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Jump start: the new automotive revolution.

For half a century, automotive technology has been subservient to the hedonistic demands of performance and style. Now, at last, the first generation of environmentally responsible cars is on the way.

At major auto shows in Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles during the last two years, automotive experts have been drawn to a startling conclusion: after dominating personal transportation for more than eight decades, the internal combustion engine-powered, gasoline-fueled, steel-bodied automobile may finally be losing its monopoly. Experimental low-emission cars that run on methane, hydrogen, or electricity - many with exceptional fuel economy - are now being built by more than a dozen companies.

In recent months, several small firms in Switzerland have begun building 400-kilogram (900-pound) two-passenger commuter cars made of high-tech composites. In California, a consortium of aerospace firms, electric utilities, and government agencies have built a showcase electric car with a range of up to 220 kilometers. And in Massachusetts, a small company called Solectria has begun marketing electric cars with solar cells mounted on the roof.

Among the major automakers, Mazda, Mercedes, and BMW have each built pollution-free hydrogen-powered cars, while General Motors is testing an electric sports car called the Impact. Toyota, Nissan, Ford, and Chrysler have been a bit slower, but all plan to market cars and vans that have been adapted to run on batteries during the next few years.

Taken as a whole, this is the biggest wave of automotive innovation since Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908. As the new designs go on sale in the late 1990s, they may yield the first environmentally responsible cars. Together with improved public transport and increased reliance on the bicycle and other two- or three-wheelers, the new cars may provide the foundation for a sustainable global transportation system in the 21st century.

Running on Empty

Although it emerged in the first decade of this century as a technological triumph, the automobile has become a scourge of late 20th century civilization. Tailpipe exhaust accounts for a preponderance of the air pollution that now sickens the world's cities, is responsible for extensive forest and crop damage, and produces about one-quarter of the greenhouse gases that now threaten the stability of the global atmosphere.

While cars have become substantially cleaner as a result of air pollution laws during the past two decades, their growing numbers have offset most of the gains. The world automobile fleet reached 450 million in the early 1990s, having grown by more than 100 million since 1980. Car ownership continues to grow rapidly in some areas of the developing world (particularly in parts of the Far East where incomes are booming), and has even spread to China and Russia. Despite the limited capacity of densely populated areas to accommodate them, soaring car fleets have already made cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta, and Manila among the most polluted in the world.

As auto emissions standards have been introduced and gradually tightened during the past quarter-century, the giant automakers and fuel suppliers have responded incrementally - slightly modifying engines, adding increasingly sophisticated catalytic converters, and introducing new fuel additives. However, the complexity of urban smog - a witches' brew of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and ozone - has frustrated pollution control efforts and led to repeated failures to meet legal deadlines for achieving safe and clean city air.

Efforts to free the automobile from its dangerous dependence on Middle Eastern oil have met similar frustrations. Although fuel economy has been substantially improved (doubling from an average of 14 miles per gallon for new cars sold in the United States in 1974 to 28 in 1992), growing automobile fleets have kept gasoline consumption rising in most countries.

Alternative fuels have also been tried. Ethanol from corn and sugar cane, methanol from fossil fuels, and even vegetable oils have been used to run cars on a limited scale. Collectively, they show a range of limitations, from high cost (ethanol) to serious health risks (methanol). Other efforts to reduce gasoline use have focused on minimal modification of today's engines and fuel supply systems, often yielding second-rate technologies such as California's flexible fuel vehicle - a compromise that doesn't perform exceptionally well on any fuel.

The rules of the game suddenly changed in March 1989, however, when California's South Coast Air Quality Management District produced a comprehensive plan to reduce air pollution in the Los Angeles basin (which is estimated to cost the region $9 billion annually in health costs alone). The plan dictated that 2 percent of the cars sold in 1998 would have to have "zero emissions," with the share rising to 10 percent by 2003.

While the idea of mandating a technology that had not yet been proven was unpopular with U.S. automakers, it turned out to be the most revolutionary rule in a quarter-century of emission controls. Around the globe, car companies realized they couldn't ignore what was happening in the land where the automobile culture began. From L.A. to Tokyo, the world's leading engineering minds began to stir.

