Variable displacement

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Variable displacement is an automobile engine technology that allows the engine displacement to change, usually by deactivating cylinders, for improved fuel economy. The technology is primarily used in large, multi-cylinder engines. Many automobile manufacturers have adopted this technology as of 2005, although the concept has existed for some time prior to this.

Theory of operation[edit]

Cylinder deactivation is used to reduce the fuel consumption and emissions of an internal combustion engine during light-load operation. In typical light-load driving the driver uses only around 30 percent of an engine’s maximum power. In these conditions, the throttle valve is nearly closed, and the engine needs to work to draw air. This causes an inefficiency known as pumping loss. Some large capacity engines need to be throttled so much at light load that the cylinder pressure at top dead centre is approximately half that of a small 4-cylinder engine. Low cylinder pressure results in lower fuel efficiency. The use of cylinder deactivation at light load means there are fewer cylinders drawing air from the intake manifold, which works to increase its fluid (air) pressure. Operation without variable displacement is wasteful because fuel is continuously pumped into each cylinder and combusted even though maximum performance is not required. By shutting down half of an engine's cylinders, the amount of fuel being consumed is much less. Between reducing the pumping losses, which increases pressure in each operating cylinder, and decreasing the amount of fuel being pumped into the cylinders, fuel consumption can be reduced by 8 to 25 percent in highway conditions.[1][2]

Cylinder deactivation is achieved by keeping the intake and exhaust valves closed for a particular cylinder. By keeping the intake and exhaust valves closed, it creates an "air spring" in the combustion chamber – the trapped exhaust gases (kept from the previous charge burn) are compressed during the piston’s upstroke and push down on the piston during its downstroke. The compression and decompression of the trapped exhaust gases have an equalising effect – overall, there is virtually no extra load on the engine. In the latest breed of cylinder deactivation systems, the engine management system is also used to cut fuel delivery to the disabled cylinders. The transition between normal engine operation and cylinder deactivation is also smoothed, using changes in ignition timing, cam timing and throttle position (thanks to electronic throttle control). In most instances, cylinder deactivation is applied to relatively large displacement engines that are particularly inefficient at light load. In the case of a V12, up to 6 cylinders can be disabled.[1]

Two issues to overcome with all variable-displacement engines are unbalanced cooling and vibration.[citation needed]


The oldest engine technological predecessor for the variable-displacement engine is the hit and miss engine, developed in the late 19th century. These single-cylinder stationary engines had a centrifugal governor that cut the cylinder out of operation so long as the engine was operating above a set speed, typically by holding the exhaust valve open.

Cadillac L62 V8-6-4[edit]

First experiments with multiple-cylinder engines during WWII,[3] were re-attempted in 1981 on Cadillac's ill-fated L62 "V8-6-4" engine. The technology was made a standard feature on all Cadillac models except Seville, which had the 350 diesel V-8 engine as a base engine. Cadillac, in conjunction with Eaton Corporation, developed the innovative V-8-6-4 system which used the industry's first engine control unit to switch the engine from 8- to 6- to 4-cylinder operation depending on the amount of power needed.[3] The original multi-displacement system turned off opposite pairs of cylinders, allowing the engine to have three different configurations and displacements. The cars had an elaborate diagnostics procedure, including showing engine trouble codes on the air conditioning display. However, the system was troublesome, misunderstood by customers, and a rash of unpredictable failures led to the technology being quickly retired.[3]

Alfa Romeo Alfetta CEM[edit]

In 1981 Alfa Romeo developed in collaboration with the University of Genoa a semi-experimental variable displacement engine version of the Alfa Romeo Alfetta, called Alfetta CEM (Controllo Elettronico del Motore, or Electronic Engine Management), and showed it at the Frankfurt Motor Show.[4] The 130 PS (96 kW; 128 bhp) 2.0-litre modular engine featured fuel injection and ignition systems governed by an engine control unit, which could shut off two of four cylinders as needed in order to reduce fuel consumption. An initial batch of 10 examples were assigned to taxi drivers in Milan, to verify operation and performance in real-world situations.[4][5] According to Alfa Romeo during these tests cylinder deactivation was found to reduce fuel consumption by 12% in comparison to a CEM fuel-injected engine without variable displacement, and almost by 25% in comparison to the regular production carburetted 2.0-litre.[5] After the first trial, in 1983 a small series of 1000 examples was put on sale, offered to selected clients;[4] 991 examples were produced. Despite this second experimental phase, the project had no further developments.

