The second most reported on automotive story of 2010 was the Electric Vehicle, according to Edmunds.com. This new and game-changing technology is intended to change what we drive and impact our daily lives, our culture, and the bigger global picture.
Despite being a 2010 news leader, the EV hype has understandably resulted in very few sales to date. In reality, between 250 and 350 Chevrolet Volts and 10 Nissan Leafs were sold in December out of a total of 11.5 million vehicles sold in 2010 in the U.S.
The Volt and the Leaf have improved the fleet CAFE standards — Corporate Average Fuel Economy — for Chevrolet and Nissan. These models, even if they don’t sell well, help meet the government’s rulings on fuel economy.
By 2016, every manufacturer’s overall fleet fuel economy must reach 39.5 miles per gallon in cars and 29.8 mpg in trucks, with a combined fleet average of 35.5 mpg. Each year leading up to 2016 automakers will have to improve fuel economy of their fleets substantially and that is going to be very challenging.
Auto companies and suppliers have been pumping billions into development and research to improve fuel economy, lower CO2 emissions and get us off oil. In 1990 — two decades ago — General Motors spent a billion dollars to bring out the EV1, the first mass-produced all-electric car featured in Al Gore’s, Who Killed the Electric Car?
GM leased about 2,000 vehicles and ended up ultimately sending them to the crusher, because they could not afford to produce them or support them with parts and service in the marketplace. (The batteries in the EV1 cost between $20,000 and $30,000.) It was, at the time, a disaster. But GM learned from it — and much of that development forms the Volt.
It may take another decade — or two, or more — for electric vehicles to become a significant percentage of the type of cars we drive. In the meantime, other technologies and design changes — already on your vehicles or soon to be — are making a difference. They are worth talking about.
A General Motors vehicle line executive for GM trucks once told me that engineers and designers had spent 900 hours in the wind tunnel shaving millimeters off the shape of those vehicles to achieve minimal incremental fuel economy improvements. A contractor buying that truck might like the better fuel economy but has no concept of what it took.
Designers and production directors are likewise spending hundreds of hours shaping a vehicle for better aerodynamics that improve fuel economy. They are substituting lighter weight materials such as aluminum, carbon fiber, high-strength steel and fiberglass. These materials, usually only found in more expensive vehicles, will find their way into lower-priced models.
There are lists upon lists of fuel saving technologies: the additives and lubricants used in the vehicle, adding power to downsized engines, regenerative braking-all of these improvements are making us greener. Advanced computer technology and new eight-speed transmissions improve powertrain performance. Turbocharging increases horsepower and performance without adding weight. Engine technologies like Direct Injection, and Variable Valve Timing improve fuel economy. Diesels are back. They are clean and get great mileage. Electric power steering responds to driver input and driving conditions with greater precision. Stop-start systems eliminate fuel wasted by idling. Low-rolling resistance tires can improve fuel economy by as much as 20 percent. Consumers will pay more for all these improvements. There is no way around it.
If some of these technologies seem already outdated it’s because our high-tech world is moving so fast. But it could be decades before the tailpipe really disappears. — Kate McLeod, Motor Matters
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2011