Tour De Sol

Some of the most innovative thinking has come from Switzerland, where the first sparks were ignited four years before the California ruling, on June 25, 1985. That day, a ragtag assortment of 58 odd-looking racing cars pulled out of the town of Romanshorn and headed towards Lake Geneva, 368 kilometers (230 miles) away. Twenty-seven cars went the distance in this first Tour de Sol - a unique competition in which the only energy source permitted was the sun, and not a gram of air pollution left the cars.

The aim was to demonstrate the potential for solar energy, not to tout new competition for Porsche or Ferrari. The race was run in normal traffic and the winner maintained an average speed of only 38 kilometers per hour (24 mph). Yet, in the nine years since this modest beginning, the annual Tour de Sol has become a bonanza for automotive technology.

Ironically, it is the limitations of a solar car that have become the key to its impact. The roughly six square meters of photovoltaic cells that can be put on a car roof only generate about 500 watts of power - less than one horsepower, or enough to light five 100-watt lightbulbs. Even when using batteries, such cars generally run on 2,000 watts (2.5 horsepower) or less. As a result, the competitors have learned that efficiency is the key to victory. To maximize the speed and range of such a car, its energy needs must be reduced to a tiny fraction of those of a conventional car - forcing an entirely new approach to auto design.

In the eight runnings of the Tour de Sol, the cars have been transformed from Rube Goldberg contraptions to sleek thorough-breds that incorporate the latest synthetic materials, super-efficient motors, and aerodynamic designs borrowed from jet fighters. The annual race now attracts top engineering students and auto design teams worldwide, stimulating intense competition and rapid technological advances reminiscent of turn-of-the-century auto races that spurred the early development of the automobile.

The most advanced solar racing cars have maximum speeds over 150 kilometers per hour (over 90 mph), and can go 350 kilometers on a cloudy day before needing to recharge. These cars are so efficient that they can travel 10 kilometers on a single kilowatt-hour of electricity - costing only about 8 cents in the United States or 15 cents in Europe.

These high-tech racers are expensive to build, and given the vagaries of sunshine, may never be more than a novelry. However, the new technology has already captured the attention of Switzerland's talented engineers, and has led to some innovative and practical progeny.

The combined efforts of small-scale inventors and a progressive government have created a burgeoning interest in "light-electric vehicles" (LEVs), designed as two-passenger, battery-powered city cars with a range of 50 to 80 kilometers and a top speed of 50 to 100 kilometers per hour. Made of the same lightweight composites used in the Tour de Sol, the LEVs have small electric motors, usually attached to modified lead-acid batteries similar to those used to start conventional cars.

From the outside, LEVs look tiny, but inside they have ample room to comfortably seat two passengers and a full load of groceries. They weigh less than half as much as a normal car, accelerate rapidly, and are so short that the driver can skip parallel parking and just turn directly into the curb. Moreover, LEVs are so quiet that a driver stopped at a red light is sometimes uncertain whether the engine is running.

The big advantage of such a car is that it produces no urban air pollution. In addition, its high efficiency and modest material requirements allow substantial reductions in energy use and air emissions even when counting the impact of the power plant providing the electricity. (In Switzerland, most of the electricity already comes from hydroelectric plants, thus requiring no fossil fuels.) Urs Muntwyler, the Swiss engineer who co-founded the Tour de Sol, says that he is determined not only to reinvent the automobile but to transform modern transportation. The goal is to show consumers that small, cheap, emission-free cars make sense for city use.

The most advanced light electric vehicles are being designed by small Swiss inventors. For example, Max Horlacher, a plastics engineer, has built prototype cars using honey-comb fiberglass bodies that emerge from a mold rather than from metal fabrication and stamping machines. The Horlacher cars are less than three meters (nine feet) long, weigh 400 to 600 kilograms, and have a range of 150 to 400 kilometers (90 to 250 miles), depending on the batteries used.

Another company, Swatch, the Swiss watch manufacturer, has also developed some promising electric prototypes, and has discussed commercial ventures with Volkswagen and other companies. The French automaker Renault has built an electric commuter car called the Zoom that is only two meters long and has a city range of 156 kilometers.

