Auto Engineers See Slow Road to Green Car Future

The theme of this year’s annual meeting of automotive engineers was “Racing to Green Mobility.” The unlikely symbol of the event—the 2009 World Congress of the Society of Automotive Engineers held from April 20 to 23—was California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Hummer. The Governor kicked off the conference by pointing to shortcomings in federal energy policy, while overlooking his role as the most famous promoter of the ultimate gas-guzzler.

Schwarzenegger said, “We need to put policy in place that will not change, so the [auto] manufacturers can know the future direction.” And then he made a beeline to Raser Technology’s plug-in hybrid Hummer H3 on display at the conference. Raser’s use of a 200kW traction motor mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission allows the Hummer H3 to run with no gasoline for up to 40 miles.

The message was that government-supported advanced auto technology will allow US drivers to continue driving fast large vehicles without any compromise. A few years ago, Schwarzenegger’s beloved Hummer would be saved by hydrogen. Now, it’s all about electric drive technology, which was championed in many of the sessions. “There is nothing wrong with the Hummer. It’s great vehicle,” he told The Detroit News. “We should change the technology within those vehicles.”

Panelists in a session called “Near Term Powertrain Solutions” didn’t entirely dismiss the idea of smaller cars and engines—but doubted that consumers would sacrifice size and power. Dan Kapp, director of powertrain research at Ford, pushed Ford’s EcoBoost technology as a way to draw more power from a smaller engine. But his colleague, Sherif Marakby, Ford chief engineer of global hybrid core engineering, thought it might take more gizmos—like cool interfaces and connections for portable electronics, to move metal. Marakby said, “That’s really key because green alone isn’t going to do it. It’s all this other stuff.”

Panelists in the session “’Does Green Matter in a Try-To-Survive Market?” portrayed consumers as conflicted—not willing to spend money on green technology but still wanting car companies to do the right thing environmentally. Alexander Edwards, President of Automotive for Strategic Vision, said, “Most people don’t want to compromise their priorities for slightly better fuel mpg.” Those priorities include safety, security, and brand. Scott Miller, CEO of Synovate Motoresearch, said “a growing number of consumers will refuse to do business with a company that is not acting in socially responsible ways.” Although people have become more aware of hybrids and other advanced powertrain technologies, they still view the internal combustion engine as having a higher reliability, according to Miller.

The Stampede to Electric Vehicles

While many panelists cast doubt on consumers’ willingness to pay for green technologies, others questioned the ability of electric cars—the technology enjoying the most publicity these days—to solve environmental problems. “We’re all stampeding toward an electric vehicle future. I’m not against that…but we don’t know where that could end up yet,” said MIT’s John Heywood. “There are a lot of problems along the way. The primary one is the cost of these vehicles, and there are some major infrastructure questions as well…To assume this can take over and dominate, that’s a pretty naive assumption at this point.”

Heywood joined others in pointing out that multiple approaches, including smaller, lighter vehicles and new urban design, would be required.

John German, senior fellow at the International Council for Clean Transportation and formerly a hybrid expert at Honda, similarly did not see quick and easy solutions. “Actually, there’s too much technology coming. It’s very difficult to sort through all this,” said German. “The manufacturer that makes an early bet on a technology and is wrong is going to suffer greatly in the competition. We have to go through this process, meet a rigorous development cycle of two to three years, and prove a new technology in production on a limited number of vehicles for a couple of years. And then you need at least five years to spread it across the fleet.”

Long lead times in the auto industry will make it difficult to achieve President Obama’s goal of putting 1 million plug-ins on US roads by 2015. Steven Clark, senior manager of electric energy management at Chrysler, again pointed to a lack of consumer commitment as a primary obstacle. “The current cost of battery technology in low volumes makes it difficult to achieve a two- to five-year payback with $2 gas.”

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  • Samie

    Why do even the smartest people in the auto business speculate over short-term short comings as if predicting the next 100 years on consumer preferences? We get stuck when gas prices are low experts say ya consumers want a company that’s green but don’t want to change preferences what did consumers say last spring??? And who is the genius that thinks it does not take time to reduce costs or make improvements before a large amounts of consumers can afford to buy EV’s? What they should focus on is just getting vehicles out to folks willing to pay more for being “one of the first” to drive mass produced EV’s. Funny example of this DVD players when they first came out they were thousands of dollars experts predicted it would take twice as long for consumers to switch then it actually did and within a 10-15 yr time frame they have gone down to as low as $29-39 So give me a break, why does short-term thinking always overshadow the minds of even the top experts that are 100X smarter than you or me when it comes to engineering & improving technology in car models.

