The innovation in car technology this year is boring. Everything manufacturer bet on improving fuel efficiency, either using hybrid, electric or new disel engine. Volvo is the only exception, the new XC60 is first production car with auto-brake and adaptive cruise control.
By John Voelcker
First Published April 2009
Electric-drive cars take second place to sheer survival
PHOTO: Clockwise: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Toyota
If necessity really is the mother of invention, then surely the auto industry is on the verge of an era of blinding brilliance. Times are that bad.
In July, when the price of a barrel of oil shot up to US $147, buyers in the United States dumped their gas guzzlers and lined up for that iconic hybrid, the Toyota Prius. And, astonishingly, by year’s end they had bought 25 000 Smart ForTwo cars, two-seaters so small they make the Mini Cooper, with its lavish complement of four seats, look like a land yacht.
Then, just six months later, oil prices dropped back down, hitting a low of $37 a barrel. Good for drivers, bad for automakers: Such seesawing makes it impossible for them to plan—as they must—what cars they will be selling in three to five years. Then came the capper to that grisly year—the financial meltdown and the ensuing worldwide recession. It humbled what was left of America’s Detroit Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, which barely counts as a bona fide automaker anymore). It even gave mighty Toyota its first operating loss in 70 years. Auto writers fretted about “carmageddon” and, more linguistically vexing, heralded “the carpocalypse.” By the end of the year, the world’s auto manufacturers had just a single imperative: survival.
Consolidation is in the air. Soon there will be fewer car companies, and they will be making fewer kinds of cars.
For a glimpse of the future, look at Volkswagen. It builds more than a dozen separate models, totaling well over 1 million units a year, on the basic components of its Golf/Jetta/Rabbit line. They are sold as Volkswagens, Škodas, even Audis.
For another view of the future, look at upstart Chinese automaker BYD Automotive, in Shenzhen. Owned by a huge battery-cell manufacturer, it began making cars only five years ago, yet in December it stunned observers by launching the world’s first production plug-in hybrid (see the 2009 BYD F3DM). Early reviewers called the car crude. But the Model T was crude, too. And by getting a plug-in hybrid to market before the end of the calendar year, BYD beat Toyota and GM, both of which are also working on plug-in hybrids, by almost two years.
If oil prices stay low, it may dampen consumers’ interest in the next big thing: electric-drive cars. Big financial incentives from federal and state governments could speed things along, but those governments are now struggling themselves. Nevertheless, lots more partially electric and electric-drive vehicles are about to roll off assembly lines. Here’s the complete list of major world automakers that aren’t experimenting with batteries and electric motors: Mazda. Even the Germans have begun supplementing their beloved high-performance diesels with a handful of electric cars.
Europe’s diesel diehards, meanwhile, despair that their hard-won improvements in fuel usage have been undermined by the surge in diesel fuel prices in the United States. And in more bad news for diesels, the Chinese government appears to have shifted its development priority from diesel to electric drive. Meanwhile, researchers all over the world are creating elaborate models to test whether running vehicles on grid power can really cut greenhouse-gas emissions overall. (The answer is usually yes, depending on how “clean” the local generating mix is.)
In the passenger compartment, technology continues to advance smartly. Telematics—the delivery of data by cellphone technology—is pumping traffic, weather, and gas-price information into car navigation systems in real time.
Digital entertainment also keeps getting better. This summer, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan will offer an in-dash video screen that filters light onto adjacent pixels to display different images to different viewers. The driver can see routing maps, for instance, while the passenger happily watches a movie.
But most of these goodies seem to come from a time that suddenly seems very distant, the time before the meltdowns of the automotive industry and the world economy. Just as contractors will stop building McMansions and investment advisers will stop pushing mortgage-backed securities, so automakers may have to rethink personal transportation.
Usually the hottest new car technology tells us quite a lot about what to expect from the industry, but today that rule may not apply. Desperate times call for radical changes, and that means that even today’s most outrageous concept cars may seem strangely outmoded and quaint in a few years’ time—just as electric cars did in the 1920s.
BMW CATCHES UP ON ELECTRIC CARS—IN A HURRY
Almost alone among major automakers, BMW had long lacked experience with electric drive. Then, last fall, the company unveiled its Mini E, an electric conversion of BMW’s popular Mini Cooper hatchback. When the company announced a beta test of 500 units, thousands of drivers applied to lease one, at a whopping US $850 a month (close to twice the cost of leasing a BMW 5‑series car).