Electric Vehicles Take to the Market

It is not an accident that the LEV emerged in a country that does not have an auto industry. The giant automakers have been toying with electric cars for decades, but are skittish about the large investments required to turn their "concept" cars into commercial products. However, recent developments, particularly government pressures to produce zero-emission vehicles, have forced virtually all the car manufacturers to take a new look.

Some of the most dramatic developments are in Europe, where the governments of Denmark and Switzerland are encouraging the use of electrics. In Switzerland, most cantons (states) forego the 500 to 800 Swiss franc ($350 to $550) tax that is typical for a conventional car, thereby allowing an electric to sell for less than an average small car.

About 2,000 electric cars arc now operating on Swiss roads, most of them imported from Denmark and France. They sometimes have rooftop solar cells for supplementary charging, but most power is drawn by plugging the car into a standard outlet at night. Several Swiss parking lots have already been equipped with plugs. Similarly, the French national electricity supplier plans to install battery charging devices in 22 French cities by 1995.

Many of the major European auto manufacturers have geared up electric vehicle development efforts in the past few years. Among the companies that have built new electric prototypes are BMW, Mercedes, Opel, Peugeot-Citroen, and Volkswagen. The Italian company Fiat is already in the showroom with electric versions of its popular Panda and Cinquecento subcompacts, but most of the other car makers seem still to be gauging the market.

Japanese auto companies, which since the 1950s have based their R&D programs on regulatory standards set in the United States, have taken the California zero-emission requirement particularly seriously. Nissan, for example, plans to have a four-door electric car on the market by the end of 1993 that will have a top speed of 90 kilometers per hour (56 mph) and a range of 120 kilometers. Like Toyota, Isuzu, and Mazda, which are also developing electric vehicles, Nissan will find a guaranteed market for its first sales: the fleets of local governments in Japan.

In the United States, the electric vehicle bandwagon got rolling in 1990, when General Motors announced its experimental sports car, the Impact. Designed by a team of outside engineers, the Impact employs an impressive combination of good aerodynamics and lightweight materials. Responding to the car's rapid acceleration and good handling, GM's management initially announced that it would have the Impact ready for public sale by 1995. At the end of 1992, amidst billion-dollar financial losses and the replacement of many of its top executives, the company decided to delay the Impact's debut until the late 1990s. However, 50 Impacts are to be built and tested in 1993.

Ford and Chrysler have been more reserved about electric vehicles. So far, they arc concentrating on electric vans that are only slightly modified versions of their gasoline-fueled cousins. However, in December 1992, the Big Three joined forces in an unprecedented effort to develop commercially viable electric vehicles by the end of the decade. A month later, top Japanese automakers organized a similar effort. Much of the effort to develop improved electric vehicles is focused on better batteries. Today's lead-acid batteries, which are still the most economical, have many disadvantages. They are heavy and expensive, must be frequently recharged, and have to be replaced several times during the life of a vehicle.

However, a variety of promising new batteries are being tested, including ones made of nickel cadmium, sodium sulfur, nickel iron, zinc bromide, and nickel metal hydride. In the United States, the Department of Energy assembled an Advanced Battery Consortium in 1991, to invest $260 million in improved batteries over a four-year period. Its aim is to develop high-energy-density, long-lived batteries that can be mass-produced for standard automobiles. Many experts believe that through this and other efforts, improved batteries will be on the market by the end of the decade.

A New Hybrid

Despite the recent fascination with batteries, it is worth remembering that the most pioneering aspect of the Swiss electric vehicles has nothing to do with batteries; rather, it is the lightweight composite plastics - composed of polymer resin poured over glass or carbon fibers - that are the key to their success. The most advanced of these materials are stiffer and stronger than steel, but just one-quarter as dense. Cars made of composites emerge fully formed from a mold, much the way recreational boats are made today.

While most auto engineers assume that composite cars would be more expensive than steel models, other experts believe that once the technology is perfected and production scaled up, the total costs should be comparable. Composites do cost more per pound than steel, but they do not require the complex, energy-intensive bending and stamping that steel parts do.