  • Gary Hanneman

    This article (Hummer/Schwarzenegger) may have TOTALLY OMITTED the important information that Raser’s Symetron (small, constant-speed) 100KW recharging motor (gasoline-driven when needed) gives the totally-electric 200KW drive train a 400 MILE RANGE and an average of 100 MILES PER GALLON in typical use !!!!!! (Per Raser’s and FEV’s reports covering their last couple of year’s development efforts.)

  • Wallace Pack

    I have never been a big fan of the Hummer but I would LOVE to have one like this.
    I expect that many more refinements will be added over time and that as the new advances in batteries become generally available, this technology will be used on all kinds of vehicles from small cars to 18 wheelers and even locomotives.
    Locomotives and large mining trucks are using diesel electric drive right now but they are not hybrids (as they do not use large storage batteries) but the wheels are electrically driven. The motor technology developed by Raser (using an AC induction motor instead of a heavier, more expensive and less efficient DC motor) opens up a lot of possibilities.

  • isays

    It’s easy to see here why American car companies have fallen so far behind for so long. Change is hard, to be wont is easy. To be true visionaries, engineers need the ability to see into the future, and take on the challenges today to meet this future with some kind of social responsibility. To have a “Can’t do it” attitude should be reason enough to find new engineers or for the government to stop bailing out their employers with our money.

  • Andrew Valdez

    Once again the reticent attitude of our U.S. auto manufacturers is giving lead to global competition. For the last 50 years, innovations in auto engineering have surfaced in this country, then in the interest of quick profits have been withheld, only to see Honda, Toyota develop excellent autos. Warren Buffet’s investments in an Asian electric auto company will see quick returns because it is the way of the future.

  • Easy Policy

    “Schwarzenegger said, “We need to put policy in place that will not change, so the [auto] manufacturers can know the future direction.””

    How about what many already identified here before… put an incremental surcharge tax on gasoline until 2020 (say 25 cent a gallon per year). The yearly increase should be enough to prod auto makers and consumers to move forward, yet small enough not to shock the economy. The surcharges can be reinvested into green incentives. As a side benefit, researchers has noticed the recent increases in gas prices also had a corresponding drop in auto accidents (not sure if it was rate drop or just due to less vehicles on the road).

    What a simple and effective concept yet no one has the political balls to do it. It’s a win-win-win situation!

  • cindy carvells

    Its so funny people are anti american.

    American car companies sell more cars than our foreign cousins.

    Even here in the USA they do.

    So why do people say the US autos are behind. Infact ford makes the most fuel sipper mid size car.

    GM makes the most green non hybrid cars

    Buick is better quality than lexus and lexus arnt even made in the USA.

    So basically the american car companies are making better quality cars and have more to offer.

    Its funy in china everyone wants Buick but in the USA everyone wants toyota not because its good its because its foreign and people automatically think foreign is better.

    The problem with this thinking is its hurting this country just so we can be sexy in our imports.

  • bill cosworth

    I agree everytime I see a new honda or toyota I am like ok lets copy the jones.

    Everytime I see a new GM or Ford I am thinking ok that person didnt buy because of peir pressure.

    My neighbor came over talking bad about my ford explorer with 220k and said oh when are you getting rid of this to by a honda.

    my responce was well it cost me very little to keep running except gas and its very safe.

    Something a prius cant give me. One day in the emergency room wont pay off a prius savings even if you own one for 100 years.

  • Cheerleeder for The Geo Storm

    GM tried to control car sales offering junk year after year even with the Toyota Oh I mean Geo Prizm before all the foreign car companies got smart and built factories in the U.S.

    Now GM loses grip on their political cronies and actually has to produce cars people want. Leaders have to lead not try to produce the next Camry. At least Ford has somewhat got the message.

    Cindy how many of those GM hybrids are actually not just the same model with another logo slapped on it?

