Greener cars – an update

It’s amazing how companies can change when prodded by market conditions, regulation, or a combination of both.

Take the big Aussie sedan, the Ford Falcon. You can now buy it with a turbocharged, 2.0 litre engine. And even the boofheads at Wheels think it’s a better car; the slight loss in performance (it’s still almost as quick in a straight line as a GTHO muscle car from the 1970s) more than compensated by the improved handling due to the lighter weight. And it uses somewhere between 10 and 20% less fuel than its six-cylinder equivalent.

The bogans who booed the Nissan GT-Rs at Bathurst 20 years ago might be disappointed, but the Falcon is just one exemplar of a much wider trend. big six and eight-cylinder car engines are going the way of the dodo. In the short term, they are being replaced by smaller, turbocharged engines both petrol and diesel, with smarter engine management systems and burn more efficiently without blowing themselves to bits, or, more prosaically, releasing excessive amounts of nitrogen oxides and various other toxic pollutants.

Prius-style hybrid technology is becoming more widespread, too. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have added it as an option for their E-Class diesel in Europe. The diesel is already exceptionally economical with an official fuel consumption figure of around 5.1 l/100km. The hybrid option drops it to about 4.4 l/100km, with the greatest gains coming in stop-start urban driving conditions.

At this point, parallel hybrid technology is a relatively mature technology, if still amenable to cost improvements from more production and cheaper batteries. Frankly, it doesn’t make strict financial sense at current fuel prices. But if oil prices go back up, or carbon pricing gets serious, the parallel hybrid will become ubiquitous.

In the long term, none of these technologies obviously cut it for the complete decarbonization of transport that will ultimately be required. The Nissan Leaf, by contrast, is a rolling demonstrator for one technology path that can. I’m pretty sure the examples floating around the People’s Republic of Moreland are part of the Victorian Government’s electric vehicle trial, which attempts to assess the effect of pure electric cars on the electricity grid.

While I haven’t had the chance to drive one yet, having a Leaf go by on a quiet suburban street is striking. While not completely silent (it even emits a warning noise to alert pedestrians at low speed), it’s far quieter than a standard car. Personally, I look forward to cities where traffic noise is less prominent!

Silent as it is, the Leaf is hardly an attractive purchase, as a car, at this point. Even allowing for the very cheap refuelling and likely reduced service costs, $51,000 and a 160 kilometre range (and even that requires fairly ginger driving, apparently) is not really an attractive proposition. A better, cheaper source of electricity is going to be required if full electric vehicles are to become more widely used. It’s also the case for the Holden Volt – though it’s frankly hard to see how a plug-in hybrid like the Volt could ever be cost-competitive, given the need for a substantial battery pack, powerful electric motor and a full conventional drivetrain.

The good news is that better, cheaper batteries are on the way. Nissan has claimed that the Leaf’s battery pack costs about 375 USD per kilowatt-hour to produce, has a capacity of about 24 kilowatt-hours, and weighs about 200kg, with an energy density of about 140 watt-hour per kilogram.

Envia Systems has demonstrated a prototype lithium-ion battery which has an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram, and is targeting a production cost of $180/kg by 2014. While startups have a habit of overpromising and under-delivering, most of the discussion surrounding them suggests their claims are reasonably credible; the technology apparently originally came from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Labs.

Other companies and researchers such as Sion Power and Oxis Energy are working on an alternative and theoretically superior battery chemistry altogether – lithium-sulphur. Sion Power has been quiet recently, except to announce a large investment by chemical company BASF. Oxis Energy have a little bit more detail on their website; they claim to have demonstrated “220-300 w/hour per kg” with “460 wh/kg as a target”.

While it’s unlikely that all of these battery technologies will live up to their promise, it doesn’t seem out of the realms of plausibility for battery performance to double, and costs to halve, within the next five years or so. But batteries will need to improve more to be cost-competitive with internal combustion engines – particularly the even more fuel-efficient ICUs in the current development pipeline – even if petrol prices remain high and carbon pricing begins to be applied to petrol.

But – even leaving aside the question of autonomous vehicles and what they will do to the economics of electric cars – there are at least two longer-term prospects for emission-free driving free of range limitations.

The first has been teasing us for a couple of decades, now. Fuel cells – the “reverse electrolysis” devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water – have long been touted as the basis of the “hydrogen economy”. Both our cars, and our homes, are supposed to be powered this way. But, despite lots of government and oil company money thrown at them, they remain the stuff of tiny demonstration fleets.

But there’s evidence that this might be changing. Mercedes-Benz has introduced a new generation of fuel cell vehicle prototypes, and is claiming they will have a production version by 2014, and is targeting the price of a “diesel hybrid”. Honda also has a trial fuel-cell vehicle circulating throughout California, though their plans for production are sketchier.

To get a sense of how this is happening, the US Department of Energy’s hydrogen program plan is helpful. While it took longer and was less dramatic than the optimistic predictions of a decade or two ago, fuel cells are getting much cheaper to produce; the DOE currently estimates that a 100 kilowatt fuel cell would cost around $5000 to produce in quantity. While they may still be optimistic in their projections, it’s interesting to note that they predict that by 2015 the cost might be down to $3000.

There are still big questions as to where we get the hydrogen sustainably (nuk-u-lar…), but it seems like the BEV faces some serious competition as the long-term replacement for the internal combustion engine.

