It may be a strange time to talk about fuel efficiency when gas prices worldwide have been plunging – in the United States to little more than $2 a gallon.
But worldwide automakers are still stretching for that brass ring of fuel efficiency, pushed in part by government regulations and perhaps pulled by their own sense of corporate responsibility.
Toyota, for example, loves the idea of nonpolluting cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Tesla Motors is showing that its all-electric vehicles can generate the “gotta have it” appeal of the latest iPhone, even if they are not yet affordable by the masses.
Volkswagen is reeling from people discovering that it had made false claims for its “clean” diesel engines, which at least temporarily puts a big question mark on whether diesel technology will be a viable way to squeeze extra miles out of a gallon of fossil fuel.
This week Toyota, perhaps with an eye toward polishing its own green credentials while VW stumbles around in a cloud of diesel soot, announced that by 2050 it would cut the average emission from Toyota vehicles by 90 percent (compared with 2010 levels) while trimming sales of its conventional gasoline-powered vehicles to close to zero.
Toyota’s first fuel-cell car, the Mirai, went on sale last year in Japan and should be available in parts of the US and Europe this year.
VW now says it plans to add expensive (but real) new emission controls to its diesel models. And it also said it would bring out an all-electric version of its Phaeton sedan, along with more VW models that would offer plug-in electric-gasoline hybrid engines.
But the biggest players in the electric car game may turn out to be a group of Chinese companies. China represents a huge and growing domestic automobile market as its people become more affluent. Combine that with a serious problem: the air quality in China. The Chinese government is prepared to go to great lengths to put more nonpolluting cars on the road.
Indications are that Chinese companies will be making close copies of Teslas at a fraction of the cost, taking advantage of the country’s loose copyright laws and Tesla’s own willingness to share its technology openly. “Real environmental benefits will only happen if the big car companies make risky decisions to make electric vehicles,” Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, has said. “I hope they do. We’ll try to be as helpful as we can.”
At the same time China is placing a luxury tax on Teslas imported into that country. As a result Mr. Musk has been critical of the Chinese companies, which he says aren’t interested in advancing knowledge in the field.
One top contender in China, according to an article in WIRED online, is the Le* Car, a new venture by LeTV, China’s version of Netflix headed by billionaire Jia Yueting. Le* Car may debut at the Beijing auto show next spring.
“Five years ago, I didn’t think Tesla would become a viable business. Today, though, they make a really good car,” says Joe DeMatio, deputy editor of Road & Track magazine. “There’s no reason to believe that a Chinese company can’t do the same thing.”
In 2006 a controversial documentary film asked “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The answer in 2015, apparently, is not the world’s automakers. Even as gasoline prices plummet (for now), automakers are gearing up for a post-fossil-fuel era.