Harley Earl with Firebirds
GM's top stylist for many decades, Harley Earl is credited with inventing the art and science of automotive design and styling. This photo was take in the late 1950s with three of his Firebird concept cars. This is what he thought the future would look like, including cars powered by fuel-thirsty gas turbines.

The Cars of 2015 and Beyond

Part one of a three part series on the future of automotive engineering

By Chris Ellis

This paper attempts to identify the characteristics of the personal vehicles which will capture the majority of sales in the US market in 2015, and highlights how they will differ from those we drive today. One key objective is to see if a significant number of these vehicles will still be offered with engines that run on petroleum-based diesel, or if 'cellulosic hybrids' (with or without plug-in capability) will sweep the field. It is assumed that fuel cell hybrids will have gained only a small share of the US mass market by 2015. But, first, take at least one pinch of salt. This is supposed to be FUN, right? So I might exaggerate, just a little, or insert something imaginary amongst the realities. Keep your mental guard up, and you'll be fine. Skeptics are welcome, provided they have a sense of humor! However, if you don't get Irony yet, you may suffer a little.

The London Sunday Times recently discovered that the diesel version of the new small Citroen sedan appears to be no more economical than the gasoline version. Parity of fuel consumption between diesel and gasoline engines may have come as a surprise to the journalists involved and also to many car owners, but not to most automotive engineers. For example, see www.ricardo.com/lbdi or the comment by Dr. Thomas Werner, head of research and technology at DaimlerChrysler, during the recent Frankfurt motor show that "for the drive concepts of the near future the objective is to make petrol cars as efficient as diesels, and diesels as clean as petrol cars." If Mercedes (and others) can achieve the second aim, then diesel-fueled cars get to play in California and other key US markets beyond 2008. But why will Mercedes and others bother to bring diesels in, if DaimlerChrysler's first aim is already achievable, which is what Ricardo, who know more about diesel and gasoline engines than most manufacturers, have been publicly claiming, for over a year, they can already demonstrate? How long do you think the other 'insiders' have known?

Check here to see the 'good old American know-how' that contributed to Ricardo's breakthrough. The Variable Geometry Turbine fitted with a Rotary Electric Actuator was originally developed by Garrett for turbodiesels, but Ricardo's engineers were smart enough to see how it could be applied to gasoline engines.

Please, can we now avoid 'Engines 101' derived comments like "diesels are inherently more efficient than spark ignition engines". It ain't necessarily so, particularly in hybrids, as will be shown below. Claims by journalists that "diesel engines are 20 to 40% more efficient than gasoline engines" may once have been true, but the gap is in the process of becoming vanishingly small, see above.  
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The coup de grace for diesel cars in the US was probably delivered by Bill Ford's recent personal commitment to continue the Ford dynasty's traditional support for ethanol-based fuels. There are already almost 4 million vehicles out there that could be using E85, and Bill Ford has promised to add a lot more, including F-150 trucks. He has also promised to address the key limitation on the current use of E85, the almost complete absence of E85 pumps in many major US cities. Even the British government has just woken up to the need to do some pump priming for bio-ethanol.

Now take a look at CELLULOSIC ethanol, apparently the favorite fuel of hawks and tree huggers alike, and that wonder of the 21st century, the 'cellulosic hybrid' surges forward. Finally, offer the option of 30 miles or more of plug-in capability, and even the guys and gals at the California Air Resources Board will break into a smile! And the generals in the Pentagon already know that, even if the Army continues to use kerosene-based J-8 as it's 'single battlefield fuel', the sooner everyone else is on biofuels, the easier their lives (and those of their soldiers) will be. So the Governor of California's next Hummer just might be the first of the stunningly beautiful, ultra-sleek H0 models, a cellulosic hybrid with a suspension system capable of varying the ride height by more than ten inches, off-road. Crouch like a tiger, hover like a hawk. Should appeal to more than the Governor. Might even appeal to the generals. (Great staff car, sir!) H0 Hum, I wish!

