engine.
When exercising, you draw air into your lungs to react with food in your stomach, to be carried around the blood stream to your muscles. To help this process work, you need water. Without water you effectively dry up and grind to a halt. It's very easy to perceive this happening when you're dehydrating while exercising; you feel muscles tighten, your blood thickens and saliva turns very thick. This is very similar to how an engine will draw air in to the combustion chambers (lungs), combine the air with fuel (food) and use the chemical reaction to create energy. Also very similar is how lubrication is required. The engine requires oil to lubricate the workings otherwise it will dry up in the same way as your muscles and joints will dry up without water.
So the way the car engine produces energy is very similar to how we produce energy. What else is similar?
When trying to get more performance out of your engine, it's a simple principle. More air and fuel in equals more energy generated. It's also remarkably similar with the human body. You exercise to increase your aerobic and anaerobic threshold by increasing the size of the energy pathways to your muscles. You exercise to make your heart and lungs more efficient to be able to make better use of the oxygen you can draw in and more efficient at using the energy. This is the equivalent of boring out your engine by making the cylinders bigger and holding more air, and increasing your engine's volumetric efficiency by allowing as much air to be drawn in on every stroke (breath) as possible by porting, polishing and general head work.
You can increase the fuel pump size, the fuel line size, the fuel regulator and the injectors / carburettor. This is the same principle as the size of your veins increasing to allow more fuel for your muscles to be carried. Most tuners will be familiar with the term 'Italian Tune-up' where giving an engine a blast will remove old deposits and scale and effectively allow your engine to perform better. The exact same thing happens with your body.
I firmly believe that any advances in the technology of the internal combustion engine have so closely imitated the mechanics of the human body that it's a fairly easy conclusion to come to that future advances will go down the same route. Where can we expect to see engine technology go next, if it does mimic human biology?
Well, the body's ability to self-heal and adapt to load is a great advantage. It makes it able to last, literally, a lifetime. As you ask your body to do more and more demanding things, your physique and attributes change to allow greater abilities at these tasks. Some modern cars have the ability to change the air and fuelling pattern depending on how it learns your driving style, so we can see some of that already. Even some technologies such as variable valve timing are also evidence that this is starting to happen, so I think we'll see engines able to adapt better to different driving conditions, demands and styles in future. We may also see more advancements in the way that engines are able to heal themselves by making use of modern materials.
It's no surprise that engines and the human body closely model each other, as both are intended to do the same thing; convert chemical energy into kinetic energy and deal with any associated wear and tear in the course of things. The human body has had quite a head start, but we're pushing transportation devices forward faster than evolution could manage, to the point where we could very well merge.
Can you see this trend continuing? Where will it go?