Photo By: Photos courtesy of Toyota
Alternative fuels and autonomous vehicles were the topics at the Western Automotive Journalists’ Future of Transportation conference last month at Club Auto Sport in San Jose.
With great timing, the event coincided with our weeklong loan of a 2012 Chevrolet Volt, an electric car featuring the most advanced technology of any automobile in the market.
The best way to sum up everything we learned from both experiences? In the words of Aaron Robinson, technology editor of Car and Driver magazine, “The future is going to take a lot longer than most people think.”
Based on what we heard and saw at the conference, the future certainly looks exciting. Outside, we could drive hydrogen fuel-cell cars supplied to customers by Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, battery-electric cars from Nissan and Mitsubishi, and high-efficiency diesels and hybrids from a variety of manufacturers.
In one presentation, Sven Beiker, director of Stanford University’s Center for Autonomous Vehicles, showed us the self-driving car his group developed with Google. It can guide itself through city traffic to a specified destination without any intercession from the driver.
New technology takes a while
The common theme of all the presenters – including engineers from Honda, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Volkswagen – was that adoption of new technologies is never as simple as it might look. It is likely to take 10 years for cars like these to reach the market in any serious numbers. Even then, given other factors like social acceptance and infrastructure support, what does become available in your dealer’s showroom (if there are still showrooms then), will look much different than what we saw at the conference.
Fortunately, the consensus among presenters was that in the interim, it is reasonable to expect present technology to continue to make inroads on the pressures of energy availability, environmental pollution and personal safety.
Getting a charge out of hybrids
Engine technologies introduced on gas-powered engines – such as systems that shut off the engine at stoplights and shut off individual cylinders when the car is at cruising speed – reduce pollution and improve fuel efficiency. The recent introduction of advanced diesel engines, and various forms of hybrids, is having a positive impact on both challenges.
The Volt – rated among the bests car of 2011 – is an example. After an overnight charge for less than $2, it can travel approximately 35 miles, drawing power for its electric motor from the batteries without turning on its gas engine. If there’s no opportunity to recharge, the onboard gas-powered generator will provide enough energy to go up to 300 miles before the gas tank needs refilling. It is a comfortable, capable automobile for a family of four, and there’s no substitute for the smooth, silent electric power to the wheels.
Weighing the costs
However, sales of the Volt have been disappointing – even compared to the modest goals of the manufacturers – partly due to its cost.
Dennis Simanaitis, technology editor of Road & Track, noted that consumers are keeping their cars longer – a result of the recession and an indication of improving quality of automobiles. Although this slows the introduction of new advances in efficiency and emission controls, it means fewer cars need to be manufactured to maintain our transportation stock. This leads to fewer junked cars and less mining, which are good for the environment.
Over the longer term, the introduction of alternative power technologies like plug-in hybrids, battery-electric cars and fuel-cell cars means these advances can be further developed and tested in real-world circumstances. So, when they do become mainstream, they will be practical and cost-effective.
Cars that drive themselves
The topic of automation in transportation, the second focus of the day, shared the same overall themes of promise and challenge. Research in vehicles that can drive themselves – such as in Stanford’s Autonomous Vehicle Program – offers potential long-term advantages for consumers, energy and the environment by permitting much higher density in commute traffic and providing freedom from the monotony of this daily grind. In the short term, we’re already benefiting from component innovations.
Electronic control of braking systems, an integral element of autonomous vehicles, provides greater car control in panic stops, and is being linked with motion sensors to provide active stability control. Many luxury cars are being equipped with optional capabilities based on sensors, cameras and brake control. A car with this equipment can not only sense when it may skid or roll over, but can even tell when it is drifting out of the lane or off the edge of the road. The system can apply brakes in such a way as to gently but firmly pull that car back into the lane.
The same autonomous brake controls are used on many new models to prevent collisions. Infrared sensors that measure the distance to the car ahead and compare it with the vehicle’s own speed can slow the car down and apply the brakes if necessary to avoid hitting the car ahead.
But the speed with which any new transportation technology can become mainstream is constrained by technology and infrastructure considerations.
Building better batteries
With regard to the battery-electric vehicles, we definitely need batteries that are lighter, less expensive and have less impact on the environment. But, just as important, we will need more charging stations in offices and business districts before it becomes practical to use electric cars.
Equally important: Costs must come down. That Chevy Volt, though a marvelous package of technology, costs nearly twice as much as the traditional gas-powered Cruz built on the same chassis. Unfortunately, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and GM, even using the Volt to its maximum efficiency will save only $7,600 over five years compared to any average new vehicle.
The fact that we see any Volts on the road is a tribute to the early adopters and environmentally conscious, who are prepared to pay a significant premium to advance the cause.
Fuel for thought
Fuel-cell cars face different constraints. Powered by hydrogen generated using electricity in remote and cost-effective environments, these cars are already more practical than battery-powered cars by many multiples (based on the comparison of hydrogen’s capability to store energy compared with batteries, and the comparison of the time it takes to fill a car’s hydrogen tanks to the time to recharge batteries). However, there is virtually no infrastructure in place like the electric grid to refuel hydrogen-fueled cars. Until there are hydrogen pumps at the gas station, owning such a car is impractical except in a few cities.
In the same way, infrastructure and social constraints mean that the idea of taking your car from home to work just by punching in the address of your office, then settling back to surf the Internet while the car drives itself, is as much the stuff of fiction today as it was in science-fiction novels of the 1950s. While the technology to make that possible is three to five years away, it only works if everyone has it – and every car is built to the same specifications. Imagine the chaos of having autonomous cars mixed in with unpredictable individual drivers. It’s hard to envision how we’d ever bring such a technology online without building separate highways for the autonomous vehicles, which isn’t likely to happen soon.
From horses to hydrogen
At the conclusion of the sessions on technological forecasting and crystal-ball gazing, one of the presenters made an interesting point. Horses and steam locomotives were the only means of transportation in 1875, he noted.
However, they both had problems of efficiency, speed and environmental impact. In those days, relying on the technology we knew and understood at the time, the obvious solution would have been to build a steam-powered horse. The fact we didn’t do it suggests a lesson for the future.
It seems conceivable, he suggested, that some of our new digital and communication technologies might eventually meet the basic needs for which we now use automobiles. Rather than making better automobiles, one day we might eventually render the whole concept of road-based personal transportation obsolete.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.