Hybrid cars, electrics zoom past 100 m.p.g.
Hybrid cars are finally on track in the US as automakers reach for new refinement on electrics.
Thanks to hybrid cars and electrics, the auto industry is about to put a fresh charge into the American car. Thousands of orders have already been placed for long-talked-about plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, which will be delivered in the next few months.Skip to next paragraph
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That trend is set to accelerate. By 2015, at least 108 models of electric or hybrid-electric vehicles will be in showrooms, more than four times as many as today, according to one analyst's forecast.
Weaning drivers off petroleum fuels yields a number of benefits, from cutting reliance on foreign oil to reducing the release of greenhouse gases. New US federal fuel-efficiency standards are a big driver of the change: They require car companies to reach a fleet average of 35.5 miles per gallon (m.p.g.) by 2016, nearly 30 percent higher than today's 27.5 m.p.g. standard.
By 2012, the government is expected to set much tougher standards for the years 2017-25. Some environmental groups advocate a fleet average of 60 m.p.g. by 2025.
But while the promise of a new world of plug-in electrics has sent a jolt through the industry, some observers say the reality is likely to be something much less dramatic: electric propulsion teamed with a technology more than a century old – the familiar internal-combustion engine.
The recently completed $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE competition sought to jump-start a new generation of safe, superfuel-efficient vehicles capable of achieving at least 100 m.p.g. (or the equivalent in electrical usage) while also meeting safety standards and achieving reasonable acceleration, braking, and maneuverability. But the winner in the "mainstream" category (a four-passenger vehicle), called the Edison2, was powered not by electricity but by an internal-combustion engine the size of a small motorcycle engine.
The Edison2's secret: lightweight design with the aerodynamics of a jet fighter. It weighs just 830 lbs. "It looks a little bit like the cockpit of a Cessna airplane," says Steve Wesoloski, who served as technical director of the X PRIZE. "You could push their vehicle with two fingers."
Liquid fuels, such as gasoline or the ethanol mix used by the Edison2, are simply more "energy dense" than today's batteries. The Edison2 carried about 40 lbs. of fuel "as opposed to [the] 400 lbs. of batteries" needed by its electricity-powered competitors, Mr. Wesoloski says.
According to a study from the University of Michigan, the United States can achieve a 60 m.p.g. average by 2035 without electric-only vehicles. To pull this off, 90 percent of the fleet would need to be hybrid cars – vehicles that run on some kind of liquid fuel assisted by electricity generated on board, with no need to plug into a power outlet.
It's the same basic idea that's been employed by the Toyota Prius for more than a decade, though the Prius achieves only about 50 m.p.g. today. What will make up the difference, says John DeCicco, a senior lecturer at the school of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan, are a series of incremental improvements. "We're still only 10 years into the hybrid era," he says. "It's really the power of steady engineering applied over time."