Nissan Leaf
Nissan Leaf. Click image to enlarge

By Jim Kerr

The year 2020 is approaching far too quickly. What will we be driving when the calendar rolls over to the next decade? According to automotive industry experts, the majority of us will still be driving cars powered by the internal combustion engine (ICE), as it is now commonly referred to. In fact, it is estimated that about 80 per cent of the vehicles on the road will use an ICE.

The internal combustion engine has been around in automobiles for over a century and there have been continual improvements, but the new technologies and materials available today are enabling changes to develop at an ever increasing pace. Take for example, Mazda’s new Skyactiv engine technology. Their gasoline engine will be first available on the new Mazda3 and it will have the highest compression ratio of any ICE in production. High compression ratios boost efficiency and power but have traditionally caused emissions and driveability problems. Using some hot rod concepts combined with new materials, computers and technology, Mazda is able to virtually redesign the ICE into a powerplant that has more power, uses less fuel and reduces emissions. Seeing innovation like this makes one wonder what else is in store for us around the corner.

Of the 20 per cent of vehicles on the road that don’t use ICE, there will be several power sources. Fuel cell vehicles will be a small percentage. Many of the alternate fuel vehicles will be electric. When it comes to electric vehicles, there are three main types: most of us are now familiar with the hybrid vehicle concept, where the vehicle is powered by a combination of ICE and battery power. More and more manufacturers add hybrids to their vehicle line-ups every year.

Other types of electric power are BEVs, or Battery Electric Vehicles, and PHEVs, or Plugin Hybrid Electric Vehicles. BEVs are the purest form of electric propulsion. Their reduced complexity over other electric vehicles makes them more desirable, but range is a factor. Battery technology is advancing rapidly but it still takes a lot of battery to move a vehicle, and those batteries are expensive. A breakthrough in battery technology could see BEVs come on strong. Right now, range is typically in the area of 80 km, which is fine for daily commuting, when you can plug in at night to recharge the vehicle.

PHEVs will likely be more mainstream by 2020. These vehicles will offer extended range by having a “backup” power supply when the battery goes dead. The Chevy Volt is a great example, where it can be used for commuting on electric power but has the range for long road trips.

There is much to get ready for electric vehicle operation, regardless of the type. One of the items just starting to find its way into a few major cities are public charging stations. Park your electric vehicle in the parking stall, plug it in and use your card or account to start the charging process. While you are running errands, the car is getting charged up for the next drive.

Will we see charging stations along the highway in the same way we now see filling stations? Probably. They will be along major corridors first, then expand across the country. General Electric already has charging units designed and available for commercial use this coming year. What will it mean for our driving style? If you have to stop every so often to charge up, will we see the return of small towns? Will driving become more relaxing, as we stop often to stretch and view the scenery? Some are sure to think this inefficient, but maybe slowing life down a little would be good. It could develop a whole new culture and mindset.

Many other practical things will have to happen. Mechanics will have to be trained on servicing electric vehicles. Tow truck drivers will need to know battery precautions, as will emergency response providers. No matter what we drive, there are bound to be lapses of inattention that cause an accident. How do we deal with the new technology?

This will all happen – seemingly automatically – as these new vehicles are introduced. Will driving still be fun? I hope so, and believe it will. It will just be different, and different can be good.

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