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Market News

 August 29, 2007
The Future of the Automobile

 Vancouver, Canada (GLOBE-Net) -- For more than 100 years, the internal combustion engine has ruled the roadways. Now, as concerns about climate change and air pollution take center stage, a new suite of potentially viable technology options has arisen. Biofuels, hydrogen and electric vehicles, along with improvements upon traditional engines, are set to change human transportation over the next fifty years. Exactly which technologies will emerge as winners is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: the auto industry is undergoing profound transformation.

Cars have become iconic cultural symbols and are seemingly essential components of everyday life for many people around the world. In the middle part of the 20th century, the automobile represented the North American way of life, signalling prosperity, happiness, and the freedom of the open road.

Since that time, the issues surrounding the automobile and transportation in general have become more complex. Population growth and suburban-style planning have led to traffic congestion and increased collisions, while cars have been recognized as significant sources of toxic air pollutants and greenhouse gases. In response, increased public transit, pedestrian-friendly communities and other urban planning strategies have attempted to reduce dependence on the automobile.

Even so, worldwide car ownership is on the rise. China, already the world's third-largest car market after the United States and Japan, is rapidly adopting the car-culture, as are India and other developing nations.

These and other factors have prompted a critical examination of the dominant technologies and policies behind the automobile, and have created a strong push for a more environmentally friendly auto industry.

A number of vehicle propulsion technologies have been developed and tested over the years, but most were deemed economically unviable when compared to the well established petroleum-fuelled internal combustion engine (ICE). In recent years, with oil topping US $70 per barrel and heightened awareness of climate change and air pollution, research and development has been undertaken at a furious pace with a number of potential contenders for "automobile of the future" status. Exciting developments are on the horizon, and no one knows how each of the following candidates will impact transportation in the future.

Biofuels

One of the fastest growing sectors over the past two years has been the biofuels industry. Gasoline and diesel fuel can be substituted by fuels derived from natural sources, reducing dependence on oil and ideally cutting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Ethanol, the prime gasoline substitute, can be made from corn, grains, sugar cane or even cellulose-heavy sources such as straw and wood waste. Traditional internal combustion engines can run on gasoline blended with a small percentage of ethanol without modifications, with slight changes required to tolerate higher percentages. A 10% ethanol blend is found at many regular gas stations, while a growing number of locations are selling 'E85', an 85% ethanol blend which can be used by specially produced 'flex-fuel' cars. Biodiesel can be made from animal fats or vegetable oil, and can be combusted in most current diesel engines.

Governments in North America, Europe and elsewhere have thrown support behind the use of biofuels. In Canada, by 2010 all gasoline sold must contain at least five percent renewable fuel content. Similar standards are being considered in the United States. The European Union hopes to source 10% of all fuels used for transportation from biomass production.

Concerns persist however, about converting food agriculture or forested areas to croplands to grow biofuel feedstocks, and the net environmental benefits of ethanol and biodiesel may not be as large as initially believed. However, major technological advances have occurred, and the commercialization of cellulose-ethanol -- made from agricultural waste, wood or straw -- holds the potential for drastic improvements in life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions and net energy production.

Nearly all the major auto manufacturers currently have flex-fuel vehicles available or plans to start production soon. With major government and corporate support, biofuels will certainly have an increased presence over the next decade.

Electric Drive: Hybrids, Plug-in Hybrids, and Electric Vehicles

Electric motors are beneficial because they can dramatically improve upon the energy efficiency of internal combustion engines. Interestingly, electric vehicles were more popular than gasoline vehicles during the early days of the automobile, but were phased out in favour of cheap, high-performance internal combustion engines..

Gas hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), which utilize an electric-drive engine in combination with an internal combustion engine, are perhaps the most publicized alternative transportation technology to hit the market. Toyota's Prius led the charge, with Honda, Ford and others introducing their own models which can more than double fuel efficiency and substantially reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

One step further are plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), which possesses a battery that can be independently charged by connecting to the electrical grid. For short trips a PHEV can rely solely on its stored charge, reverting to gasoline only when the battery becomes depleted. GM hopes to bring its concept PHEV, the Volt, to market in 2010, estimating it will enable gas-free driving for up to 65 km and a range of over 1000 km on battery and gas power.

Fully electric vehicles are also on the way, with a host of companies planning cars powered only by advanced battery systems and electric motors. Tesla Motors' roadster can accelerate from zero to sixty miles an hour in four seconds and provide more than 300 km of driving range; Miles Automotive's Javlon will go nearly as far without a charge and will hit a top speed of 128 km/hour, say company executives.

