What we will be driving in 2029

- It’s 6 a.m. when Sebastian Myers slips into the garage, unplugs his car and tosses his golf clubs in the trunk. “It’s a great day,” he thinks, before the radio reminds him the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup last night.

No fan of the Leafs, he savoured every bit the knowledge it had been 62 years since Toronto last won the cup in 1967. Not wanting to dwell on the negative, he flips the radio over to his favourite digital-radio channel, and a 25-year-old hit by The Killers fills the car.

“Open up my eager eyes / ’Cause I’m Mr.

Brightside....”

Slipping the car into reverse and — quietly, electrically — backing out, Sebastian is reminded by the fuel gauge that it’s time to fill up. “It’s easy to forget,” he thinks, largely because it’s been three months since he’s been at the gas station. The first month was the worst, what with his kids’ hockey playoffs all over the city. He wasn’t able to get all his driving done during his 70-kilometre electric-only limit. Since then, the diesel generator, which provides added electricity when the battery dies down, just hasn’t cut in.

Indeed, the amount of time that passes before his generator starts again is so long, Myers sometimes wonders if he shouldn’t add fuel stabilizer the few times he does fill up.

Today, June 10, 2029, his golf trip to Teulon is another time the generator is guaranteed to kick in, probably just south of Gunton on the way home.

Myers’ car, the latest generation of plug-in electric hybrids that combines an electric-only powertrain with a fossil-fuel-powered generator to extend range, began in 2010 as the Chevrolet Volt. Now, 18 years later, the Volt-derived lineup includes a wagon, a small truck and a compact city runabout with an electric-only range so long it comes with only a 10-litre fuel tank.

Virtually every other carmaker offers a version of the plug-in hybrid and all of them run on clean diesel or biodiesel.

In 20 years, perhaps the Leafs will win the Stanley Cup. Then again, perhaps hell freezes over; who knows? But no matter who wins the Cup, it’s likely that what you drive then will be very different from today.

Last summer’s fuel price scare, when prices ran up to $1.40 a litre and beyond, could be just a hint of what’s to come, particularly if governments here get more antsy about punishing drivers with higher taxes, like in Europe.

It’s a coming reality, and most car companies are working hard at alternatives. But the question is: What will driving be like in 2029?

The answer, it seems, is: “It depends.”

Will we be driving electric cars? How about hydrogen? Fuel cells? Ethanol? Maybe we’ll be brewing our own biodiesel fuel at home for pennies a litre.

Matt Crossley, director of product, planning and engineering at General Motors, says the key to the future is that there is no one key to the future.

“It’s going to be about choices — electric, diesel hybrid, ethanol and others — and being able to make the smart choice depending on what that power is,” he says.

You can see today some of what Crossley speaks about. In Brazil, ethanol made from sugar cane comprises most of the Brazilian fuel supply. It’s a natural choice, considering how well sugar cane takes to Brazilian soil.

By the same token, don’t expect to see much in the way of biofuels in Dubai. There, in the sun-drenched, parched stretch of the Middle East, look for the future to be covered in solar panels, delivering electricity to charge batteries. In windy, but less parched areas of the world, look for wind turbines to provide electricity to charge batteries or to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen. Iceland, as another example, may find a way to take its geothermal energy out of the ground and put it on the road.

Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation at Southern California Edison, says the future of transportation appears inexorably linked to the future of electricity. “Of all the alternatives, electricity is the only one that has a ubiquitous infrastructure, is 100% domestic, has very stable supply and is 25% to 50% of the cost of a gallon of gasoline equivalent,” he says.

Crossley says any discussion about alternative fuels has to include consideration of whether the alternative really is a better choice. He says replacing gasoline engines with electrics in parts of Ontario or the U.S. industrial heartland is a step backward, since those electrics would be charged with electricity generated by coal.

Yet Kjaer argues that even coal-fired plants are being forced by regulation to clean up. “As we connect the transportation wheels to the grid, [electricity] is the only technology that with every mile you drive will be getting cleaner and cleaner,” he says.

