The first annual Earth Day in 1970 was a yawner, as far as I was concerned at the time. As I looked over my shoulder to glance at the news headlines about Earth Day in Detroit, the automotive capital of the world, I shrugged and continued on to my next engineering class. Honestly, I didn’t think about it too much for the next 20 years.
By the early 1990’s, President George H. W. Bush pushed for and signed two sweeping bills requiring both government and private fleets to use an increasing percentage of alternately fueled vehicles. In those days there seemed to be two huge motivations in finding alternatives to using gasoline to power vehicles - cleaner air, and a reduction in the amount of crude oil the USA must import (the energy security issue). Those bills provided the impetus for billions of dollars of research and development on a wide range of fuels and technologies that could possibly be a substitute for gasoline.
Today, after 20+ years of aggressive research, alternate fuel vehicles continue to be a conundrum, a disappointing small niche, while the auto industry is investing heavily in lighter, cleaner vehicles that are gasoline and diesel-based. Why?
Here are some highly summarized versions of what has happened to various major alternate fuel strategies over the last 20years:
Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles
In the early 1990’s these were deemed the “go-to sweetheart” of all the alternative fuel possibilities. After initiating and managing the natural gas vehicle (NGV) programs at GM, this writer left GM to become the NGV General Manager at the nation’s largest natural gas distributor, Southern California Gas Company. This fuel is very clean and very plentiful in the US. Unfortunately, it is costly to store compressed natural gas (CNG) onboard the vehicle, and also very costly to build a nationwide network of public refueling stations for CNG.
These factors, combined with winter price spikes for natural gas, made it difficult for consumers to adopt. Consequently, the biggest users have been buses and trucks that consume a lot of fuel and are re-fueled and maintained in a large centralized depot. With the help of the federal government, the transit bus industry has widely adopted natural gas, resulting in a significant improvement in air quality in many major cities. However, it remains a fuel that is not widely marketed to the general public.
In the late 1980’s, GM’s Chairman Roger Smith made a decision to develop the EV-1, a pure electric vehicle. Despite the awareness that advanced battery chemistry technology was needed, GM opted to develop the EV-1 with heavy, old technology - lead-acid batteries. This seemed to be a cost and risk decision, as the batteries were cheaper and had been “tried and true” for many decades as a reliable technology. The results, in the consumer’s hands, were an embarrassment.
In southern California, for instance, the advertised range of travel of was well over 100 miles; however, this soon dropped to 50 or even 40, as using the A/C or going up a small hill proved to greatly impact the range. By the late 1990’s, the EV-1 had been reduced to a novelty.
Since the EV-1, many automakers and startup companies have spent billions in search of a lighter-weight, higher-energy, longer-lasting vehicle battery chemistry. Although much improvement has been made, mass appeal on a large volume scale is still elusive.
Although 100% clean on a vehicle basis, the pollution from making the electricity is still with us. This, combined with a lack of recharging infrastructure, vehicle costs, and battery replacement have prohibited wide-scale adoption. However, this is improving in some urban centers.
Propane, as a vehicle fuel, is cleaner than gasoline, much easier to store than natural gas, and widely available. Only recently, however, have fuel-injected technologies for propane-powered engines been developed by major automakers. As with natural gas, these are being marketed to operators of fleet vehicles, such as school buses or utility trucks. There are publically accessible propane fuel dispensers, but they are still not nearly as convenient as gasoline stations. Filling up must, by necessity, require careful planning lest you become stranded.
E85 is 85% corn-based alcohol and 15% gasoline. It is cleaner than gasoline and must be used only in an automaker-certified “Flex Fuel” vehicle. The engine and fuel system components have been changed since the fuel is corrosive. Although E85 may seem cheaper at the pump (in major cities), an E85 vehicle gets worse gas mileage than gasoline, resulting in higher costs per mile of driving.
Farmers in the US have done a good job of lobbying for more corn-based fuel for vehicles, although some have argued that this success has resulted in a negative impact on food prices for consumers. The US government has just recently announced that E10 (90% gasoline/10% ethanol) can be used without having the flex fuel option from the automakers. However, the technical community among automakers has quickly announced that use of E10, in non-Flex Fuel” vehicles, will void the warranty. So proceed with caution.
Hybrid means that the vehicle is using an assortment of technologies combined with a smaller gasoline engine to conserve energy, while still providing the performance and convenience that consumers desire. Hybrid vehicles will deliver a cleaner footprint compared to a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle, but the trade-off is cost and maintenance.
The vehicle will have more engineering and advanced components, thus resulting in a higher vehicle price and more expensive long-term maintenance programs. Engineers indicate that the total energy efficiency from the original source to the wheels of the vehicle is degraded, due to the involved process of providing “sufficient clean and convenient power to the wheels”.
Hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe. For vehicle applications, researchers have studied both compressed hydrogen (similar to the natural gas vehicle strategy) as well as hydrogen-based fuel cells. In the case of fuel cells, 20 years of research have indicated that each vehicle would need a “miniature refinery” on board in order to make and store hydrogen sufficiently.
To date, these efforts have not resulted in the identification of cost-effective solutions for consumers. However, it is an area in which advanced research is occurring on inexpensive ways to “crack” the H2O (water) molecule to allow cost effective processing and use of hydrogen to power a vehicle….and all you would need to do is fill up with your garden hose. I, for one, can’t wait!
What about gasoline and diesel?
It is very interesting to follow the logic of an engineer. Automotive engineers have long indicated that very effective clean air and fuel economy strategies are available at our fingertips. There are a small number of factors in auto design that materially impact fuel consumption and efficiency. Among those are aerodynamics, weight, stickiness of the tires, engine efficiency and transmission gearing. By optimizing these factors for gasoline of high technology diesel-powered vehicles, very significant gains could possibly be made.
My personal view is that the engineers knew this all along, but with all of the alternative fuel research over the last 20+ years focus on improving these basics has largely been ignored. I have personally heard engineers say: “Yes, internal combustion engine technology has been with us for over 100 years, but we have yet to realize the full potential of efficiency gains that are possible”.
In 2012, the Federal government signed a historic agreement with automakers providing aggressive fuel economy targets by 2025. Average fuel economy will need to be 54.5 miles per gallon for cars. Within this context we are now starting to see aggressive new fuel economy technologies within the gasoline and clean diesel power systems.
A prime example is the emerging onslaught of 8, 9 and even 10-speed transmissions. Automakers are realizing as they manage the gearing, they can match performance and economy needs of consumers with smaller, higher-technology engines.
The need for clean alternatives will always be with us and continues to drive engineers to research, invent, develop and production-ize. What the last 20 years has taught is that:
- 1. We all must be good stewards of natural resources, that
- 2. Engineering breakthroughs can and do occur, that
- 3. Investors are willing to take chances, that
- 4. Needs and wants for personal transportation functionality, convenience, cost and design are strong (i.e. the voice of the customer), and
- 5. When the customer’s needs and wants are met, investors are rewarded.
Let’s all hope that 2014 will a year of great developments in personal transportation.
About Author John Weber
Offering a true insider’s perspective, John has provided automotive-related insight to the corporate conference rooms of General Motors Corporation, Isuzu Motors, Mitsubishi Motors, J.D. Power and Associates and others, covering a wide range of topics involving product policy and strategy, product development, quality, manufacturing and customer satisfaction.
A member of the Society of Automotive Engineers boasting degrees in both mechanical engineering and business, John is additionally recognized as an automotive industry expert by the US Department of Energy. When not providing valuable expert content to Auto.com, he enjoys traveling with his wife around the globe.