New York. March 22, 2005
New York. March 22, 2005. The Ford Escape Hybrid was in town to take on the worst congested commutes and determine New York’s “Longest Miles” and demonstrate the vehicle’s fuel economy advantages. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

With gasoline prices steadily rising, car buyers are definitely talking alternatives. But will we really do anything this time? After all, this scenario is not new: a short-term spike in prices causes people to demand more fuel-efficient and environmentally sensitive cars, then when prices settle (or we get used to them), it’s back to large, gas-guzzling vehicles. Is it any different now?

Apparently so. Most experts agree that a significant environmental corner is being turned, as easily accessible sources of oil literally dry up. Pollution, much of it from motor vehicles, is becoming a global scourge as smog shrouds our cities. If that isn’t enough of a catalyst to change, over the next five years China alone is expected to add 120 million vehicles to its roads – an increase of 600% over current levels. Add that to increases in India and by 2010, the world’s fleet will easily exceed one billion vehicles, all requiring fuel from a diminishing, non-renewable and potentially polluting natural resource.

For many people, alarm bells are ringing. According to Edouard Michelin, CEO of the Michelin Tire Company and sponsor of the Challenge Bibendum (an international exhibition of “alternative” technologies), “We must move into an era of sustainable mobility, and we absolutely must hasten the arrival of the most efficient solutions.”

What those letters mean
Enter a discussion of “green” vehicles and sustainable mobility, and you can quickly get lost in the acronyms. Here are a few of the more common ones:

Internal Combustion Engine. Probably one of these is powering your car. Gasoline is mixed with air, and is ignited with a spark plug to produce controlled combustion that moves pistons to provide mechanical power. In a diesel engine, high pressure ignites the fuel-air mixture, rather than spark plugs.

A clean-burning diesel fuel made from renewable resources such as soybeans. It contains no petroleum, but can be mixed with petroleum-based diesel. It is made through a process whereby glycerine is separated from vegetable oils. Waste vegetable oils can be used as a source of biodiesel.

An emerging technology in Europe, and especially in Sweden. Biogas is methane gas produced from the treatment of organic waste diverted from landfills. Can be mixed with up to 10% hydrogen. Bi-fuel vehicles from Volvo, for instance, can run on biogas or gasoline.

Hybrid Electric Vehicle. A vehicle that uses a gasoline (or diesel) engine in conjunction with an electric motor (or motors) for motive power. The electric motor is powered by electricity generated by braking and deceleration, which is stored in a nickel metal hydride battery.

Fuel Cell Vehicle. A vehicle that uses hydrogen for fuel that is converted by chemical processes into electricity. The electricity powers one or more motors and produces no harmful emissions.

An electric vehicle. The Chinese are developing a new generation of electric-only vehicles, including buses. The Korean company GEO-EV recently released a concept vehicle that uses lithium ion polymer battery and has a range of 300km.

Flex-fuel vehicle. An internal combustion engine is modified to run of any combination of gasoline and ethanol. Current Canadian vehicles can run on up to 10% ethanol. E-85 vehicles run on up to 85% ethanol. Benefits are lower emissions, ethanol is not a petroleum produce, and potential savings at the pump.

Still very new, the idea of a plug-in hybrid is gaining acceptance. A supplementary or replacement battery interfaces with the existing hybrid system to increase range by plugging in overnight. An e-hybrid that is plugged in every night can reduce emissions by 50% over the entire fuel cycle (well-to-wheels) due to its increased fuel economy, and non-production of tailpipe gases when running on electricity.

The idea that hybrid vehicles can send surplus electric power back to the power grid, permitting residential power credits, or the ability to buy and sell electricity.

Ultimately it’s hydrogen that’s expected to become a replacement for gasoline, and considerable resources are being deployed toward this end. But in the meantime there’s a potpourri of technologies attempting to get a foothold in the marketplace, both in motive power and fuels. Some of them you can even buy now.