Dubai may have the sun to generate electricity, but whether it’s a good location to produce hydrogen depends on how the water arrives to the electricity or the how electricity is delivered to the water. Also, could demand for arable land to grow sugar cane decimate the Amazon rainforest?

Similarly, another knock against ethanol — which also has less heat energy than gasoline — has been that it uses more fossil fuels to produce than it displaces. Demand for biofuel has also, disputedly, been blamed for rising food prices. Crossley says that’s going to change. He points to an announcement at last year’s North American International Auto Show as proof. There, General Motors announced it had teamed up with Illinois ethanol producer Coskata Inc. to investigate production of ethanol from a variety of sources, including garbage and industrial waste. Canadian company Iogen is also working on producing the so-called cellulosic ethanol.

Of course, the future of cars isn’t just about what goes into their fuel supply.

Kjaer predicts energy efficiency will be an increasingly important facet of automotive design — a drastic change from today’s front-faced, box-like vehicles such as Toyota’s FJ Cruiser or the Hummer H2.

“There will be three things that will absolutely drive what that car will look like: one, energy-efficient shape — air flow, weight, fuel efficiency; two, sustainability — whatever the fuel or propulsion system, it has to be done in a sustainable manner; and three, the automobile will continue to be more than just conveyance — because of emerging, communication technology, locational technology and entertainment. The technology will continue to evolve where we will have technology in the car to help us avoid congestion, manage the flow of traffic.”

That’s something GM Canada’s Tom Odell is particularly excited about.

Odell, technology planner for GM Canada, says Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communication systems will not only make future driving safer but also more economical.

The most obvious use trotted out for V2V communication is the safety aspect. Here, cars would communicate with each other on their relative positions, using GPS technology, to help drivers avoid lane-change collisions and to alert drivers to potential collisions at intersections.

But Odell says a less known use for V2V is when it is integrated into the roadwork infrastructure. For example, a car stuck in traffic at Portage and Main could relay to the infrastructure to tell other cars to avoid the area. In a city such as Winnipeg, that’s less a big deal than in Toronto, where delays on such well-designed routes as the Don Valley Parkway can add up to countless litres of wasted gasoline and untold tonnes of CO2 emitted in vain. If V2V can save cars from getting stuck in that mess, energy and emissions can be saved.

And when alternative fuels come on stream, V2V can help the driver decide which fuel is most efficient at the time. For example, the plug-in hybrid could talk to the local power utility and only charge itself when peak demand — and in some cases, the cost of electricity — is low. At other times, it may suggest that because of high demand on the grid, it is actually more responsible at a particular time to drive using the gasoline/diesel generator or fuel cell as the source of electricity.

In a completely forward-thinking home, that plug-in hybrid would connect to an energy-management interface that would pull power from a variety of sources — the electric grid when demand is low, solar panels when the sun is bright and wind turbines when it’s breezy. And, for the crowning touch, the system could be set up so that the car could power the home in an emergency, such as a nighttime power outage, for instance.

SoCal Edison’s Kjaer says V2V communication is just the tip of the electric iceberg. He says that as smart power meters and improved home storage systems (read: batteries) come into play, consumers will have the power to buy electricity when demand (and at some utilities, price) is lowest.

For their cars, he sees consumers able to program their departure time into their smart meter, which will then monitor demand and price overnight and have the car fully charged, at the best possible price, in time to leave for work.

That communication will allow utilities to manage supply and demand on the electrical grid, increasing efficiency, he says. Smart meters will be able to pump electricity into homes’ batteries when the price is lower and pull from the batteries and not the electric grid when prices are high. Kjaer says the value of managing demand in this way far exceeds what could be gained by soaking customers for the higher rate.

In the car, another bit of technology will even be able to shame you into being more energy-efficient, he says.

“Imagine a guy getting this data burst that says yesterday he used x kwh, drove x miles, at x cents per mile, for an efficiency factor of 80%. His wife says, ‘Gee, you didn’t drive all that efficiently. Yesterday, I got 90%.’

