Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cars of the (Sustainable) Future

It's a tough time in the automotive business now. Most of the companies are struggling to sell enough vehicles to make a profit, GM and Chrysler are emerging from bankruptcy, Saab is R.I P. But there's more. The manufacturers will have to meet greatly increased environmental standards.

The corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the U.S. now require that a manufacturer's cars average 27.5 miles per gallon. However, plans by the president would move that to 54.5 mpg by 2025. That's a huge jump, but it's based on many factors, including environmental concerns and a depleting supply of oil.

Manufacturers have explored alternative vehicles for years. Hybrid vehicles, exemplified by the Toyota Prius, can achieve higher fuel economy and run more cleanly, but there are also electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf now on the market, and other options includes (clean) Diesel vehicles, offered by multiple manufacturers, plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt, and in an emerging technology, hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. There are also numerous efforts to bring greater efficiency to existing gasoline vehicles, such as Mazda's SKYACTIV Technology.

It's not a time to worry about the shape of a fender or how fast it'll go. There are some certainties and some uncertainties, but one thing is clear--to meet that 54.5 CAFE standard, something major is going to have to change.

Yesterday, at the Future Cars, Future Transportation Forum, put on by the Western Automotive Journalists (WAJ), I got to drive several vehicles that will be doing their part to help in this effort. I also got to hear industry experts from several manufacturers and two writers from major automotive publications give their thoughts on what's coming. Local TV station KGO Channel 7 covered the event.

My first drive was in the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell electric vehicle. It's a compact hatchback, small but not teeny, that uses a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. Fuel cells generate electricity electricity in a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen that yields only pure water vapor. It sounds like a dream come true.

But--the downsides include the need to manufacture the hydrogen (it's everywhere, but not in the form you need for the car) and the biggest issue of all--there's no infrastructure. There are 250,000 gas stations in the country but virtually no hydrogen stations. Los Angeles has a few, and that's where you can lease one of a few initial Mercedes B-Class F-Cells.

Driving the car on a short test loop showed that besides being a very sweet little people carrier (with Mercedes styling), there is absolutely no loss of performance or utility running on hydrogen. Smooth and silent, it would be a guaranteed winner, if there was a place to fuel it. And--what would it cost? That could be a problem, at least until enough were produced that economies of scale kicked in.

I also sampled Toyota's FCHV-adv, fresh fuel cell technology in a previous-generation Toyota Highlander body. Like the Mercedes-Benz, it drove very nicely and quietly. Toyota has been working on this problem for decades. This latest model has improvements to the cells, the control system, the tanks, cold-weather startup, fuel efficiency and cruising range. But there are still no hydrogen stations around.

Electric vehicles have been in the experimental stage for many years and have even been on the market for limited purposes, essentially overgrown golf carts. The Nissan Leaf represents the first viable "regular car" that you can buy. I tested one recently, but at the event, I got to sample Mitsubushi's i-MiEV, a compact hatch that looks like a future pod more than anything else on the road. The bottom line? It drove silently and smoothly, like one would expect. It has rear seats that fold down and a handy hatch, a pleasant, if simple linterior, and would serve my personal commute needs exactly. However, Like all electrics, with the possible exception of the $100,000 + Tesla Roadster, it has a range of less than 100 miles, though, and would cost nearly $30,000 before national and state rebates dropped it down closer to $20,000. Dave Patterson of Mitsubishi is enthusiastic about the future of electric cars, and told us that the company will introduce multiple electrics over the next few years, including a crossover that seats seven.

The problems with electric cars, besides range, include the time (hours) it takes to refill the tank. With improvements in battery technology and quick charging, electric cars will have to play a big part in the future automotive market to help meet the CAFE standards.

The Chevrolet Volt tries to work it both ways by giving about 35 miles of service on pure electricity before switching to a hybrid mode, in which a gasoline engine kicks in to power the electric motor. It seems like an interim solution, but the Volt I drove yesterday felt solid, and with all its colorful displays inside, it would be  very entertaining for a while. If you had a 15-mile commute each way, you could end up using no gasoline at all. 

What about simply improving the cars we already have? Mazda is attempting this with the SKYACTIV Technology. I drove a Mazda3 with this recently, and also took a short run at the event. Nice: a six-speed manual for sportiness. The friendly Mazda rep explained the changes in the engine and transmission, and how the technology would include many more aspects in upcoming vehicles, including the brand-new CX-5 crossover, which will be out very soon. The experts in the panels all agreed that the internal combustion gasoline engine was going to be around for a while, so improving every aspect of it, and the cars that use it, makes a lot of sense.

Diesel cars have been around for a long time. Mercedes-Benz has sold tons of them. Nowadays, Volkswagen is a major Diesel marketer in the U.S. I drove the brand-new Passat TDI, which boasts amazingly high fuel economy (43 mpg Highway) and a huge range of nearly 800 miles! The downside of Diesel is that it's still burning a fuel, and Diesel emits more particulate matter than gasoline. But as a short-term solution, especially towards hitting that 54.5 mpg average, it's a player. And the performance can be quite thrilling with its high torque.

So, what's coming? None of the expert panelists could say for sure, but they all agreed that for a technology to have an impact it would have to represent at least 15 percent of the automotive market. Today, none of these alternative vehicle types comes close. Even the ubiquitous Toyota Prius barely makes a dent.

It's going to be very interesting, and 13 years is not a long time to get this very important job done.

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