Future Cars: Necessity and Innovation

2008 perhaps saw the biggest rise and fall of the stock market indexes as well as crude oil price. A priority for changing the source of energy of automobiles from fossil fuels to alternative fuels appeared to becoming a necessity. Hybrids also got a major push. I wonder if the companies will continue to push for the innovative endeavours when the crude oil has tumbled down to a low never expected and same is the case of gasoline price.

GM, the mightiest of yester years and with perhaps maximum expenditure on R&D in auto sector world over even while facing a fear of bankruptcy still pins hope on Chevy Volt to salvage the situation. Interestingly, the GM chairman drove in this hybrid to plead for the bailout second time with lawmakers in US after getting a bitter press for using expensive private jet first time. Unlike a conventional hybrid Volt uses its engine as a generator for its lithium-ion batteries and is plugged in for recharging GM is investing $1 billion or more in the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid, as a big long-term bet. According to GM, the car, which is scheduled to arrive in showrooms in late 2010 two years from now, will be able to travel 40 miles on a charge, but it will also have a small gas engine to extend the range to as much as 640 miles using both the battery and gasoline (the 1.4 liter, four-cylinder engine is intended to run a generator that will power the car and recharge the batteries once they are depleted). It may cost about $40,000.

In the meantime, on Dec. 15, the Chinese battery maker turned car company, BYD Auto went ahead of General Motors, Toyota, and Nissan by introducing in Shenzhen the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid. BYD’s new car, with a $22,000 price tag (about the same as many Chinese-made mid-sized cars), can run for up to 60 miles on a battery charged from an ordinary electricity outlet.

Toyota had been the pioneer in hybrid car with its large scaled produced Prius. Toyota has sold over one million hybrid cars across the world. It has gone further integrating solar panels in its cars of future. According to the latest report, Toyota motors of Japan that posted its loss first time in last 70 year is secretly developing a vehicle that will be powered solely by solar energy in an effort to turn around its struggling business with a futuristic ecological car. The solar car is part of efforts by Japan’s top automaker to grow during hard times.

Tesla Roadster is another innovative product, an all electric car with the aim of proving that electric cars do not have to be slow pokes. It can accelerate to 100kms per hour in four seconds and can be recharged from a wall socket.

But where are the mass produced hydrogen fuel-cell cars that have been promised for a decade. The Economist called it ‘the car of the perpetual future’. In Las Vegas in January 2008, Rick Wagoner, the CEO of GM unveiled the Cadillac Provoq, a new hydrogen fuel-cell concept car with a drivetrain emitting only water vapour, a 300-mile range and a top speed of 160kph (100mph), but again with no promise for the date of commercial introduction as usual. Interestingly, a decade earlier, in 1998, Mr Wagoner’s predecessor, Jack Smith, told the Detroit auto show that GM had a plan to produce a production-ready fuel-cell vehicle “by 2004 or sooner”. Ford also saw fuel-cell cars as being a viable alternative to petrol cars.

But another question is also quite pertinent. Why can’t a car get 50 miles per gallon? All new cars in Europe average 43mpg, or in Japan, the average hits 50mpg. The United States is stuck at 25mpg in its considerably larger and more powerful cars, trucks and SUVs. According to Don Hillebrand, a former Chrysler engineer and now director of transportation research for Argonne National Labs, “Auto companies can deliver it within a year.” The quickest way to make a car more fuel-efficient is to make it smaller, lighter and equip it with some high-tech (a.k.a. costly) propulsion system like a plug-in gas-electric system.

It will be interesting to learn of an exercise Ford just went through. It ran a computer simulation on what would happen to the mileage of a Ford Focus small car if you built it entirely out of lightweight aluminum. Losing the steel allowed the Focus to drop 1,000 pounds-30 percent of its body weight. That enabled Ford to outfit it with a tiny one-liter engine, half the size of its old engine, but far more fuel efficient because of new technology. Interestingly, the small motor goes just as fast as the big one because the car is so much lighter. The result: fuel economy on this fabulous Focus went from 35mpg to 50mpg. However, the cost of an all-aluminum car could top $50,000. GM hosts a live chat about the potential for a 100 mpg car.

And in India while M&M has its ‘micro-hybrid’, all the car manufacturers will start putting a ‘Fuel Efficiency’ sticker on all new cars after January 1, 2009 that will provide the car’s optimum fuel economy in a combined (city and highway) cycle certified by Bureau of Energy efficiency. I still wonder if Tata Motors’ Nano, waiting to get into market soon will be really fuel efficient and safe enough to enter the markets of developed countries.

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