Global Warming to Change our Motor Industry - Part 2
Apr 2007
Not only in Europe, greenhouse gas issues will have a big impact also in the United States. Although the federal government led by President Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol and opposed to any drastic measures which could harm the interests of auto makers, many states are going the other way. Among them, California is the key motivator to cut greenhouse gas emission. Three years ago, California set a regulation that auto makers must start implementing measures to cut CO2 emission from 2009, and by 2016 the emission level of cars and trucks should be reduced by 25 percent and 18 percent respectively. Later on, the California regulation was adopted by 9 more states – Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington. Arizona, Maryland and New Mexico are also considering to join the list. Obviously, controlling automobile emission has become a worldwide trend.

So, what should car makers do ?

The answer is to develop cars which use energy more efficiently. We can improve the efficiency of internal combustion engines and transmission systems. We can reduce the energy consumption of peripherals and equipment. We can recapture energy from braking. We can make our cars lighter and more aerodynamic efficient. We can use hydrogen instead of petroleum so that the only by-product will be water. There are plenty of technologies lying in front of us, but what we are more interested is how feasible they are and how they are going to change our cars in the future.

Unquestionably, small cars will be less influenced by the legislation against emission because of their inherently lower emission. Today we have plenty of mini cars meeting the EU emission target of 130g /km. Tomorrow the C-segment cars - the most popular segment in Europe which includes Volkswagen Golf, Opel Astra and Ford Focus – will also be able to meet the target by continuous improvement of conventional technologies. The recently facelifted BMW 120d is a good example. It employs advanced direct fuel injection (with piezo injectors and higher pressure), on-demand oil / water pumps, electric steering, automatic start-stop system and regenerative braking to achieve 129g /km, which is an improvement of 15 percent from the previous car. BMW demonstrated that you don’t always need revolutionary and costly technologies to achieve a sizable improvement.

However, petrol version of C-segment cars will be more difficult to approach the target of 130g /km. The BMW 120i, for instance, produces 152g /km even though it employs the latest direct injection technology (also with piezo injectors). Petrol engines generally produces 20 percent or so more emission than diesel engines with comparable performance. This make them harder to survive in the future. Nevertheless, petrol engines are lighter and less costly to build than diesel engines, therefore they are still appealing to small cars. To reduce emission, the recent trend is to downsize the petrol engines and compensate with turbocharging. The new Fiat Bravo is an example. It skips conventional 1.6 to 2.0-liter engines and replaces them with a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine. This is also a cost-effective solution because the engine is based on the naturally aspirated 1.4-liter unit, thus Fiat no longer needs to build two four-cylinder engine families.

Petrol engines will continue to survive in small cars and high performance cars, but they are going to have no future for medium size cars upward. To meet emission targets or to avoid heavy tax penalties, larger cars will have to switch to either diesel power, hybrid-petrol or hybrid-diesel power in the next 5 to 10 years. This is why German car makers promote Bluetec diesel technology so hard in Europe and North America. This is also why Mercedes and BMW joined GM to develop 2-mode hybrid system. The German is well prepared for the challenge.

Toyota is the leader in hybrid technology. This is the result of over 30 years of research and development. While other rivals saw no commercial incentives in developing hybrid, Toyota persisted in the technology and finally got return in the second generation Prius. Hybrid powertrain is still too expensive to small cars, therefore Toyota has shifted its focus to larger cars such as Estima MPV, Camry, Lexus GS, LS and RX. The strategy is to use a four-cylinder hybrid to replace a V6, a V6 hybrid to replace a V8 and a V8 hybrid to replace a V12. This ensure the hybrid cars to return considerably lower fuel consumption and emission compare with class rivals with comparable performance. Until now, hybrid cars still contribute to a small portion of Toyota’s annual sales. However, once EU and the states of USA started tightening emission standards, Toyota will be a big winner in short term.

In longer term, say, 10-15 years later, the trend could shift to “plug-in hybrid”, as demonstrated by GM’s Chevrolet Volt concept car. Plug-in hybrid allows cars to work as a pure zero-emission electric cars for short ranges (say, to travel between home and workplace), or use the on-board charging system to extend ranges. The charging system could be a very small and efficient internal combustion engine which only needs to work at constant rev to charge up the battery, or even hydrogen fuel cells. Plug-in hybrid is even more energy efficient than the hybrid technology Toyota holds today.

Of course, the ultimate solutions will be hydrogen engines or hydrogen fuel cells. However, considering the substantial infrastructure it takes to build hydrogen plants and refueling stations, hydrogen power is unlikely to be become popular until at least 15 years later.

That may be too long to forecast. Next part, we are going to see how our cars will look like in the future. Will our cars sacrifice driving pleasure in exchange for higher energy efficiency ?

Mark Wan

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