Among other requirements, winners had to agree to keep the car in a garage, in which BMW would install a wall-mounted 240-volt charging unit. The battery pack goes where the rear seat would normally be, meaning that the Mini E is a two-seater. The 35-kilowatt-hour battery links together 5088 small off-the-shelf lithium-ion batteries (an approach similar to that used in the all-electric Tesla Roadster).
A 150-kilowatt (201 horsepower) electric motor drives the front wheels through a single-speed gearbox, replacing the standard Mini’s engine and transmission. BMW quotes an acceleration time of 8.5 seconds from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour). That’s respectable enough to support the Mini’s sports-car image.
Longtime electric-drive pioneer AC Propulsion, of San Dimas, Calif., developed the battery pack, electric motor, and power electronics, as well as the wall charger. To make a production run of 500 cars possible, AC suspended all other work for several months and set up a global supply chain to ship electric motors fr bio motif: The sea-green cabin and smoothly contoured shapes emphasize the design’s marine inspirations. om the United States and batteries and electronics from Asia to a BMW manufacturing facility in Munich.
Arriving simultaneously at the facility were Mini “gliders,” completed cars minus their engines and transmissions. BMW workers assembled the components and tested the cars, the last of which was finished in November.
The car was instantly booked for test drives after its debut amid a crush of cameras at last fall’s Los Angeles Auto Show—leaving dozens of disappointed journalists (including this one) out in the cold. Still, if BMW wants to get serious about electric cars, it will have to develop its own battery-management technology, negotiate with a myriad of new suppliers—and then ensure that it can produce and sell electric cars that maintain its traditional profit margins. That may prove to be harder than making a media splash with a limited-run car.o
charge IT: The driver plugs the car into a box that hangs on the garage wall and provides enough amperage to recharge the batteries in just 2.5 hours.
Mercedes-benz likes to keep up with alternative propulsion technologies, and it’s offering no less than three of them in its latest Concept BlueZero: battery electric (the E-Cell), extended-range electric (the E‑Cell Plus), and fuel cell (the F-Cell).
The designers were able to fit this wide variety of power trains into a car just 422 centimeters long (barely 14 feet) thanks to a sandwich-like floor: Passengers sit above a flat chamber between the axles that can contain a tank for liquid fuel, a battery pack, or a fuel cell and its accompanying hydrogen cylinders. A 70-kilowatt (94 horsepower) electric motor drives the front wheels, regardless of the energy source powering the car.
In the E-Cell, the lithium-ion battery pack stores 35 kilowatt-hours, twice as much as the smaller packs in the other two variants. In the E-Cell Plus, the space saved by using a smaller battery helps to accommodate a range-extending engine, which sits under the rear seat.
Equally extreme is the styling, which draws heavily on the Bionic Car concept of 2005—known informally as the boxfish, or kofferfisch in German. With a rigid exoskeleton and very low aquadynamic resistance, the fish offered a model for designers to explore radical reductions in drag. The Bionic Car’s coefficient of drag was a radically low 0.19. The full-size Concept F700 [see “Top 10 Tech Cars,” IEEE Spectrum, November 2008] was the next Mercedes to explore biological models for vehicle shapes, and that trend is likely to continue, says Klaus Frenzel, manager of advanced design concepts at Daimler. The BlueZero’s front and rear lights are, respectively, white and red C-shaped sweeps of light-emitting diodes. Its translucent roof panel is coated with thin-film solar cells, although they seem to have been put there largely for effect, because their power output is sufficient only to recharge a mobile phone.
Daimler says the BlueZero’s family of modular electric-drive components will be used in production vehicles this year and will be followed by low numbers of pure-battery vehicles next year. So if fish are the main inspiration, you might wonder: Will an electric eel be next?
VW Proves Clean Diesel Can Be Affordable
For once, last year’s “Green Car of the Year” wasn’t a hybrid, a pure electric car, or a fuel-cell vehicle. It was simply a diesel, employing Rudolf Diesel’s century-old idea of using high compression alone to ignite fuel mixed with air. And that diesel was fitted to a modestly priced compact sedan, no less. Could it be anything other than the latest incarnation of the beloved Volkswagen Jetta TDI?