“It happens all the time today with the Toyota Prius [which has an energy consumption display],” he says.

With all the talk about, and fires caused by, lithium ion batteries, there really is a serious debate about whether the technology is ready for the bright lights of the automotive world.

There’s still work to do.

So what if your battery wasn’t a battery at all?

Few people, other than electronics technicians or engineers, know what a capacitor is. For years, capacitors have been used as electronic components to bypass unwanted energy, create time delays in circuits or resonate circuits operating at radio frequencies. A capacitor is essentially two electrodes, often as plates, separated by an insulating membrane. They pass alternating current and block direct current. But in blocking that direct current (like the current coming from a battery), they build up a charge of electricity. If you’ve ever turned off an old radio and heard the sound slowly fade away, that’s because a capacitor in the power supply is continuing to power the radio as its charge is slowly dissipated.

Today, the capacitor is getting a new life. It’s jumping into a phone booth, changing uniforms and emerging as Supercapacitor!

Okay, so it can’t leap a tall building in a single bound, but a supercapacitor can store a ton of electricity — enough to blow batteries out of the water as energy sources for cars.

Canada’s ZENN Motors is reportedly working on a prototype for a high-speed, high-range electric car using supercapacitors instead of batteries.

Capacitors are solid-state: There is no liquid or gelled electrolyte to freeze, leak or evaporate, which also means they can be considerably lighter than batteries.

Transesterification.

Transester-what?

Long word, key to making fuel at home.

Fuel at home?

Google the keywords “biodiesel at home” and you’ll enter a world where people with diesel-powered cars are making their own fuel for a fraction of the price at the pumps. YouTube has a whole section of videos on building biodiesel processors.

It starts with vegetable oil. It ends in the tank of your diesel-engine-equipped car.

The process is called transesterification, and it’s essentially a way to turn ordinary vegetable oil — the same kind you cook with — into biodiesel. It’s not overly complicated, but it does involve precision.

Vegetable oil is essentially triglyceride. It’s the glycerin in triglyceride that makes vegetable oil problematic in direct use. Basically, you mix common household lye (potassium lye is preferred) with methanol to produce a catalyst. By mixing the methanol-lye catalyst into the oil, you separate out the glycerin, which settles to the bottom, leaving nearly-ready biodiesel on top. The biodiesel is then decanted into a washing tank, which bubbles air and water through the oil until eventually the wash water comes out clear, indicating that any glycerin residue left from the catalytic process has been removed.

The glycerin and methanol byproducts can be recycled by distilling out the methanol — which can be reused — leaving glycerin, which some biodiesel brewers turn into soap (methanol is poisonous and can be absorbed through the skin, so it must be removed).

Because of the caustic lye and flammable methanol — which all must be heated for the process to work — and the equipment needed to construct the processors, it’s not for the faint of heart. But since lye is no worse than drain cleaner and methanol is often what you use in your fondue set, neither chemical is really beyond what most average people already use.

Most biodiesel brewers use items no more complicated than electric hot water tanks and aquarium pumps to build their processors.

The process is most economical when you use waste vegetable oil (WVO), which you can often get for free or for a nominal cost from restaurants desperate for a safe, legal means to dispose of used cooking oil. WVO requires extra steps, given the food particles and water that may be present. In the future, expect the collection of waste vegetable oil from restaurants to be a growth industry, a new revenue source for restaurants and the end of free oil.

You could use vegetable oil without converting it to biodiesel, but it’s thicker, can damage engines and requires a two-tank fuel delivery system on your car to accommodate the need to start the car and finish a trip using conventional petroleum diesel. Either way, cars that run on vegetable oil or biodiesel can still run on regular diesel, which means you won’t be stranded if you drive outside the range of your oil or biodiesel supply.

We often hear about algae when scientists are warning that it’s suffocating Lake Winnipeg, but this tiny organism can also provide another fuel of the future.

