It’s an exciting and terrifying time to be in the automobile and light truck business. The number of uncertainties is daunting. How long can we afford to burn fossil fuels to get around? What are the hidden costs of switching to alternatives? Will changing our fuel sources mean starving the world’s poor or making global warming worse?
For those in the home construction industry—along with those who hope to one day build a new home, the future of the automobile is a linchpin. Without super-efficient means of transportation, the old suburban development patterns are dead. Who wants to live in a ghost ’burb? At the same time, contractors, lumberyards, and window makers need to move heavy goods from here to wherever. Can working trucks change with the times yet still remain powerful enough to get the job done?
Nothing is certain. The U.S. auto industry is losing market share each year to international firms like Toyota and Honda. At the same time, the global connectedness of the auto industry is now deeply structural. Parts and raw materials come from all over the world. But such connections offer both perils and promise.
Perils? Take a look at at other industries. Home-wrecking Chinese drywall has found its way into Florida homes. British oil company BP unleashed a torrent of toxic oil into our jewel-like inland sea. Globalism is risky.
On the upside, a kid in India can invent a new type of propulsion motor, and investors in San Francisco will know about it in minutes. Information is hard to suppress. It’s unlikely, for example, that we’ll ever see a repeat of “Who Killed the Electric Car,” where big automakers shut down early EV efforts. On the contrary, every auto maker we spoke to is looking at various levels of electrification in future vehicles.
Electrifying. That’s the word that might sum up where Ford
is steering its automotive R&D. But don’t expect a wide range of electric vehicles gleaming on showroom floors—not yet. Instead, Ford is taking things one step at a time.
“The whole trend in our vehicles is toward electrification,” says Richard Truett, power train communications manager for Ford.
“Things that used to be done mechanically are now being driven be electric motors—water pumps, even oil pumps. It gives us some efficiency gains because it decouples that process from the engine.”
In other words, Truett explains, Ford is not abandoning the combustion engine—they expect it to be around for another few decades—but they are trying to limit the work it has to do to just one task: moving the vehicle.
That may explain why the company hasn’t offered a hybrid version of its popular F-150 pickup truck. In a vehicle where drive train power is highly valued, a hybrid system doesn’t fit Ford’s criteria.Instead, Truett says, the emphasis has been on squeezing every ounce of performance out of the engine, using precision tooling and technology.
New Rules and “True” Costs
Of course, U.S. automakers make no secret of the fact that new Federal CAFE standards
are a major force behind efforts to produce new and better drive trains. But the rules, established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the EPA are hardly drastic. They require that the average mileage be raised to about 37.8 mpg for new cars and 28.8 mpg for light trucks by 2016.
The other pressure on U.S. firms, of course, is the presence of foreign companies such as Toyota
, that, during the big spending years of SUV sales here, were fine-tuning their small cars. Toyota now has eight models that achieve more than 30 mpg.
In fairness, U.S. companies have been operating in an environment where fuel has been presented to consumers as free flowing and inexpensive. Why not drive a big, powerful vehicle, if gasoline costs less than bottled water?
Of course, these low fuel costs have concealed heavy subsidies and “externalities.” It could be argued that they have also hurt U.S. auto competitiveness over the long haul.
In fact, according to a 2003 report by the International Center for Technology Assessment
, so many costs are hidden in U.S. gasoline that consumers really pay between $5.60 and $15.14 for health, social, and environmental impacts—not to mention overseas military activity. Many “true cost” reformers have come to the same conclusion: U.S. car owners have no incentive to change their driving behavior or vehicles, because they have no idea what gas really costs them. Also, a huge amount of real money that could be used to help subsidize alternative vehicle R&D and public transit is left on the table.
The Alternative Future
“A lot of our research is about getting electrical systems more efficient, and working to keep them affordable,” notes Sharif Marakby, director of Ford’s electrification programs and engineering division. He notes that big areas of focus now include lithium ion batteries—which will make their first appearance in automobiles in 2011 models—but also climate control.
“There’s one big area of improving efficiency, and that’s the climate control in the car,” he says. “You could lose 20% of your range by using air conditioning, so using less energy.”
That R&D will be essential, he says, as vehicles rely more on battery power and include more electrical systems.
David Darovitz, communications manager for Chevrolet’s new Volt
model, has a similar interest in optimizing battery power.
“Ten years ago, nickel metal hydride technology was the winning choice,” he says. “Lithium ion now has the performance to be put in vehicles. At the end of the 1990s, an [electric vehicle] battery was 10’ tall, and produced 800 watts; and the size now for the same power is half that. It’s not rapid change, like computer chips, but the technology matures every six years or so.”
Darovitz is cautious not to hype electric propulsion as some kind of magic bullet that will change the automobile industry overnight.