Like most European carmakers, Volkswagen sells huge numbers of diesels in its home markets. Diesel fuel in much of Europe is less aggressively taxed than gasoline, in part because it delivers greater efficiency. But it has been a challenge to get those engines, with their relatively high emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, to comply with U.S. emissions laws. In California, the toughest state of them all, the current standard—known as Tier 2, Bin 5—temporarily halted the sale of diesel vehicles there after 2006.
Now a few diesels have returned, but only Volkswagen offers them in mass-market vehicles. The 2009 Jetta TDI, which went on sale in September 2008, carries the banner. At US $21 990, it costs about $4500 more than the gasoline model. VW’s own fuel-efficiency tests indicate that fuel economy would, in practice, be 6.2 liters per 100 kilometers (38 miles per gallon) in the city and 5.3 L/100 km (44 mpg) on the highway, which are considerably better than the U.S. EPA’s official estimates.
The Jetta has curbed emissions by replacing the previous mechanical fuel-injection system with a new device that uses piezoelectric crystals, which vibrate in response to electric signals, to better atomize the fuel and inject it at higher pressures. The exhaust passes through a storage catalyst, which temporarily holds the nitrogen oxides, while a filter holds soot and other particulates—until the engine control software can switch modes to burn the waste products off in a later combustion cycle.
Whether Diesel’s invention becomes more than an oddity in the U.S. market depends largely on oil prices and the product mix coming out of refineries. More diesel fuel, at a cheaper price, will mean more diesel cars. Still, the Europeans are a lot less confident than they were just a year ago that diesels are the best answer to U.S. regulations.o
First Electric Car Sold by a Major Carmaker Since The EV1
- Model: Mitsubishi i‑MiEV
- Availability: Japan, UK
- Release: Q4 2009
Pure electric vehicles make sense in Japan more than anywhere else because so many commuters there go short distances in small cars and in stop-and-go traffic. So a lot of people will be following the progress of Mitsubishi Motors’ i-MiEV electric minicar, which will go on sale to retail customers in Japan by the fourth quarter of 2009 at the latest.
Did we say small? The i-MiEV is adapted from a kei car, a class limited to 3.4 meters in length, 2 meters in height, 1.5 meters in width, 0.66 liter in engine size, and 47 kilowatts in power (63 horsepower).
The 330-volt, 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack was developed by Mitsubishi and GS Yuasa Corp., the only mass producer of large-format lithium-ion batteries in Japan. The 47-kW motor generates 180 newton meters of torque, enough to go from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 13 seconds; the claimed top speed is 130 km/h (80 mph).
There are three driving modes: Standard, Eco, and “B.” The Eco mode, in comparison with Standard, limits the motor’s output to just 18 kW, stretching the range of a single charge. Range varies with usage and driving style, of course. The B mode adds more regenerative braking on downhill stretches and when the car is coasting, to recharge the pack more aggressively.
Ford’s Latest Trounces Toyota On Mileage
After the well-received Escape Hybrid launched in late 2004, Ford’s hybrid program seemed to stall. The company regularly updated the small sport utility and added hybrid versions of its Mercury and Mazda platform mates. But it couldn’t raise combined sales beyond a modest 25 000 or so per year—and no new hybrids appeared over the next four years.
Now Ford has unveiled a hybrid version of its Fusion midsize sedan. It is pitted directly against Toyota’s popular Camry Hybrid, also a hybrid adaptation of an existing gasoline-engine car. And in testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Fusion Hybrid handily beat the 2009 Camry Hybrid by several miles per gallon.
The Fusion Hybrid is the first vehicle to use Ford’s second-generation hybrid system. It uses a 1.3-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery with 20 percent more power than the Escape’s in a package that’s 30 percent smaller, meaning that the Fusion Hybrid sacrifices little of the trunk space available in the standard version.
Ford engineer Gil Portalatin said that improvements in control logic allowed the design team to be very aggressive in determining when the load is light enough to justify shutting off the gas and letting the electric motor propel the car all by itself. Such shutoffs happen about twice as often as in the early-model Escape.
The new system adds a variable-voltage controller that can boost the voltage to the battery, letting the traction motor and generator increase the battery recharge rate while operating at their most efficient speeds. In addition, new control logic for the regenerative brakes scavenges up to 94 percent of the braking energy and feeds it to the battery.
