Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
VTEC (standing for Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) is a system developed by the car manufacturer Honda to improve the combustion efficiency of its internal combustion engines throughout the RPM range.
Introduction to VTEC
In the regular four-stroke automobile engine, the intake and exhaust valves are actuated by lobes on a camshaft. The shape of the lobes' determine both the timing and the lift of each valve. Timing refers to when a valve is opened or closed with respect to the combustion cycle. Lift refers to how much the valve is opened. Due to the behavior of the gases (air and fuel mixture) before and after combustion, which have physical limitations on their flow, as well as their interaction with the ignition spark, the optimal valve timing and lift settings under low RPM engine operations are very different from those under high RPM. Optimal low RPM valve timing and lift settings would result in insufficient fuel and air at high RPMs, thus greatly limiting engine power output. Conversely, optimal high RPM valve timing and lift settings would result in very rough low RPM operation and difficult ideling. The ideal engine would have fully variable valve timing and lift, in which the valves would always open at exactly the right point and lift high enough for the engine speed in use.
In practice, such a perfectly adjustable timing and lift system is complex and expensive to implement and is therefore found only in costly experimental and limited production engines. The vast majority of modern automobile engines operate with a fixed camshaft profile that represents a compromise between low RPM smoothness and high RPM power output. And since the average automobile engine spend most of its time running in the low RPM region, there is typically more emphasis on low RPM smoothness at the expense of high RPM output. Performance-tuned engines have cam profiles that are optimised more towards high RPM operation, where the greatest power can be obtained, but this means that low speed operation is compromised. Anyone who has heard a racing car or a highly-tuned hot rod sitting at idle will note that the engine sounds like it is barely capable of running at that speed.
Honda's VTEC system is a simple and fairly elegant method of endowing the engine with multiple camshaft profiles optimized for low and high RPM operations. Instead of only one cam lobe actuating each valve, there are two - one optimised for low RPM smoothness and one to maximize high RPM power output. Switching between the two cam lobes is controlled by the engine's management computer. As engine RPM increases, a locking pin is pushed by oil pressure to bind the high RPM cam follower for operation. From this point on, the valve opens and closes according to the high-speed profile, which opens the valve further and for a longer time.
The VTEC system was originally introduced as a DOHC system in the 1989 Honda Integra sold in Japan, which used a 160HP variant of the B16A engine. The US market saw the first VTEC system with the introduction of the 1990 Acura NSX, which used a DOHC V6. The DOHC VTEC system has high and low RPM cam lobe profiles on both the intake and exhaust valve camshafts. This resulted in the most power gain at high RPMs and DOHC VTEC engines were thus used in the highest performance Honda automobiles. As popularity and marketing value of the VTEC system grew, Honda applied the system to SOHC engines, which shares a common camshaft for both intake and exhaust valves. The trade-off is that SOHC engines only benefit from the VTEC mechanism on the intake valves while the exhaust valves are still actuated by a single cam profile.
Honda's next version of VTEC, VTEC-E, was used in a slightly different way; instead of optimising performance at high RPMs, it was used to increase efficiency at low RPMs. At low RPMs, only one of the two intake valves is allowed to open, increasing the fuel/air mixture's swirl in the cylinder and thus allowing a very lean mixture to be used. As the engine's speed increases, both valves are needed to supply sufficient mixture, and thus a sliding pin as in the regular VTEC is used to connect both valves together and start the second one moving too.
Honda also introduced a 3-stage VTEC system in select markets, which combines the features of both DOHC VTEC and SOHC VTEC-E. At low speeds, only one intake valve is used. At medium speeds, two are used. At high speeds, the engine switches to a high-speed cam profile as in regular VTEC. Thus, both low-speed economy and high-speed efficiency and power are improved.
As successful as the VTEC system has been, one of the key arguments against it in comparison to competing systems is that it had only two profiles for timing and lift. i-VTEC answers the critics by introducing continuously variable timing. The valve lift is still a 2-stage setup as before, but the camshaft is now rotated via hydraulic control to advance or retard valve timing. The effect is further optimization of torque output, especially at low RPMs.
VTEC in motorcycles
Apart from the Japanese market-only Honda CB400 Super Four Hyper VTEC, introduced in 1999, the first worldwide implementation of VTEC technology in a motorcycle occurred with the introduction of Honda's VFR800 sportbike in 2002. Similar to the SOHC VTEC-E style, one intake valve remains closed until a threshold of 7000 rpms is reached, then the second valve is opened by an oil-pressure actuated pin. The dwell of the valves remains unchanged, as in the automobile VTEC-E, and little extra power is produced but with a smoothing-out of the torque curve. Critics maintain that VTEC adds little to the VFR experience while increasing the engine's complexity. Drivability is a concern for some who are wary of the fact that the VTEC may activate in the middle of an aggressive corner, upsetting the stability and throttle response of the bike.
Honda Motor Co., Ltd. (2004). Technology Close-up. Retrieved Sep. 16, 2004.
Driving with VTEC
The original VTEC technology did not do all that much to improve engine power or efficiency at low speeds, though it did mean that Honda did not need to consider high-speed operation at all for its low-speed cam profile. Thus, this has led some to accuse VTEC of being more hype than actual improvement for the average driver. The counter-argument is that with VTEC the higher-speed power is there if the driver needs it. Unlike a higher displacement or force induced engine of similar power output, VTEC allows a smaller and more efficient engine.
Having VTEC does mean that the engine needs to be run at high RPMs to develop maximum power. This requires the constant attention of the driver to keep the power in the optimal RPM band for high-speed driving. Some feel this is an interesting driving challenge, while others find it bothersome.
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