With the right genetics and production techniques, algae can be produced that is rich in lipids — in other words, fat. Several organizations are researching the potential to grow these porkers of aquatic plant life and extract the fat to use as a diesel fuel. The beauty is that the turnover period from newly sprouted algae to fuel is short and it can be grown again and again.

In terms of the efficiency of agrifuels compared with corn or other crops, algae is the champ by a large margin. It does not require vast acreages of farmland — the algae is grown in plastic tubes filled with water — or copious amounts of fossil fuel, as solar power and electricity are the two main energy inputs.

Algae, according to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is capable of producing 30 times more oil per hectare than competing plants such as rapeseed or sunflower. As an example, to run its transportation needs on sunflower oil, France would have to devote 118% of its total land mass to sunflower production. That’s right: France would have to plant more acres of land than it owns.

In a research paper published in Biofutur, a French magazine devoted to advances in biotechnology, biodiesel expert Prof. Michael Briggs at the University of New Hampshire is quoted as estimating the entire U.S. demand for petroleum could be displaced by algae farms totalling a mere 38,500 square kilometres, or approximately 5% of Canada’s total reported farmland.

Until recently, it seems the focus of the world has been on hydrogen as a future fuel. It has some significant advantages: Pure hydrogen has no carbon, so in combustion with pure oxygen does not create carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. It is the most abundant element in the universe. In fuel cells, its only emission is water. To say the same about it in combustion requires burning it with pure oxygen, as the nitrogen that makes up 78% of air creates nitrous oxide when burned.

Hydrogen is also the first element on the periodic table, which brings us to the first of its problems: Being first means it is also the smallest, lightest atom there is — a single electron orbiting a single proton. That makes storage, transportation and distribution problematic, as it is able to escape from the tiniest of leaks. Currently, it’s either stored and distributed in liquid form, at an instant-freeze-drying temperature of -253C or under extremely high pressure, about 700 bar or more than 10,000 pounds per square inch.

Either way, the prospects of an incident during refuelling are, well, chilling.

The second is that some of the fastest means of producing hydrogen are themselves very dirty.

Reforming gasoline into hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline not only makes no sense, it leaves behind highly toxic chemicals. Breaking water with electricity is the cleanest if the electricity is clean, but how wise is using water for fuel when parts of the world are already experiencing water shortages?

Turbochargers have long been associated with performance ?— so much so, they’re banned from Formula One race cars — but at least one manufacturer is using turbocharging to get the most out of smaller engines in a bid to save fuel.

Turbochargers are essentially exhaust-driven fans that force air under pressure into an engine. The pressurized air creates a more efficient “charge” of fuel and air inside the cylinder.

Ford announced at last year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit a series of what it calls EcoBoost engines.

The idea will be used in vehicles ranging from the compact car that grows out of the Verve concept car right up to F-Series trucks.

Christine Hollander, manager of product communications for Ford of Canada, says EcoBoost promises up to 20% fuel savings and uses already existing technology to gain efficiency.

“We believe these solutions [hydrogen, fuel cells, etc.] are more for the future. What we decided is that we need to think of a solution we can have now and that can be affordable,” she says.

EcoBoost makes its savings by combining direct injection — which injects a precise and small amount of fuel into each cylinder individually — with turbocharging. The results are engines that are both more powerful and more fuel efficient than what they replace. The first application will come later this year on the Lincoln MKS sedan, where the current 3.7-litre V6 engine (with 273 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque) will be replaced with a 3.5L twin-turbo V6 (with 340 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque) that is estimated to be 20% more efficient.

While the idea today is to gain more efficiency from gas-powered vehicles, the possibility to adapt the idea to create more efficient on-board generators for cars such as Sebastian Myers’ 2029 Volt remains.

So, what’s the ultimate solution to driving in 2029? There isn’t one. But here’s my prediction: a Volt-like plug-in hybrid electric using a supercapacitor for energy storage and an on-board turbocharged, direct-injection diesel motor to recharge the supercapacitor. By then, expect it to run on biodiesel, either brewed at home or by what is now a nascent biodiesel industry.



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