The result is an impressively high speed for operation under electric power alone: 75 kilometers per hour (47 miles per hour). It also allows up to 3 km of continuous electric-only driving and a range of 1100 km of around-town driving on a tank of gasoline.
The Fusion also offers Ford’s popular Sync, a voice-activated digital entertainment and mobile phone system; real-time traffic and weather data delivered through the satellite radio; and a system that uses radar sensors in the rear quarter panels to detect other vehicles in the car’s blind spots and alert drivers to crossing traffic when backing out of a parking space.
Quintessential Hybrid Gets Makeover
The Prius has become the definitive image of the hybrid-electric vehicle, with more than 1 million sold in 44 countries. Toyota now has a new version of the car, and it hopes to sell 180 000 units in the first full year in the United States.
The new Prius improves incrementally on the 2004–2009 version. It is more spacious, somewhat more luxurious, and has a larger engine (1.8 liters versus 1.5), yet consumes slightly less fuel: 4.7 liters per 100 kilometers (50 miles per gallon) on the combined U.S. urban and highway cycle, against the previous 5.1 L/100 km (46 mpg). This is the first engine Toyota has ever designed that has no mechanically powered accessory drives: water pumps, air-conditioning compressors, and the like. All of them run off the car’s electrical system, to cut down on parasitic losses.
The new Prius offers three driving modes. The EV-Drive mode propels the Prius at low speeds on battery power alone. It can go up only to 1.6 km this way, but sometimes that’s enough (indeed, this is jocularly known as the cheating-husband button, for those who may use it to slink home in the wee hours without waking their families). The Eco mode cuts performance for better fuel economy, while the Power mode gives quicker throttle response and more aggressive acceleration than standard.
Still, Prius buyers await the plug-in version, fitted with a larger battery pack containing lithium-ion cells. The company has promised to offer the car within 18 months.
World’s First Production Plug-in Hybrid
IMAGE: BYD Automotive
While general motors constantly hypes its plans to sell the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car late next year, a Chinese battery company has quietly beaten GM to the punch. In December, BYD Automotive, of Shenzhen, started selling the F3DM, the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle.
The compact sedan will be limited to China, however, until it can meet Western countries’ standards for safety and comfort. The company is selling the F3DM (for “dual mode”) to government fleets and will offer it to consumers this summer. It goes for roughly 150 000 yuan (US $21 700)—a little more than half the 280 000-yuan cost of a Toyota Prius but more than twice the price of the gasoline-powered F3, one of China’s best-selling cars. BYD says it hopes ultimately to sell 2000 F3DMs a month.
The battery pack contains 100 of BYD’s own 3.3-volt lithium-ion cells, which are based on iron phosphate. That chemistry has less energy than the cobalt alternative, but it’s far less prone to internal short circuits of the sort that have famously caused laptops to burst into flames.
Unlike any other hybrid around, the F3DM has three distinct modes of operation: all-electric; series hybrid, which uses the engine to recharge the battery; and parallel hybrid, in which the gasoline engine drives the vehicle directly, with assistance from the electric motor.
Local journalists who tested the F3DM say that the transition between the three modes is rough, that the power steering vibrates, and that battery recharging is accompanied by a roar. On the other hand, journalists say the car accelerates very well under electric power.
A year ago, BYD Automotive showed the F6DM—a larger midsize plug-in hybrid sedan—at the Detroit auto show, quoting a 97‑kilometer (60-mile) electric range. The company hopes to sell cars in Europe by 2010, says BYD board member Tony Mampilly, and in the United States by 2011. Well…within two to four years, says Micheal Austin, of BYD America.
But thus far, no Chinese carmaker has a firm date for U.S. sales. Industry experts dismiss or laugh at the idea of U.S. sales in the near term. Chinese makers will need years of experience elsewhere, says Aaron Bragman of the analyst firm IHS Global Insight, before they can meet stringent U.S. crash safety and emissions standards.
World’s First Hybrid With Lithium-Ion Battery
The European love affair with diesel engines can be summed up succinctly: fuel that costs only about €1 per liter. But now, worried about pursuing the wrong track, European carmakers are introducing their first hybrids.
