Fizzle

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If electric cars are The Future, why are so many automakers – quietly – backing away from them?

GM has decided against mass production of its Adam electric city-car. Audi has kiboshed the Tesla-esque electric R8 that had been scheduled for a launch sometime this year or next. Nissan has slashed the base price of its Leaf electric car from $35,200 to $28,800 – hoping to defibrillate flat-lining sales.

But the real canary in the coal mine is Toyota, which has dropped plans to mass-produce the electric eQ – stating it had “misread” market demand for such a vehicle. Maybe 100 of these things will ever see the light of day, according to the latest statements from Toyota. “The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge,” explained Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada. (Reuters news story here.)

Instead, the world-leader in hybrid cars will concentrate on bringing out … more hybrid cars. Twenty-one of them by 2015 – vs. one all-electric car (the electric version of the RAV4, which Toyota – optimistically – expects to sell about 2,600 of during calendar year 2013).

For some perspective, Toyota sold 37,000 Camry hybrids in a month (August, 2012).

Can you say, cut bait?

The future car is not an electric car – it is the internal combustion-engined car. The IC engine may be teamed up with electric motors and batteries (hybrids) or made more efficient via technologies such as direct gas injection (already becoming a de facto standard feature across the board, from inexpensive cars like the $13k Kia Rio I just tested to high-end luxury cars like the $75,000 Q56 Infiniti I had a few weeks prior) . . . but the IC engine itself is not going away anytime soon.

Gas-fired engines are getting smaller. But turbos are being added to make them bigger on-demand (a turbo temporarily increases an engine’s airflow capability – which is the same thing as having a larger engine, as far as power produced is concerned – but with the smaller engine’s smaller appetite for fuel when more power is not needed, as when idling in traffic or just cruising along in top gear). Turbos used to be almost exclusively used as power-adders for already-powerful engines. Now, turbos are being turned to as a way to maintain the power/performance level consumers expect from “everyday” engines – such as the engines in economy cars like the Chevy Sonic. And – in vehicles like the Ford F-series truck – to maintain V-8 levels of horsepower and torque with a smaller, less fuel-thirsty V-6 under the hood.

Many automakers are adding Auto-stop technology to their latest models (including the 2013 Rio I just reviewed; see here for that). When the car rolls to a stop, as at a red light, the system automatically shuts off the engine to save fuel – then restarts it when the driver takes his foot off the brake. Expect this to become as commonplace as AC and power windows within a year.

Similar fuel-saving technologies include electric-driven power steering, water pumps and even air conditioning compressors. Eight and nine-speed transmissions are also coming online. Many of the latest gas engines have very high (almost diesel-level) compression ratios – which makes them both more powerful and more fuel-efficient.

And down the road a couple of years, we will see some really radical stuff in new car showrooms – including hybrids with hydraulic motors driven by nitrogen gas, compressed by the process of regenerative braking (capturing and making use of inertia), electro-pneumatic valvetrain actuation and micro-engines such as VW’s less-than-one-liter two-cylinder engine, currently in development.

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