Research and development of energy-efficient automotive technology is moving forward at a rapid pace. Which automotive technology will prevail in the future? The likely answer is a mix of technologies.
The Road Ahead
Car manufacturers like Volvo have announced plans to phase out vehicles solely powered by gas. Others, including Ford, Volkswagen, BMW have announced commitments to electric and other alternative vehicle models, along with their anticipation of the end of internal combustion engine production. This signals an end to the domination of gas-powered vehicles in the automobile market.
“Green Diesels” or ultra-clean burning diesels have been on European highways for years. The Lupo, produced by Volkswagen, gets 90 mpg. Diesel powered cars represent 25% of the European car market. (There has been very little press coverage on this technology in North America.) The Jeep Liberty was the first clean-diesel in DaimlerChrysler’s US lineup.
A clean burning alternative fuel, biodiesel is produced from domestic, renewable resources. Biodiesel contains no petroleum, but can be blended at any level with petroleum diesel to create a biodiesel blend. It can be used in compression-ignition (diesel) engines with little or no modifications. Biodiesel is simple to use, biodegradable, nontoxic, and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics. Supply sources are now available across North America; a current list is available at www.biodiesel.org or by calling the hotline at (800) 929-3437.
Small, battery-powered, zero-emission vehicles are rapidly increasing in the mainstream automobile market. Electric cars are a particularly favored commuter vehicle, especially in congested urban areas where electric supercharging stations are available. While nearly every major car manufacturer now offers some form of electric vehicle, popular models continue to be the Nissan Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt, and the Tesla (Model 3). The Model 3 has a 350 km (220 mile) range with its standard battery. Longer range battery models are also available.
Easing the transition away from the solely gas-powered car, hybrids offer dual technologies of gas and electric power for consumers. Hybrids currently have an advantage over the electric vehicles for driving longer distances, though electric vehicle range is improving rapidly.
Able to be plugged in when not in use, this design adds greater efficiency to the hybrid-electric models. Plug-in hybrids are now available on the market and are likely to be a long-time leader in new technologies.
The U.S. EPA worked together with various partners to develop a unique hybrid, high-efficiency vehicle that uses hydraulic fluid to store and provide energy to power the car. The technology dramatically improves the fuel economy of sport utility vehicles and light trucks. The hybrid system uses hydraulic pumps and hydraulic storage tanks to store energy in the place of electric motors and batteries used in electric hybrid vehicles. In laboratory tests conducted in partnership with UPS, the hydraulic hybrid showed a fuel economy of 60 to 70% over a conventional truck engine.
After two decades of research and development, fuel cell vehicles have entered the market. They come with a promising long-term outlook and some obstacles to overcome, including cost and setting up a hydrogen fuel supply infrastructure. The current refining process for hydrogen fuel is a dirty process, and will need improvement.
Honda’s fuel-cell car, the Clarity, is available for lease in some locations in the US. The Hyundai Tuscon Fuel Cell is available for lease in the Greater Vancouver area. Both lease packages include hydrogen fuel and service. The Toyota Mirai is the first fuel cell vehicle available for purchase.
Combine the high fuel economy attributes of today’s gasoline- electric hybrids with the near-zero emissions of internal combustion engines running on hydrogen. The result is an extremely clean-running vehicle, using the same environmentally positive fuel as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but at a lower cost.
A recently developed solid storage medium for hydrogen vehicles is key to this promising technology. Still, there’s a lot of work ahead to make this vision workable – costs must come down, fuel cell durability must improve, and challenges that go beyond the vehicles themselves must be met. Creating hydrogen economically is one of them, as is developing a widespread refueling infrastructure.
Hybrid Car Links
Hybrid Cars: An in-depth look at hybrid vehicles and what’s available on the market today.
Plug-in Hybrid Cars: An explanation of plug-in hybrid vehicle technology and a list of currently available models.
Electric Drive Transportation Association:Information about electric vehicles, events, emissions, environmental impacts and more.