There are a couple of novel ways by which carmakers vary the valve timing. One system used on some Honda engines is called VTEC.
VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) is an electronic and mechanical system in some Honda engines that allows the engine to have multiple camshafts. VTEC engines have an extra intake cam with its own rocker, which follows this cam. The profile on this cam keeps the intake valve open longer than the other cam profile. At low engine speeds, this rocker is not connected to any valves. At high engine speeds, a piston locks the extra rocker to the two rockers that control the two intake valves.
Some cars use a device that can advance the valve timing. This does not keep the valves open longer; instead, it opens them later and closes them later. This is done by rotating the camshaft ahead a few degrees. If the intake valves normally open at 10 degrees before top dead center (TDC) and close at 190 degrees after TDC, the total duration is 200 degrees. The opening and closing times can be shifted using a mechanism that rotates the cam ahead a little as it spins. So the valve might open at 10 degrees after TDC and close at 210 degrees after TDC. Closing the valve 20 degrees later is good, but it would be better to be able to increase the duration that the intake valve is open.
Ferrari has a really neat way of doing this. The camshafts on some Ferrari engines are cut with a three-dimensional profile that varies along the length of the cam lobe. At one end of the cam lobe is the least aggressive cam profile, and at the other end is the most aggressive. The shape of the cam smoothly blends these two profiles together. A mechanism can slide the whole camshaft laterally so that the valve engages different parts of the cam. The shaft still spins just like a regular camshaft -- but by gradually sliding the camshaft laterally as the engine speed and load increase, the valve timing can be optimized.
Several engine manufacturers are experimenting with systems that would allow infinite variability in valve timing. For example, imagine that each valve had a solenoid on it that could open and close the valve using computer control rather than relying on a camshaft. With this type of system, you would get maximum engine performance at every RPM. Something to look forward to in the future...
For more information on camshafts, valve timing and related topics, check out the links below.
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