Monday, June 23, 2008

Is the Car Industry Headed in the Right Direction?

I came across an interesting article by Iain Carson in the Guardian. He argues that "manufacturers will only deliver improvements when they are forced to."

Giving us a brief history lesson, he cites that "One hundred years ago this October Henry Ford's Model T launched the mass motor industry. Simple and rugged enough for country tracks, it was also the world's first flex-fuel vehicle. Its engine could runon petrol or ethanol; Ford thought that farmers might prefer to make their own fuel from corn. In fact it was already as economical with either fuel as the average American car today."

"Until the Model T, nine out of 10 cars were electric. Gasoline-powered vehicles came to dominate as oil was found in Texas, and the battery-powered starter motor made internal combustion cars easier and safer to start, without dangerous backfires. Now the car industry looks set for another revolution."

"The most hopeful sign across the board is that the car industry, led by Toyota, has realised that it is in its own interest to develop alternative technologies that really work to cut carbon emissions. Toyota has sold a million of its conventional petrol-electric hybrid cars, and other manufacturers are piling in with their versions. GM [recently] reaffirmed bringing to market its Volt plug-in hybrid in 2010 - and said it might ditch its gas-guzzling Hummers."

"The Volt is an example of the latest twist in the hybrid - it can be plugged into the mains overnight, and equipped with a battery that can provide a range greater than 30 miles; the petrol engine is only a stand-by if the battery runs down. Battery-powered vehicles, even if the electricity comes from coal-fired power stations, are more energy efficient than internal combustion engines; if the electricity comes from nuclear or renewables, there is no carbon emission at all."

"Beyond the plug-in hybrid or battery-only car being developed by Renault and others, there is the fuel-cell electric vehicle, running on hydrogen and emitting only water vapour from its exhaust pipe. Makers such as Toyota, Honda and Mercedes believe that the car of the future will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells within 20 years, and costs are coming down as parts suppliers develop mass production techniques."

"Oil and energy companies are working with Mercedes and others to create a "hydrogen highway" carving through Germany from north to south. The European commission and the German government are putting about a billion euros into developing the network. Even if making hydrogen consumes electricity, the fuel cell is still more efficient than internal combustion engines."

"No one can be sure if electric cars, biofuels or hydrogen power are the answer to cutting emissions. What seems to be happening is that these different technologies are competing with each other to improve the carbon footprint of road transport. The tougher the rules, the harder car companies will work to find alternatives. And high petrol prices are already changing US motorists: in March they drove about 10% less than a year earlier, and sales of gas-guzzling SUVs have tumbled. Meanwhile, even if oil eases back to around $100 a barrel, the days of cheap motoring are over."