Green is great in the long run

Green is Great in the Long Run

Take rising gasoline prices, add in a compelling political race for United States President, sprinkle in a dash of technological advances and…voila, you have a major boost for green-focused automotive manufacturers and suppliers that will have long-range implications on the future of consumer transportation.

With gasoline prices at record levels, automotive technology occupied center stage in the US presidential campaign. One candidate proposed a $300 million prize for the inventor of a next-generation battery powerful enough for long-range electric cars. Another candidate suggested a $4 billion plan for development of plug-in hybrids with the stated goal of 1 million vehicles to be ready for sale by 2015. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, either of these plans looks like big steps are in the making.

Environmental concerns are playing a much bigger role with today’s eco-conscious consumers. The disciples of global warming are making a case about the long-range effects of gasoline and diesel-fueled engines, which produce carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and unburned hydrocarbons. And while automakers and their suppliers are busy researching and developing alternatives to the internal combustion engine, the reality is that it will take years before innovative, effective and non-cost-prohibitive solutions are ready for the marketplace.

Much of hybrid technology falls into one of three classes: full hybrid vehicles, medium hybrid vehicles and mild hybrid vehicles. Full hybrids propel vehicles without using any gasoline. An example would be a full EV (electrical vehicle) that is powered by a nickel-metal-hybrid or lithium-ion battery pack. Medium hybrids can use a combustion engine, an electric motor or a combination of the two to propel the vehicle. In mild hybrid vehicles, the combustion engine runs whenever the vehicle is in motion. Mild hybrids are available in dealerships today, and one of the more popular, and simplest, systems available is the start/stop system.

In 2007, vehicles began using the Belt-Alternator-Starter (BAS) systems, commonly known as start/stop systems. BAS hybrid systems deliver improved fuel economy, most notably in city driving where fuel economy usually suffers. Efficiency is improved by shutting off the engine when the vehicle is brought to a stop, minimizing engine idling. The engine restarts when the brake pedal is released. It also cuts off fuel to the engine during vehicle deceleration and captures vehicle kinetic energy during deceleration to help charge the advanced nickel metal hydride hybrid battery. This is referred to as regenerative braking.

Hybrid technology will continue to flourish until battery technology is able to catch up, but some automakers and environmentalists remain skeptical about other alternatives, such as the potential of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. “I don’t think we’ll ever have hydrogen-powered passenger fuel-cell vehicles because the alternatives are more attainable and more affordable,” says the founder of a California-based advocacy group that favors plug-in hybrid cars.

Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles would have some advantages. As well as reducing fuel bills and emissions, hydrogen-powered cars could also help automakers by lowering material costs. A fuel-cell car has about 10% of the moving parts of a conventional vehicle. In a sign of hydrogen’s emergence as an automotive technology, one automaker recently moved fuel cells from its research and development division to its powertrain development business unit though automakers generally agree that fuel-cell powered vehicles are not likely to be in mass production in the near future.

Rising gas prices have given a boost to new technologies. A recent research report forecasts that motor vehicle technology would “change more significantly over the next five years than it has in the past 100.” Not coincidentally, it’s been about a hundred years since the Model T revolutionized the way cars were assembled and marketed, but a new day is dawning as today’s automakers are looking to reduce their reliance on the internal combustion engine by developing new hybrid, hydrogen and electric models.

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