The Swiss are not the only inventors to catch the composite bug. Paul MacCready, the California engineer who designed GM's Impact, constructed a solar car that won a race across Australia in 1987, then built a prototype composite vehicle called the Ultralite in 1990. MacCready points out that the more weight can be squeezed out of a vehicle, the less energy is required to accelerate it. The reduced energy requirement allows for a smaller engine, saving even more energy. (It was MacCready who designed the Gossamer Albatross - the first human-powered airplane to fly a one-mile figure-eight course.)

Lightweight composites have other advantages. Greater flexibility in shaping them makes it easier to achieve efficient aerodynamic designs. Also, composites allow drastic reduction in the number of car parts, and may even allow the body and chassis to be combined. Moreover, colored dye can be added directly to the polymer before it is hardened, eliminating the cost and air pollution of painting. Finally, composites don't rust. The biggest challenge comes in recycling these materials, which is more difficult than for steel. However, engineers are already working on recycling strategies, which are likely to be required by governments by the time such cars are mass produced.

Although conventional wisdom suggests that lighter cars provide less protection in collisions, this is not necessarily the case. Optimal design, not weight, is the main determinant of automobile safety. The tiny Swiss LEVs have already passed standard crash tests, with no serious "injury" to the dummies inside. Not only are the vehicles equipped with seatbelts and airbags, but their synthetic bodies have greater capacity than conventional steel bodies to absorb or deflect the shock of impact. As a result, carefully designed composite cars may be safer than steel cars several times their weight.

While ultra-light technology is well-suited to battery-powered commuter cars, it may be equally adaptable to a new generation of multi-purpose, four-passenger cars that run on conventional chemical fuels. Particularly intriguing is the possibility of a new generation of hybrid vehicles that run on conventional chemical fuels but utilize an efficient electric drivetrain as well as ultra-light composite construction.

An advantage of gasoline is that it has an energy density per kilogram that is 100 times that of a lead acid battery. Even greatly improved batteries will have difficulty competing with the range and performance of chemical fuels. However, many of the positive attributes of an electric car can be harnessed without resorting to batteries - simply by substituting an electric drive for the direct drive used in today's cars.

One of the biggest problems with today's internal combustion engine-powered cars is that they turn 80 percent of the energy in the fuel into waste heat. (This figure has changed little in the past two decades, and is in fact near the limit of what can be achieved in a conventional piston engine.) One of the main factors limiting engine efficiency is that in conventional cars, the engine speed constantly changes, preventing the engine from operating at its optimal efficiency. This waste can be reduced by using the car's engine not to drive the wheels directly but to generate electricity, which is then used to drive an electric motor connected to the wheels. Because the gasoline engine in a hybrid electric car operates at a single speed matched to the speed of the generator, fuel economy is improved and air pollution reduced.

A hybrid car employs a small battery to provide the brief power surge needed for acceleration, reducing the load of batteries found in most electrics. Since a hybrid's engine requires only enough power to operate the car at cruising speed, it can be smaller and lighter, further reducing fuel use. And since it runs on electricity, a hybrid car can be equipped with regenerative breaking - using the kinetic energy in a moving car to re-charge the battery. (In typical urban driving, roughly a quarter of the time is spent braking, which dissipates a lot of energy.)

One of the few hybrid cars built so far is an experimental four-passenger vehicle announced by Volvo in early 1993. However, the Volvo ECC prototype is relatively heavy and not particularly aerodynamic, limiting its fuel economy to an unimpressive 45 miles per gallon. Amory Lovins, an energy efficiency expert at the Rocky Mountain Institute, has taken the design several steps further in a concept ultralight hybrid that he has designed and tested on a computer. The Lovins hybrid would have a less-than-15 kilowatt (20 horsepower), internal combustion engine or gas turbine that powers super-efficient electric motors integrated into the wheel hubs. The transmission, driveshaft, universal joints, and differential could be eliminated.