After nearly a century, for example, electrics are finally back (albeit with help from gasoline) in the form of gasoline-electric hybrids. Thoughts of clean, silent, non-polluting electricity have been a dream since the dawn of the automobile industry, and today’s modern hybrids finally make good on the technology’s promise by reducing fuel consumption (especially in city driving) and emissions.

After a slow start, consumers are warming to the hybrid message (Honda has sold over 100,000 hybrids, and Toyota over 250,000). In Canada, the 2006 model year sees the introduction of a luxury hybrid SUV (Lexus 400h), seven-seat family SUV (Toyota Highlander Hybrid) and an all-new Honda Civic Hybrid to the existing choice of hybrid sedans and compact SUVs from Honda (Accord V6, Civic, Insight), Toyota (Prius) and Ford (Escape).

More are coming, from Nissan with its Altima Hybrid due in 2007 and General Motors, with its Saturn VUE in 2006 and Chevrolet Malibu in 2007. Also due in 2007 are GM’s two-mode hybrid system in the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon pickup trucks. Toyota will introduce a Camry Hybrid to compete with the Altima and Accord. Even Porsche has openly disclosed that, in cooperation with Volkswagen and Audi, they are looking at gasoline-hybrid technology as one way of blending performance and economy in future products.

Hybrid gasoline-electric systems use both a low-emissions gasoline engine and an electric motor, and typically feature a Nickel-Metal-Hydride battery (it’s not as heavy as you may think: about 30 kilograms) to store electricity that’s generated while decelerating. While driving, the stored energy in the battery powers the electric motor that assists the gasoline engine, or, depending on the system, operates independently. When stopped, the gasoline engine can shut down, further saving fuel.

2005 Ford Escape Hybrid
2005 Ford Escape Hybrid: The Ford Escape Hybrid system packages a four-cylinder gasoline engine with a powerful electric motor, powered by an efficient battery pack located under the rear cargo floor. Click image to enlarge

Toyota’s so-called “full” Hybrid Synergy Drive enables the vehicle to operate on battery power alone, moving the vehicle from standstill using only its electric motor (this it can do when creeping along in heavy traffic, for instance). According to Wes Pratt, Toyota Canada’s public relations manager, Hybrid Synergy Drive “forms the backbone of future propulsion technologies on Toyota’s path to developing the ultimate ECO-car.”

Honda Civic Hybrid

Honda Civic Hybrid
Honda Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Honda’s “mild” Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) cannot start the vehicle from a standstill using only its electric motor, but the latest IMA system in the 2006 Civic Hybrid can operate in low speed cruising mode on battery alone, and uses a new low speed valve-timing mode when starting from standstill and in high-speed cruising. Thus the distinction between “mild” and “full” hybrids is becoming blurred.

The ability of hybrid vehicles to operate at slow speeds for several kilometres on battery alone (rapid acceleration will always engage the gasoline engine) gives them a significant edge in fuel consumption (and emissions reduction). This is supported by Natural Resources Canada’s figures of 4.0/4.2 L/100km, city/highway for the Toyota Prius, which is very thrifty for a midsize car. But in vehicles like the 2006 Highlander Hybrid SUV, the benefits are more significant.

Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

Indeed, the use of hybrid technology in large vehicles like SUVs is a welcome development. In addition to the Toyota and Lexus SUVs, the Ford Escape, Canada’s best selling compact SUV, is also available as a hybrid (it is a full hybrid, and uses some Toyota technology under licence). A recent “one-tank” challenge in Toronto saw an Escape Hybrid cover over 970 km of city driving.
Hybrid power does have its detractors, however. At a news briefing in Toronto last year, Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn suggested that hybrid vehicles, in his opinion, were not good value for the consumer (hybrids add 10-15% to the price of a vehicle), which is why Nissan and Infiniti don’t offer them (the company does offer diesels in other markets).

Nonetheless, because of growing demand, Nissan has signed a licensing agreement with Toyota to use that company’s hybrid technology in its upcoming Altima.