Mitsubishi MD[edit]

In 1982 Mitsubishi developed its own variable displacement in the form of MD (Modulated Displacement) which proved that the technology, first used in Mitsubishi's 1.4 L 4G12 straight-4 engine, can function successfully.[6] Because Cadillac's system proved to be a failure and a four-cylinder engine was used, Mitsubishi hailed their own as a world first.[7] The technology was later used in Mitsubishi's V6 engines.[8] Mitsubishi's effort was also short-lived, mainly because of a lack of response from car buyers.[9]

In 1993, a year after Mitsubishi developed its own variable valve timing technology, the MIVEC-MD variant was introduced. The revived MD technology was now in its second generation with improved electronic engine controls enabling the switch from 4 to 2 cylinders to be made almost imperceptibly. In MD mode, the MIVEC engine utilizes only two of its four cylinders, which reduces significantly the energy wasted due to pumping losses. In addition, power loss due to engine friction is also reduced.[7] Depending on conditions, the MIVEC-MD system can reduce fuel consumption by 10–20 percent; although some of this gain is from the variable valve timing system, not from the variable-displacement feature.[8] Modulated Displacement was dropped around 1996.[8]

Aftermarket systems[edit]

A number of companies have developed aftermarket cylinder deactivation systems, with varying degrees of success. The 1979 EPA evaluation of the Automotive Cylinder Deactivation System (ACDS), which allowed eight-cylinder engines to be run on four cylinders, found that carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions were increased beyond the legal limits of the emission standards then in force.[10] While fuel economy was increased, acceleration was seriously compromised, and the loss of engine vacuum led to a dangerous loss of braking assist when the system was in four-cylinder mode.[10] In addition to these issues, while the company proposed a hydraulically controlled system that could be switched from within the car, the version they implemented had to be manually changed in the engine compartment using hand tools.[10]


No automaker attempted the same trick again until Mercedes-Benz experimented with their Multi-Displacement System V12 in the late 1990s. It was not widely deployed until the 2004 DaimlerChrysler Hemi in the form of their Multi-Displacement System. Other systems appeared in 2005 from GM (Active Fuel Management in the Generation IV small-block) and Honda (Variable Cylinder Management on the J family engines). Honda's system works by deactivating a bank of cylinders, while the Chrysler Hemi shuts off every other cylinder in the firing order.

There are currently two main types of cylinder deactivation used today, depending on the type of engine. The first is for the pushrod design which uses solenoids to alter the oil pressure delivered to the lifters. In their collapsed state, the lifters are unable to elevate their companion pushrods under the valve rocker arms, resulting in valves that cannot be actuated and remain closed. The second is used for overhead cam engines, and uses a pair of locked-together rocker arms that are employed for each valve. One rocker follows the cam profile, while the other actuates the valve. When a cylinder is deactivated, solenoid-controlled oil pressure releases a locking pin between the two rocker arms. While one arm still follows the camshaft, the unlocked arm remains motionless and unable to activate the valve.[11]

Although the attempts to use variable-displacement technology failed in the past, automakers have been able to overcome the problems that occurred using new advancements in computers. With computers this fast cylinder deactivation and reactivation occur almost instantly.[12]

After the price of oil surged in 2008, consumers were looking for a more fuel efficient car without sacrificing peak power. This has led many manufacturers to put variable-displacement controls into their cars, especially those with V8s installed.

Related technologies[edit]

It is also possible to alter the engine's compression ratio. The best known such system was the experimental Saab Variable Compression engine, which used a hinged block to move the pistons closer to or further from the head, thus changing the size of the combustion chambers. Other experimental systems include the Hefley engine, which uses a sliding crank race on an eccentric shaft,[13] and the Scalzo Piston Deactivation Engine, which uses a four-bar linkage, and has the distinction of being able to stop individual pistons entirely.[14] There are currently no production vehicles that use any of these designs.

Additionally, there was the Cadillac Northstar engine series, which featured a "limp home" fail-safe mode. If the engine lost coolant, the engine controller could cause the engine to run on half of the cylinders, alternating between banks. This would air-cool the engine, allowing it to drive up to 100 miles without coolant.

Variable-displacement technologies[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Cylinder Deactivation Reborn - Part 1", Autospeed, Issue 342, Michael Knowling
  2. ^ "Save Gas: Cylinders get Smart", Green Car, Bill siuru
  3. ^ a b c "Cylinder deactivation", Automotive Industries, Jan, 2005, John Peter
  4. ^ a b c Sabadin, Vittorio (15 April 1983). "L'Alfa riduce i consumi "staccando" i cilindri". La Stampa (in Italian). p. 25. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Fenu, Michele (7 May 1982). "Alfa, il motore modulare per contenere i consumi". La Stampa (in Italian). p. 19. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  6. ^ "Mitsubishi Motors Web Museum", Mitsubishi Motors website
  7. ^ a b "Mitsubishi Motors History", Mitsubishi Motors South Africa website
  8. ^ a b c "Mountain of MIVECs", Michael Knowling, AutoSpeed, Issue 346, September 3, 2005
  9. ^ Higbee, Arthur (20 November 1992). "Mitsubishi Engine Switches Cylinders", The New York Times. Retrieved 28 October 2013.
  10. ^ a b c
  11. ^ "Cylinder Deactivation",, Christine & Scott Gable
  12. ^ "Variable Displacement for Better MPG", Green Car, Bill Siuru
  13. ^ The Hefley engine
  14. ^ Scalzo Piston Deactivation Engine