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