In such a hybrid, the efficiencies would multiply. It would weigh about 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) - 60 percent less than a conventional car - and have much better aerodynamics and more efficient tires. The result, according to a computer model used by General Motors, is an automobile with a fuel economy of about 1.6 liters per 100 kilometers (150 mpg). The technology needed to build such a vehicle already exists, much of it off-the-shelf. More advanced technologies, such as substituting a fuel cell for the engine, may one day allow hybrids to achieve 1 liter per 100 kilometers (250 mpg).

Even the more modest Lovins hybrid would be so efficient as to open up an array of fuel possibilities, including natural gas and hydrogen. The limitation of these gaseous fuels is that they require heavy, bulky storage tanks. But a hybrid could go 700 kilometers (450 miles) on the equivalent of three gallons of gasoline. This range could also be achieved with a three-foot-long, 13-kilogram (29-pound) pressurized natural gas tank that has been built and certified for automotive use by the Canadian government.

If the entire U.S. auto fleet were converted to lightweight, natural gas-powered hybrids, only a 20 percent increase in U.S. gas supplies would be needed to fuel it - while oil imports could be eliminated. Moreover, such cars would have carbon dioxide emissions 85 percent lower than today's, and would reduce carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides even more. If these cars were eventually switched to hydrogen produced from renewable energy, they would produce virtually no air pollution at all.

Beyond Fuel

The proliferation of new automotive technology in recent years leaves little doubt that the world is ready to leave behind the heavily polluting, economically insecure petroleum-based system that has provided mobility for the last eight decades. A combination of battery-powered city cars and hybrid inter-city vehicles can provide personal mobility with less environmental impact.

Even with these gains, to be truly sustainable, the world will have to develop carbon-free, renewable energy resources to power its transportation. Wind power, solar energy, and biomass can be used to provide virtually unlimited amounts of electricity or hydrogen. Although they are expensive today, the cost of renewable energy technologies is falling, and commercial development is picking up. A decade from now, clean energy should be available to fuel the new generation of cars. In the meantime, a few solar-powered charging stations for electric cars are already being opened.

Of course, even the ideal car cannot solve the world's transport problems. Dealing with congestion, for example, will require other modes of transportation, including improved urban buses and rail service, combined with better facilities for non-motorized transport (bicycles and walking), and fast, reliable inter-city trains.

It is also important to find new ways of integrating various transportation modes. The Swiss plan to complement their light electric vehicles with fuel-driven rental cars and with a new kind of double-decker train that can carry LEVs from city to city. (Since the autos are only three meters long, they can be driven directly into the side of a train.)

While a transportation revolution is now on the horizon, there still is the question of how quickly it will unfold. The automotive industry is dominated by a dozen large, conservative companies. While it is relatively inexpensive to build experimental cars, a commitment to mass-produce new auto technology requires a lot of up-front capital. Company executives are reluctant to write off existing investments in metal stamping, engine construction, and assembly lines.

In the short term, governments will continue to play an important role in encouraging the development of new auto technologies. By tightening fuel economy standards, adopting low- or zero-emission requirements for new cars, and switching their own fleets to new fuels, governments can effectively create a market for innovative technology. In recent years, even many developing countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, and South Korea, have adopted strict emission standards that encourage automotive innovation.

Financial incentives can also give electric and hybrid cars a boost. By eliminating vehicle taxes for electrics (as Switzerland has done), by pricing cars based on their emissions, or simply by raising the gasoline tax (as many countries recently have), governments can encourage drivers to buy the new vehicles. Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands have developed innovative financial incentives for low-emission vehicles, and California is now considering a gas guzzler tax for polluting cars while giving a rebate for zero emission vehicles. In the United States, President Clinton has gone a step further, announcing a joint government-industry initiative to develop a "green car" - presumably an electric or hybrid vehicle.

At some point, growing international competition is likely to overcome resistance to change, and propel the auto industry toward a new generation of technology - just as in today's personal computer business, those who fail to keep up with an evolving market may find themselves out of business.

And so we can begin to dream of a day, perhaps a decade from now, when dealer showrooms will offer cars that excite buyers - but are nearly pollution-free and don't have to be filled with imported oil.

Christopher Flavin is vice president for research at the Worldwatch Institute.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Worldwatch Institute
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Flavin, Christopher
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:4107
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