For completeness, there’s one truly amazing blue-sky project underway at, of all places, IBM, to build the battery to end all batteries. The lithium-air battery project is one of several early-stage research efforts to build the world’s ultimate battery. They believe that a practical lithium-air battery, with ten times the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries would come close to the (useful) energy density of petrol. If they could pull that off at reasonable cost, not only would electric cars become a no-brainer, you could build practical all-electric aircraft.

The technology is still a “2020” prospect, which really means “we’ve got no friggin’ idea at this stage”.

Regardless, it seems that the world is making serious progress towards clean, petroleum-free private transport. If only we’d started serious work on it sooner.

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11 Responses to Greener cars – an update

  1. wilful says:

    we will get to emissions free, relatively affordable cars sooner rather than later. The problem will remain however of congestion, road trauma, pollution (maybe at the mine or factory rather than on the road). And vehicular transport is 9from memory) 18% of Australia’s emissions. A good start, but a small part of the solution.

    • Agreed. However, globally, transport is a bigger fraction of the problem than Australia (because our electricity generation is so bad).

      However, there seems to be an assumption in some parts of the environmental movement that cars can’t and won’t be decarbonized. They can, and they will have to be, as part of the solution.

      As for road trauma and congestion, autonomous vehicles are going to represent a substantial part of the solution. I suppose I should post again on them!

  2. CMMC says:

    I’m 51 years old and don’t drive, never have.

    When in my late teens/early twenties very few people I knew could be bothered with car ownership.

    A disturbing trend of recent years I have noted is that young people cannot imagine a life without a car. There is a rather morbid process of acculturation occurring, not an interaction of values but a wholesale capitulation to whichever commodified aspect of everyday life is on offer; fast food, reality TV, auto-tuned pop music.

    • Interesting, CMMC.

      Perhaps it’s a function of growing up in the country, but I think a car was considered pretty much an essential part of becoming an adult for a couple of generations.

      Furthermore, I almost feel like the car has *less* of a hold on the psyche of this generation than previous ones; there’s been a fair number of reports out suggesting data to back this up in the United States.

      • wilful says:

        Yeah, I would have to agree with you Robert, cars aren’t any more of a thing now than they ever have been. But living in the country, there really is absolutely no chance I could live where I do without two cars in the family.

        And I am going to be a late adopter of electric cars. We regularly expect to drive 500 km in a day, with limited or no recharge ability at that time (there will be some awkward new social mores developed – do you use a friend’s charger? do you pay them? What if you don’t know them well?). And the car can be packed to the gunnels.

        We drive a skoda wagon, get about 5.5 l/100km, 150g/km. Our second car isn’t but should be a VW Tiguan. We need the towing capacity and ground clearance. I can’t see electric cars working in the country any time soon. City commuters, absolutely.

  3. Robert Llewellyn (Kryten from Red Dwarf, Scrapheap Challenge) has been promoting/investigating renewables, hybrids, electric cars for a while now.

    He has a podcast called “Fully Charged” which is fun if not awfully technically detailed.

    Currently he drives a Nissan Leaf and so has a great deal of real-world experience with an electric vehicle.

    A couple of tweets from today:

    “I had to plan my electric car journey, had to check there were charge points at filming location, it took all of 5 minutes. #notthathardtodo”

    “So I’m not saying ‘it’s just as easy as using a fossil burner’, it’s not, but it’s not THAT hard. 14,650 miles so far, never ‘run out.'”

    He lives in the English countryside (just up the road from Rebekah Brooks apparently), so does a fair few kms.

    He was loaned the car in early April last year, so 23000kms in a little over a year constitutes a fair bit of driving.

    If you doubled the range of the Leaf (up to Tesla territory) I doubt most city dwellers would notice any limitation.

  4. wilful says:

    The Nissan leaf is a micro-car with a range of 117 km.
    I would have to recharge part way through my trip to Melbourne. I don’t think so.

  5. Aidan says:

    Are you wilfully misreading what I wrote

    “If you doubled the range” and “I doubt most city dwellers”.

    • I’m glad everyone is interested in the topic, but could we assume (and show) good faith in comments please?

    • wilful says:

      yeah no need to be nasty. “if you doubled the range” is a mighty big if. And “most city dwellers” is all well and good if you’re a city dweller, which we aren’t all.

  6. BilB says:

    For my immediate purposes the Envia battery gets me to the level that I can be comfortable with for the next ten years. A 100 kg weight penalty (nominal) for a 40 kilowatt charge capacity is very attractive. Put this into the Tata Hybride and you have a wow of a small commuter car. It will even take electric aircraft further along their development path.

    But just when you were comfortable with those limits there comes another beacon of hope in the battery field

    I received an invite to meet Barry O’Farrel here in Penrith, along with a bunch of other business people, last Friday. So I went. He comes across as being a far more interesting person up close.

    I took the opportunity to shake the mans hand, and asked him to do three things, which I said would not cost him a cent.

    I won’t elaborate on the last two as they are more involved, but the first request was for NSW to increase the power level for electric push bikes from 240 watts to 1000 watts.

    Canada and Europe are 1000 watts I believe, and the US has a variety of maximum levels.

    The power of a bike motor is more about acceleration and hill climbing ability, not top speed.

    Top speed can be electronically limited, but if the motor power is set too low then there is nothing that can be done about the other two.

    I’d appreciate any thoughts from the collective wisdom as I have to make an appointment with my local member (for the factory) to provide details and drive the point further.

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