“We think the combustion engine will be around for another 100 years. But we want to give people options,” he says. “So we’re offering an alternative propulsion system that uses a combustion engine for range extension. There’s no single flavor of electric vehicle—one system that’s going to win the marketplace. The Volt is simply one option, a first step. We plan to keep expanding on the idea with other makes and models."
“We want to ensure a positive customer experience with the Volt first and foremost,” he adds. “We’re not going to just build them and throw them out there. The plant in Detroit is a flexible manufacturing facility. The first model will be built in the thousands. The second model—which starts in July—will be in the tens of thousands. We’re aiming for early adopters first—the folks that wait in line for the latest iPhone and iPad.”
Ford, not to be left behind by the electric vehicle trend, has partnered with a UK company, Smith Electric Vehicles, to offer an EV “commercial” vehicle later this year. They’ve caught some flack for not engineering it from scratch themselves, but if it works as advertised, why mess with a good thing?
The vehicle, called the Ford Transit Connect
, is positioned as a light van that may have application for trade contractors. The company is making it available as a fleet vehicle at first but plans to offer it for general sale soon.
The transition to more efficient technology is coming, but it’s anybody’s guess which curve in the road will cause the next massive detour. Much of the equation is outside the direct reach of car makers. It’s geopolitical. Fuel prices, labor costs, raw materials. The good news, as Darovitz says, is that they are offering many more options to help us keep moving even if energy is far more precious.—Matt Power
Used Versus New Cars: What’s Greener?
Manufacturing new cars embodies a lot of fossil fuel, negating a lot of the carbon advantages over used cars. Maybe it’s time to change the equation.
An article in Wired
recently compared the environmental costs of buying a new Toyota Prius
with buying a second-hand car. Their conclusion: Because a used car has already “paid off” its initial carbon cost, buying an old, energy efficient model is more eco-conscious choice than purchasing a new hybrid.
The author notes that making a Prius requires 113 million BTU of energy, equivalent to about 1,000 gallons of gasoline. So buying a Prius only makes sense if you are replacing a real gas guzzler. Otherwise, you’d be better off buying a fuel efficient used car that’s a few years old.
It’s a challenging conundrum for buyers who want to do the right thing. On the one hand, used cars don’t last forever, so new hybrids will eventually find a home. On the other hand, why not put vehicle durability on the table? Many standard combustion powered vehicles survive for 150,000 miles or more.
If hybrids could tweak durability and offer a 300,000 mile vehicle, they would quickly trump the used car competition. Of course, proper maintenance and driving style have a lot to do with durability, but shouldn’t engineering count for something?—M. Power
Alternative Vehicle Awards
An organization called the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Institute just held its annual conference and passed out an eclectic stack of awards. The award topics provide some insight into where the industry is focused. A few examples:
EV-angelism Award: Chrysler Group Global Electric Motorcars (GEM)
received this award for its work on 100% electric vehicles. This division of the company has sold 40,000 of the limited speed vehicles. Models such as the Gem el XD (shown) can carry 1,430 lbs., travel at about 25 mph, and have a range of about 30 miles.
Golden Bullet Award: The U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities Program
is a catalyst for change. Program director Dennis Smith earned this award because his organization disbursed about $300 million toward alternative vehicles under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. AFVI estimates that this federal subsidy will put about 9,000 energy-efficient vehicles and 500 refueling and charging systems into the transportation grid. EV charging stations from www.coulombtech.com are shown.
Green Fleet Award: AT&T
got a well-deserved tar and feathering for their decision to share millions of private domestic phone calls with spies at the NSA. Maybe they’re ready to clean up their image. Their efforts to reduce the company’s transportation footprint is a step in the right direction. They plan to phase out 15,000 vehicles over the next ten years and replace them with various types of alternative fuel vehicles. According to the Center for Automotive Research (www.cargroup.org), about 20% of all vehicles sold in the United States are for fleets, so corporate changes of this level can cause a positive ripple effect.
AT&T was one of the first companies to purchase two of Ford’s new Transit Connect electric vans for its corporate fleet.
Magic School Bus Award: As AVFI points out, 24 million American children ride school buses each day that travel more than 4 billion miles each year. This award went to Napa Valley Unified School District Transportation Director Ralph Knight, who has been replacing diesel buses with electric ones and has just added a hybrid model.
There’s a Ford In Your Future Award: Ford has not only shifted many resources into designing more efficient drive trains and electrification. As a major “fleet” end user, it has embraced that same technology. Fleet Marketing Manager Gerald Koss was recognized for his consistency in promoting and supporting the company’s evolution into greener technologies.
Photograph: Chevrolet Volt, courtesy Chevrolet