  • hybridgreg

    The remarks by some engineers about using gas mileage as the comparison factor to electricity as being the only way to ascertain ROI is reduculous. Yes, fuel savings is important when comparing the cost of a hybrid verses a regular gas engine. However, some of these guys never…and I mean never ever look at how much longer the gas engine is going to last because it is running less than 50% of time compared to a straight gas engine or how much you will save on oil changes, filters, in stop and go in traffic jams or even going to the store around the corner because the gas engine does not run at all. In addition, I find it short sighted to even suggest that there are not many new technological changes to be had in the near future. Maybe thats why he left Honda…because he was a backwards thinker. Most engineers (and facts borne out by what we have seen in just the last 8 years) think we are heading for 100 miles per gallon shortly. Coupled with better batteries, electronics and new materials, the future of hybrids is very bright, indeed. We do not have a biodiesel hybrid or a natural gas hybrid, but they are coming. The natural gas hybrid will burn no foriegn oil, the fueling can be done from your home, eliminating gas station stops and, if it is a plug-in, will not use much household gas for local trips, but can travel the highways with the infrastructure we have now. I am not suggesting that this is the right solution. I am only responding to the idea that no technological changes are on the horizon. Folks, do not buy into this idea that “hybrids are a fad” or that they are “not economically practical” or that they are “not wanted by the public”.

    One idea I want to leave with you, when Katrina hit New Orleans and both sides of the rode were used to have people exit the city, the hybrids with their all-electric low speed modes, allowed for much greater range. The rest of those cars all ran out of gas in bumper to bumper traffic. With the addition of the plug-in option, these cars would not have clogged the exits from the cities. Just some food for thought. So when you want to be safe and efficient, a hybrid does not let you down.

  • sean t

    bill cosworth,

    The Prius has earned a 5 star crash worthiness.

  • Samie

    hybridgreg good points I remember some people could not even make it to Baton Rouge or Hattiesburg MS.

    Why not market EV’s to the luxury crowd first. This is where GM has made a mistake also this gives car companies some padding in recouping loses. The important thing is to create excitement about the extra torque (power) not green value to the luxury crowd and that they are the first to move to EV’s. Give them a ego boast and as time goes on you can develop better battery technology and cost efficiencies to move into the 20-28K market and on from there. I wonder why this can’t be done some act as if you can magically sell a EV with a range of 100-150 miles and sell it for 22K in a year or two.

  • Carl P

    Go to the Raser website – the company is doing a lot of great work in the area of generating clean, renewable energy. With regard to their electric drive products follow this link to a video that will make you say: I want one, NOW!

    Personally, I can’t wait for the electric drive system to show up in the Ford F-150 (My wife’s vehicle). It gives me a great deal of comfort knowing that my wife is wrapped in 2 and a half tons of steel as makes her daily commute in crazy California traffic but I’d like it a lot more if she was using a lot less gas.

    Trains have been running on electricity for almost 100 years – ever since steam locomotives were banned – for creating too much pollution! It’s about time the concept was applied to cars and trucks.

    Buy Raser stock, this company is a winner!

  • Anonymous

    While oil price is low, it’s quite difficult to sell hybrid or elerctric autos.

  • hybridgreg

    Anonymous, it isn’t as difficult as you might think. Gas was $1.50 per gallon when the INsight was released. $2.45 when the Prius was released and if you look at the dashboard 2009 you will see that hybrid sales did not drop as much as the gasoline cars did in December 08 and January 09. This means there is strong support for hybrids, even if the gas prices are low. But again, we are just getting this technology out there. Wait until the 4th 5th and 6th generations of hybrids it the market. You will be impressed.

  • veeek

    -We need an X-Prize of $100,000 or so to figure out why in the world Americans have such a fetish for huge cars in the midst of global warming, wars-for-oil, and dollars-to-terrorists.

    -Note to Bill Cosworth: Yes, perhaps your Hummer will keep you out of the E.R. in a crash (“who cares if you die in the crash, as long as I am OK”), but if more people drove Prius’s, several thousand American heroes wouldn’t have had to die so you could fuel it with cheap oil. Cheap oil is just too expensive. Sorry to have to say that.

  • frank febleti

    The problem is even a prius is a 5 star car its based on its class.

    If prius gets hit by a ford f 150 everyone in the prius will die and everyone in the ford will live

    People need to realize that a compact car with 5 stars will always do worse than a large car with 5 stars.

    The larger bigger car always wins unfortunately.

  • sean t

    You think only you know that?
    Buy a Hummer then, you’ll be safer than in a ford f 150. Or even better, buy a dobule b truck… or a bulldozer.

  • Anonymous

    Forget about hybrids. Fuckin ride a bike.

  • moj_player

    forget about bikes…..
    just walk…..

  • TwylaSharmaine

    Too bad that Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the California’s governor anymore. I liked the way he dealt with the green technology and he was an important lobbyist of the green car future. I had a friend who offers Class B Motorhome for sale. He is afraid that with his retreat, the path to a cleaner future will be obliterated.