Lexus RX 400h
Lexus RX 400h. Click image to enlarge

And BMW’s Professor Raymond Freymann, managing director of BMW Group Research and Technology, says of hybrids that, “Two engines simply add weight to the car, and add money to the car.” As far as hybrids are concerned, he favours the development of super capacitors, rather than batteries, and this is one of the routes his company is taking.

Finally, recent reports of less-than-expected fuel economy by hybrid owners have taken a little shine off of hybrid technology’s previously untarnished record. It’s hard to reconcile those reports with the results from Ford’s “one tank” challenge, but hybrid mileage does vary with driving style and climate, just like conventional vehicles.

There are other contenders in the “alternative” fuel debate. If you’re simply looking for fuel economy, diesels are hard to beat, especially on the highway (where hybrids are arguably weaker). Volkswagen’s latest Golf and Jetta compact sedans, featuring the company’s 1.9-litre turbo diesel injected engine (TDI) return 6.2/4.6 L/100 km, city/highway. Canadians seem to like diesels, as nearly half (48%) of new Volkswagens sold in Canada are TDI’s (a far higher percentage than found in the U.S.).

Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Volkswagen pumpe duse injector system
Volkswagen “pumpe duse” injector system. Click image to enlarge

However, you may think using diesel fuel is a step backwards from using gasoline. It is, after all, the fuel of choice for trucks, trains, ships and furnaces. It has a reputation, largely deserved, of producing harmful emissions from noisy engines. But significant advances have taken place both with the diesel engine and diesel fuel in the past decade, especially as they apply to cars. Modern “common rail” diesels ensure more complete combustion and less unburned fuel and emissions. Alternatively, Volkswagen’s “pumpe duse” system uses a very high-pressure fuel injection system where each cylinder has its own pump to deliver fuel, and has been praised for its smooth operation and power.

One of the main contributors to noxious exhaust gasses in diesel fuel is sulphur, and here too, progress is being made. Soon-to-be implemented legislation will virtually remove sulphur from diesel in North America (June 1, 2006 for road-going vehicles in Canada is the good news, but significantly this doesn’t include fuel for non-road applications like trains, shipping and farm equipment). Currently, diesel fuel is allowed to contain 500 mg/kg sulphur, but the new legislation will dramatically reduce this to 15 mg/kg. Solutions are also being developed to further reduce particulate matter emissions (soot) from cars by using sophisticated filters and traps.

The Canadian diesel presence is a fraction of Europe’s, however, where over 40% of consumers drive diesels, many of them produced by companies like Honda that are also leaders in the development of gasoline hybrids. In some months recently, 60% of new-car purchases in Europe have been diesels. Nonetheless, BMW’s Prof. Freymann believes that diesel use in Europe is peaking, although with gasoline costing $2.50 per litre, diesel seems the obvious choice in the short term.

In Canada we can choose from Volkswagen’s Golf, Jetta, Passat and Touareg, the Jeep Liberty CRD, and the Mercedes-Benz the E320 CDI sedan. And Canada has preceded the U.S. in the introduction of the Smart, the tiny two-seat vehicle that’s part of the Mercedes Car Company. The Smart “fortwo” is built in France, and powered by a 900 cc diesel engine of German manufacture (fuel consumption is 4.6/3.7 L-100 km).

Most experts agree that with a global and politically delicate dependence on oil, and continuing sensitivity to environmental issues, the automobile industry is moving toward clean, electric powered vehicles that will use hydrogen for fuel, and not gasoline or diesel at all.

Ballard Power Systems Mark 902 fuel cell
Ballard’s Mark 902 fuel cell power module establishes a new standard of fuel cell performance by optimizing lower cost, design for volume manufacture, reliability, and power density. The Mark 902 represents Ballard’s 4th generation of transportation fuel cell platform and the technology is currently powering light and heavy-duty fuel cell vehicles on roads worldwide. Click image to enlarge

These fuel cell vehicles, or “FCVs”, may use a hydrogen fuel cell of the type developed by Canada’s Ballard Power Systems, for example, to convert hydrogen to electricity that will power the vehicle’s electric motor. Some FCV prototypes utilize batteries (Ford Focus FCV); some don’t (Honda FCX).

