Silver Buckshot Approach Displayed in San Francisco

“The auto industry can no longer do what it has done for the past 100 years. That’s just no longer sustainable.”

Ed Kjaer
director of electric transportation
Southern California Edison

The green car movement has historically been comprised of many camps, each one arguing that he or she has the winning fuel or propulsion system. Hybrids, electric cars, biofuels, natural gas, and clean diesel, to name a few, each has its vociferous supporters. And yet the notion that no single solution will solve our energy and environmental problems—that instead multiple high-tech, low-tech and common sense strategies will all be required—is now gaining widespread acceptance.

A smorgasbord of these technologies was on display last week at a meeting of the Western Automotive Journalists (WAJ) in South San Francisco. “There are no silver bullets, there are a whole bunch of silver BBs” said Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation at Southern California Edison, in the evening’s panel discussion. “The auto industry can no longer do what it has done for the past 100 years. That’s just no longer sustainable.”

The WAJ event featured two American LeMans Series racecars powered by cellulosic ethanol—demonstrating that speed and green are not always mutually exclusive. The driver of the Drayson Barwell Aston Martin Racing Car, Paul Drayson—who is also minister of science for the UK government—said, “We were the first in the UK to convert our cars to second-generation bio-ethanol, a cellulosic process where fuel is manufactured from waste wood products. We showed we could be extremely competitive in our racing, and at the same time be innovative with the technology.” Drayson said the reaction from racing fans to the switch to biofuels was tremendous.

Hybrids and Plug-in Hybrids

Cellulosic ethanol is not yet available to the public, but hybrids are. Several were on display, including the Dodge Durango Two-Mode Hybrid, Mercury Mariner Hybrid and Nissan Altima hybrid. These models offer the same capabilities as their non-hybrid counterparts, but with 25 to 35 percent better fuel economy.

During the recent sharp downturn in US auto sales, demand for hybrids has remained relatively constant. Jana Hartline, environmental communications manager at Toyota, who participated in the panel discussion, blamed the slight reduction in Prius sales to battery shortages rather than slackening demand. “Depending on what market you’re in, there’s still a few days wait on the Prius, and lot time is still measured in seconds,” said Hartline. “But we’ve pretty much maxed on batteries for this year. Battery factories were at maximum capacity and we were producing as many Priuses as we could. That’s why we’re opening a new battery production facility in Japan that will come on line in late 2009.” Hartline mentioned that Toyota is spending $1 million in battery R&D everyday to develop the next generation of advanced auto batteries.

Plug-in hybrids, offering more significant efficiency improvements over conventional hybrids, were present in the form of prototypes of the Ford Escape plug-in hybrid and plug-in Toyota Prius—as well as a plug-in conversion from CalCars. Getting behind the wheel of the Escape plug-in was both enlightening and frustrating. The car ably demonstrated the primary benefit of bumping up the battery pack in a hybrid—moving into and staying in all-electric mode for long stretches. However, power-hungry creature comforts such as air conditioning quickly kicked the Escape out of electric mode. When the A/C was set to max, the engine was engaged even at low speeds. The overall effect of the plug-in’s bigger battery pack was still impressive, and we had the impression that the vehicle was almost ready for primetime. Ford has hinted at a 2012 launch date—well after planned introductions of plug-in cars from General Motors, Toyota, and Chrysler.

Diesel and Fuel Cells

Two clean diesel cars from Europe—a 50-mpg Honda CRV and a 32-mpg BMW 7 Series—were on hand to showcase diesel’s fuel-saving capabilities. These two vehicles are not slated for US production, but BMW will introduce a 3-Series diesel later this year, and Honda is reportedly planning to drop a 4-cylinder diesel engine into an Acura TSX next year, where it could deliver fuel economy similar to the CRV demo.

A Ford Focus hydrogen fuel cell car completed the kaleidoscopic view of future auto technology. Fuel cell technology promises emission-free transportation but the prospect of reaching market levels of today’s hybrids appear to be at least a decade away—due to high cost and lack of a hydrogen refueling infrastructure.

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  • Samie

    The article headline says that people are realizing there is no one solution to energy problems. Yes that is correct but I warn to the dismay of many we need to focus our efforts into less alternatives instead of more. People often forget to realize it takes time on the market for alt. to develop for any real chance for any attempt to reach mass markets. Infrastructure is a huge problem which I hear arguments like I can get a tank of CNG and use it for my home and car. That is fine for one individual but not for most Americans who fuel up at the pump. I argue we waste large amounts of time and capital into ideas that are short term and often slow down any real potential for alternatives that have any real chance of replacing gasoline. To add to this short term solutions don’t always look at land resources and food issues but focus on how special we are b/c we look “green” As we have seen it takes along time for us to move from one energy source to another.

  • Roadsailor

    Samie, your missing the point. We have had 40 years to figure out the right way to do it. Its time to do it. Enough talk, all the secrets have been tucked away for a long long time, and its time to say by by to the good old internal combustion engine. But the powers at hand will make this happen only when they are ready, and not until. You just watched our government agree to hand over our corrupted banking industry a Trillion bucks and it didn’t take them even a month to do it. As far as infastructure for any type of transportation system, a Trillion bucks would go a long way towards throwing that together real real quick. Thats not even figuring in any type of private investment that would go into any real commitment. So this 10 and 20 year time frame for R&d and infastructure development is all just a bunch of crap. We are fed dis-information every day and the public just sucks it up as the truth. The truth will only be known in the time frame dictated by the governing forces agenda, and by governing forces, I don’t necessarily mean your elected officials.

  • Dom

    You two are doing just what the first paragraph of the article is talking about – you’ve both got your own ideas of how it should be done, and think your way is the best. Well, unless you’ve got a magic crystal ball or an accurate eight-ball, you can’t say for sure which solution is best. They all have strengths and weaknesses, which is why I’ve come to agree with the premise of the article – there is no single solution.

  • Samie

    I really don’t get how I’m missing the point and clearly I don’t see the point of Roadsailor’s comments besides the important role that government can play. And to Dom’s comments you don’t need crystal ball to look at limitations of some ideas like E85. Look at what alternatives have the best long term solutions and better potential to compete with petroleum products on a mass market. If there was no government resource tools for alternatives and markets acted alone I would agree with your comments Dom. But the fact is everyone is out to get some gov subsidy promoting their alt. in most cases aid their own short term self interests. If every alternative is great and needs our taxpayer dollars to support it to see which ones come out as real solutions don’t you feel that there needs to be some thought process in evaluating funding? Why are we still throwing money at things like corn ethanol? Where was the thought process with that besides aiding farms in increasing demand for corn? By no means do I see plugin, EV, biodiesel, or CNG for freight vehicles as the final solutions. But these are things that we can clearly promote in the next 10 years to start moving away from pure petroleum products.