According to studies, electric cars substantially reduce emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions even when drawing electricity from a grid supplied mainly by coal power. Battery technologies have improved dramatically since electric cars were last market-tested in the 1990s, and small, lightweight lithium-ion cells -- of which the Tesla roadster uses more than 6800 -- could be leading a revolution.

However, challenges still exist in improving battery efficiency and longevity, and research and development is ongoing. A widespread global introduction of "gridable" vehicles would also have complex ramifications for electric power systems.

The world's largest carmakers have either signalled a wholesale move to hybrid gas-electric vehicles or more broad efforts toward the full electrification of the automobile. With some tantalizing cars on the way, it appears the world will once again see electric vehicles in widespread use.

Hydrogen

Often dubbed the "fuel of the future", hydrogen offers the prospect of abundant energy with only water vapour emissions. The excitement surrounding the first attempts at commercial development of a 'hydrogen car' have now faded, but industry interest in hydrogen remains strong and the technology is progressing forward.

Hydrogen can be used to power a fuel cell, in which hydrogen and oxygen combine in an electrochemical reaction to produce electricity that can be used to power an electric motor. Fuel cells have recently made strides in specialized transportation markets, achieving significant sales in the lift-truck (fork-lift) industry. Fuel cell prototypes for consumer vehicles are currently being tested on the roads, but high costs, reliability and performance remain significant barriers.

Hydrogen can also be used as fuel in an internal combustion engine, either blended or pure, to improve performance or substitute gasoline entirely. Hydrogen-enriched fuels are now powering hundreds of vehicles across North America, with Canadian firms Westport Innovations and the Canadian Hydrogen Energy Company (CHEC) leading the way.

Hydrogen is a gas, which means it must be stored under pressure, as a liquid at low temperature, or in an altered state. The development of infrastructure, including hydrogen production plants and fuelling stations, will also require time. Today, most hydrogen is 'reformed' using fossil fuels, though renewable energy could play a larger role in the future. Many major auto manufacturers are betting these issues can be resolved, and are investing heavily in research and development. Some even consider today's hybrid gas-electric vehicles a "bridge" to fuel cell vehicles, and government-supported 'Hydrogen Highways' in development are sure to bring more H2-powered vehicles to the pavement soon.

Clean Diesel

Diesel vehicles, which attain better fuel economy than their gasoline counterparts, already account for nearly half of all new vehicle sales in Europe. In some European countries (such as France), diesel vehicles account for as much as 70 percent of new car sales.

While diesel engines emit less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines, they emit more nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, and therefore, face significant regulatory challenges in many regions in the United States and in Europe.

However, new technologies, such as improved NOx burners, could help reduce these concerns and make diesel a more economical and more environmentally-friendly gasoline alternative. Improvements to diesel fuel itself, such as recent North American legislation lowering allowable sulphur content, are already reducing air pollution.

Many manufacturers currently involved in diesel technology are continuing to invest in technological improvements and efficiency, while others are looking in that direction. Some see diesel-electric hybrids as an ideal car of the future. Given the possibilities of new technologies and current performance, vehicles that use diesel fuel are likely to play a critical role in the future of automotive technology.

Improving the Internal Comustion Engine

The efficiency of various types of internal combustion engines varies, but most achieve only around 20% overall energy utilization, losing most of the rest to heat and exhaust. There has been improvement in fuel efficiency over the past several decades, but much of that has been offset by performance enhancements. However, high gasoline prices are making fuel-efficient vehicles top-sellers, and manufacturers are being challenged by both consumers and legislators to improve fuel economy.

There are possibilities for improvements in materials that can safely reduce vehicle weight, such as duraluminum, fibreglass, carbon fibre, and carbon nanotubes. Internal engine improvements are also helping to make the most of each drop of fuel, and many manufacturers have made steady advances to produce fuel-sipping cars which are now leading the market.

All major manufacturers are seeking to improve the efficiency and environmental performance of their vehicles, seeing huge market potential and vast savings. Even though the internal combustion engine will be challenged by competing new technologies, it is sure to remain an important component of transportation for the foreseeable future.

Cars in 2020

Each of the above listed technologies has attracted billions in investment, and innovative companies are improving the environmental performance of vehicles while seeking to maintain economic competitiveness. No one is certain which technologies will dominate in the future, but in the short and medium-term it is likely that a whole host of transportation options will emerge.

A typical week in 2020 may involve driving a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to work where it can be recharged in its parking space, taking a hydrogen fuel-cell powered bus across town, and riding in friend's efficient truck burning biodiesel. Each technology has its specific merits and drawbacks, and the cutting edge is continually being pushed forward. In looking at the future of the automobile dramatic changes can be predicted with confidence, but exactly what those changes will be remains to be seen.