A related benefit is that much of the technology used in gasoline hybrids (regenerative braking, for instance) is also applicable to FCVs. In fact, engineers and industry executives will tell you that gasoline hybrids are a direct precursor to FCVs.

Says Jim Miller, Honda Canada’s Executive Vice-President, “Honda views Hybrid technology to be the incremental step toward the Fuel Cell. Our extensive experience in electrical technology within hybrid vehicles is a natural stepping-stone to advancing future fuel cell technology,”

But even though development of this technology is moving apace, there are no consumer hydrogen refuelling stations, and conversely, without wide availability of FCVs, energy companies have no incentive to develop them.

2006 Honda FCX
2006 Honda FCX

Honda FCX refuelling
Honda FCX refuelling. Click image to enlarge

That’s not the only problem for FCVs. An inexpensive replacement for platinum, the catalyst to change hydrogen to electricity in the fuel cell, is also required to bring the cost down to commercial levels (Ballard declines to say what its fuel cell actually costs, but Honda’s FCX which uses a fuel cell of its own manufacture is reported to cost one million dollars). Additionally, there are significant issues concerning the ability of FCVs to operate in sub-zero temperatures (although Honda Canada’s Mr. Miller says Honda has solved that problem in its FCX).

BMW’s Prof. Freymann is again sceptical, suggesting that fuel cells are not the way to go. He prefers using liquid hydrogen in special tanks to fuel an internal combustion engine.

“We think the internal combustion engine fuelled by liquid hydrogen is perfect. The technology exists. The internal combustion engine offers much better power density and efficiency than fuel cells,” he suggests in a recent interview.

But the development of fuel cells has momentum. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed an order calling for a network of hydrogen fuel stations to be established in his state by the end of the decade to promote fuel cell technology.

In Canada, the Purolator courier company will add a hybrid/FCV delivery vehicle to its curbside fleet in Toronto this year, and the Vancouver Fuel Cell Vehicle Program saw five Focus FCVs delivered to institutional customers in May.

Honda is definitely bullish on FCVs, and is already leasing its second-generation FCX to select customers in the U.S. and Japan. The small hatchback has a range of about 300 km and Honda may lease you one for a year if you live next to a hydrogen filling station, or are willing to set one up (realistically, that has meant institutional customers, but the first private lessees, a family in California, were announced by Honda last summer). The company expects the price of its FCVs to fall to that of its gasoline-powered cars by 2020.

Ford Focus FCV
Visible are the fuel cell stack, hybrid battery pack and electronics built into the Ford Focus FCV. Click image to enlarge

Like Honda, Toyota has an FCV (the FCHV) certified for use on Japanese roads, and most of the major manufacturers, like DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Nissan, and General Motors have early FCVs in operation.

In the meantime, the “alternative” vehicle choices for Canadian consumers are hybrids and diesels, although E-85 ethanol vehicles have promise. Encouragingly, a cost analysis carried out by the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) recently found that over five years of ownership, the cost differential between a conventional gasoline powered car and a hybrid is minimal. At current gas prices, they found, you may even save money by owning a hybrid over a five-year period. Obviously, the higher the price of gasoline, the better the hybrid value proposition.

In the medium term, we’ll see a variety of technologies operating in parallel, until fuel cells (likely) take over. Chances are that soon you’ll be able to order from a choice of powerplants for your new car, including gasoline-hybrid, diesel-hybrid, fuel cells, flex-fuel (ethanol), and gasoline, until at some point mid-century, the “ultimate ECO-car” as Toyota Canada’s Mr. Pratt puts it, replaces gasoline-powered vehicles once and for all.

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