Mitsubishi iMiev plug-in electric car
Mitsubishi iMiev plug-in electric car. Click image to enlarge

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Electric propulsion takes the lead

Article and photos by Gerry Frechette

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Future Auto Tech Summit

Vancouver, British Columbia – The 11th biennial Globe Conference on Business and the Environment held in Vancouver in March included the third Auto Future Tech Summit, a series of panel discussions on the future of the car, with noted industry experts putting forth their opinions on where personal mobility is heading in the not-too-distant future. The Summit has established itself as something of a barometer for trends in automotive propulsion technology.

Hydrogen-powered Ford Focus
Nissan fuel cell vehicle
Hydrogen-powered Ford Focus (top); Nissan fuel cell vehicle. Click image to enlarge

In 2006, the first such summit was all about possibilities, with the consensus seeming to be that hydrogen-fueled vehicles were going to be on the market and in driveways soon, with ethanol-fueled vehicles also being a plausible alternative, both fuels being cited for their sustainability and friendliness to the environment. There were several hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on hand to drive, and even a filling station. The proponents of hydrogen as a vehicle fuel were almost messianic in their fervor for it.

In 2008, hydrogen and ethanol were still in the picture as desirable paths to follow, but there was attention being paid to clean diesel (despite its carbon-based origins) and electricity. As in 2006, there were several vehicles on display in the Globe trade show, but still no clear consensus on the one direction that the world’s auto industry would follow to wean vehicle owners off gasoline.

At Globe 2010, held March 24th through 26th, the landscape had changed considerably. One would be hard-pressed to find any mention at all of hydrogen fuel cells, as the promise of this technology has been diminished, at least in the short term, by the continued lack of refuelling infrastructure and the cost of the technology. Ethanol was almost equally off the radar, the industry having gone through its own public perception crisis when it became known that corn formerly used for foodstock had been diverted into fuel for vehicles. Making ethanol from waste material is the new reality, but again, there is little refuelling infrastructure, at least in Canada.

Plug-in hybrid charging station
Plug-in hybrid charging station. Click image to enlarge

So what was the main topic of discussion this year, and the consensus choice as the propulsion system of the near and distant future? Electricity, of course: or more exactly, electrically-propelled vehicles, with several different approaches to generating and storing the power. Pure electrics (EVs) are on the way soon, of course, but with a projected range well under 200 kilometres with currently-available battery technology, there is still the issue of “range anxiety” to deal with. For that reason, the hot topics this year were plug-in hybrids and extended-range electric vehicles.

Toyota Canada, being a sponsor of Globe, had Director Larry Hutchinson on hand to give the manufacturer’s viewpoint in the first session, The Green Car Revolution. Not surprisingly, given that Toyota has obviously established some expertise in hybrids, and will have a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) within two years, he leans towards having an engine of some sort on board, but in any case, the main concerns he listed with electric vehicles remain cost, range and reliability. Looking ahead, he sees needs including more charging infrastructure, clean power generation, better batteries, and incentives and subsidies from government to enable early adopters to be able to afford electric cars.

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