Forget the pump and plug in

- While gasoline or a gas/ethanol mix seem likely to remain the primary fuels for our automotive transportation in the near future, it is increasingly likely that the alternative fuel of choice will ultimately be electricity.

Don’t be surprised if the new vehicle you are driving a decade from now incorporates some form of electric drivetrain.

That prediction is coming not just from some think-tank but from those at the heart of the auto industry. No less an authority than Robert Lutz, vice-chairman of General Motors, has expressed his support for “the ultimate electrification of the automobile.”

A recent report by IBM Global Business Services, based on interviews with 125 automotive and related industry leaders in 15 countries, predicts unambiguously that: “All new vehicles in 2020 will have some level of hybridization.”

Why the sudden surge of interest in electric power? Because there may be little other choice.

The combined global needs to reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) have reached a critical mass.

And those needs are being reinforced by regulation.

While there are some uncertainties in final rulings, U.S. regulations will require at least an average 40 per cent reduction in fuel consumption from new vehicles by 2020, and Canada is expected to follow suit.

Such a dramatic reduction in what is, for the automotive industry, a relatively short time frame will require an equally dramatic rethinking of vehicle design.

Reducing vehicle mass is one alternative, but doing so to the degree necessary would almost certainly mean major reductions in vehicle size — a prescription the North American driving public is unlikely to accept, based on past experience.

Another alternative is to substitute electrical for petroleum energy in at least part of the vehicle fleet. And one way to do that is with hybrids.

Starting with just a couple of players at the turn of the century, the market is now replete with hybrid electric vehicles, more commonly called just “hybrids.”

A hybrid is a vehicle with two different power sources — typically an internal combustion engine and an electric motor supplied by an on-board battery pack. The batteries are charged by a generator driven by the engine and by braking forces.

That stored electrical energy is then used to supplement the engine when extra power is needed and/or to drive the vehicle electrically for short periods, thus reducing fuel consumption.

There are multiple types of hybrids with varying degrees of electric contribution, from micro-hybrids, which do little more than enable an automatic start-stop system, to full hybrids, which permit operation on electric power for short periods.

An automatic start-stop system, which is a common hybrid feature, shuts the engine whenever the vehicle stops and restarts it when needed, thus eliminating fuel consumption during idling.

Initially thought of just as economy cars, hybrids now span the vehicle range from compact to luxury, including SUVs and pickup trucks.

Toyota is the acknowledged market leader, with more than 1.5 million hybrids sold worldwide (including its luxury Lexus brand). But hybrids are also offered in Canada by Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, and Nissan.

While hybrids are still relative fringe players in the overall market, accounting for only about 2 per cent of vehicle sales, their acceptance is growing.

For models where the option is available, hybrid penetration is as high as 25 per cent.

The next big step will be plug-in hybrids, which allow the on-board battery pack to be recharged by plugging into the electrical grid, as well as by the vehicle’s onboard sources.

GM ignited interest in plug-ins with the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt concept car at the Detroit auto show in January 2007 and subsequent announcement of plans to build production versions in late 2010. Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, and several others are also pursuing plug-in programs.

The Volt’s technology goes a step beyond just adding plug-in capability.

Unlike hybrids now on the market, in which the engine and the electric motor(s) provide power, only the electric motor provides motive power in the Volt.

There is no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels. It just drives a generator supplying electric power to the motor or to the battery pack.

Technically, the configuration is a series hybrid but GM prefers to call it an extended-range electric vehicle (EREV) to distinguish it from more conventional hybrids.

The Volt is said to be capable of driving up to 64 kilometres on electric power, with the gas engine then kicking in to extend the range.

The possible stumbling block in the potential of this technology is the need for rapid development of suitable Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery technology.

Li-ion batteries offer increased power and energy density compared to the nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries currently used in most hybrids. Consequently, they can accept and store more energy from the grid and thus enable a greater degree of electric-only operation.

Li-ion technology is already widely used in cellphones, laptop computers and power tools, but there are significant challenges in scaling it up for use in automobiles.

That said, they are engineering challenges, says Dave Vieau, CEO of A123 Systems, one of the battery suppliers working with GM on the Volt program.

The science has already been proven so it is not a matter of inventing something but going through the necessary steps to implement the science safely, reliably, and at a competitive cost, he says.

Several battery suppliers around the world are also working with automakers to commercialize the technology. And progress has been such that GM now seems confident that its once ambitious 2010 introduction target will be met.



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