So here comes the new Mercedes‑Benz S400 BlueHybrid (in Mercedes-speak, “blue” means “green”), on sale in Europe and planned for the United States as a 2010 model. A 15‑kilowatt (20 horsepower) electric motor contributes oomph when needed, restarts the engine, and assists with initial torque to move the car away from a stop.
The battery is the first in any production hybrid to be based on lithium-ion technology. The cells, built in France by Johnson Controls–Saft, together can store 0.7 kilowatt-hours. Because lithium-ion cells pack about twice as much energy into a given volume as nickel-metal hydride, Mercedes was able to fit them into the same space that had previously housed the car’s standard lead‑acid 12-volt starter battery.
The 3.5-liter V6 engine has been converted to operate on the Atkinson (or five-stroke) cycle, the standard for hybrid systems. In an Atkinson engine, the piston moves through strokes of different lengths so that the combusting fuel-air mixture expands to a greater volume on the power stroke than it occupies on the intake stroke. The result is greater efficiency. The drawback—low torque at low engine speeds—doesn’t matter in a hybrid, which can use the electric motor to augment low-end torque.
The First Car That Avoids Rear-Enders
Volvo, which has long emphasized safety, is going beyond anything it’s done before with a system that in some cases substitutes its own judgment for that of the driver. The new XC60 can slow down and stop automatically, to avert or mitigate a low-speed collision with the car in front.
An infrared laser sensor behind the windshield feeds data to a processor that figures out how far ahead the next car is and how fast it’s going. That way, the system can calculate the braking force necessary to stop before hitting that vehicle. If the system notices that the car is closing in on the car in front, it warns the driver by flashing a red light at the base of the windshield and sounding an alarm.
If the driver fails to react in time, the system applies the brakes automatically. The system brakes hard, and only at the last minute, to keep drivers from relying on it in traffic.
An adaptive cruise control, incorporating radar, lets the driver program the car to maintain a certain distance from the vehicle up ahead. Another system warns against an impending collision while putting a little tension on the disc-brake calipers so they’ll take effect faster when the driver makes a panic stop.
Such features can be viewed as first steps toward vehicles that drive themselves. Perhaps one day, when a driver wants to fool with the navigation system, a patient spouse will smile sweetly and say, “Oh, honey, just let the car drive.”
Minimal Hybrid, Maximal Payback
For 45 years, Honda has offered small, cleverly engineered cars, which for the past 15 years have achieved the highest average fuel economy in the United States. But while it debuted its first hybrid in 1999—the short-lived Insight—Honda never had a breakout like Toyota’s Prius.
Now the company has launched its first four-seater designed, like the Prius, as a hybrid from the ground up. The vehicle, for which Honda resurrected the Insight name, incrementally improves Honda’s “mild hybrid” approach, which incorporates a relatively small electric motor and uses it less frequently than do typical (or “full”) hybrids. The Prius, for example, can go 1 to 2 kilometers on electricity alone, under some circumstances; the Insight can’t.
Honda’s formula combines a small internal combustion engine—which shuts off when the car comes to a stop—with the smallest battery-and-motor combination capable of moving the car from a resting state while the engine takes a second or two to restart itself. Of course, the motor assists the engine under heavy loads, too—half the point of a hybrid system is to exploit a motor’s ability to provide full torque from the moment it switches on.
This “mild” strategy costs much less to implement than the full-hybrid setup, letting Honda call the Insight “the lowest-priced hybrid offered in the United States.” It is priced at US $20 500, compared to a likely $25 000 or more for the 2010 Toyota Prius, for which prices had not been announced at press time.
Under the Insight’s hood is a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine producing 73 kilowatts (98 horsepower). The heart of the hybrid system is a lightweight, ultrathin electric motor between the engine and transmission. It puts out just 10 kW (13 hp) and is powered by a flat nickel-metal-hydride battery pack under the rear deck that holds 0.58 kilowatt-hour of energy (not quite half the 1.3 kWh of the Toyota Prius pack). Honda claims the Insight’s system is 19 percent smaller and 28 percent lighter than the previous generation used in its Civic Hybrid. The Insight’s motor can, by itself, occasionally power the car at urban speeds, though only if the conditions are just right.
A system Honda calls EcoAssist accumulates data on your driving style, so you can delve into your history to improve your mileage. Drivers can further enhance their fuel economy by selecting Econ mode, which sets the control logic so that the car accelerates more slowly and backs off the gasoline engine more quickly.