'Everyone else' might even include the Commander in Chief. How environmentally friendly would Airforce One be, if it ran on biofuel rather than kerosene? Imagine the smiles on everyones' faces as it landed at Caracas airport! Especially if the message being delivered was that all new 7X7s and Airbuses would soon use similar fuel. Then on to Brazil, where the smiles would be genuine, and much broader. Carnival time!

But are the rest of us going to have to run around in much smaller vehicles with tiny engines? The answer is probably 'yes' to smaller engines, but 'no' to significantly lighter cars, although most new vehicles will be considerably lower and less intimidating than today's SUVs.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a trade group that compiles statistics on highway injuries and deaths, stated in a recent report: "The laws of physics dictate that, all else being equal, larger and heavier vehicles are safer than smaller and lighter ones. In relation to their numbers on the road, small cars have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars." Most SUV buyers don't realize that excessive height is (mainly) bad from a safety perspective, and very bad for fuel economy at highway speeds. I still remember vividly being behind closed doors (to keep the press out) at the SAE World Congress back in 1999 when the NHTSA first revealed the scale of the rollover problem. The engineers in the room were shocked by the numbers.

Put simply and from a selfish perspective, 'Low(ish)' is good for safety and fuel economy, 'Wide' is good for safety, but not helpful for fuel economy, 'Ultra-sleek' is very good for fuel economy and good for pedestrian safety, and 'heavy(ish)' is good for your family's safety, but may result in you killing someone who can't afford a big car. That's why the rich still buy big Mercedes, Audi and BMW sedans, amongst other reasons. They are simply better, safer, road vehicles than the equivalent SUVs. When the rich want to go off-road, only a Range Rover is really good enough, so their Jaguars and Bentleys stay in the garage. Just because an AWD Bentley Continental GT can pull a horse trailer doesn't mean it should!

'Ultra-light' is an attractive idea from the limited perspective of fuel economy in the city, but it falls at two major hurdles. Ultra-light usually involves considerable quantities of expensive CFP (carbon-fiber reinforced plastic) for the body/frame, but new regulations requiring high percentages of recycling, particularly in Europe, make CFPs difficult to use in the mass market, because CFPs are difficult to re-cycle and retain little scrap value, unlike aluminum and certain types of steel. The second major reason is that the general public already instinctively knows that "heavy is good in a collision", probably from their experiences as small children (or just from watching football). As any attempt at convincing us otherwise involves denying the basic laws of physics, it will eventually fail. What will finish off the Ultra-light proposition are two facts. Halving the weight of a typical sedan weighing 2 tons with four people in it and traveling on the level at 65 mph will typically cut the power (energy per unit of time) required at the driving wheels by less than 10%. Now think how little the car would have to weigh empty to weigh under a ton when full. Less than a little 2-seat Honda Insight. Then take an all-aluminum Insight for a drive on the freeway in a gusty cross wind. The little Honda is a great little car. It's not a design fault, it's physics.

The 'killer fact' is that, the more efficient regenerative braking systems become, the less the effect of weight reduction on the fuel consumption of hybrids. Of course weight reduction will remain an objective of vehicle designers, but it will become less and less important to fuel economy as regenerative braking systems become more efficient, and 'strong hybrids', with over 50 kW of surge power, become the norm. (Arguably, they already have. The Prius II, Escape Hybrid and Lexus RX400h are all 'strong hybrids' on acceleration, though not on braking) A 100% efficient regen system (which is, of course, an impossibility) would make weight reduction almost completely irrelevant, from a mileage perspective.

Toyota claims that the Prius II achieves up to 35% efficiency during regenerative braking cycles. More advanced hybrid systems are capable of achieving over 60%, and some engineers are already claiming that 80% might be achieved by 2015. Now go figure how much oil that will save, and how practical a push for Energy Security through hybrids running on E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) processed in the US from US-grown feed stocks then becomes, with the 15% gasoline coming from the remaining viable North American oil wells. Assume that one quarter of current consumption is cut by hybridization, mainly in city driving, and one quarter is cut on the highway by using more efficient downsized engines and cutting aerodynamic drag. Let's also assume North American gasoline production bottoms out at 20% of current consumption by 2025. That leaves biofuels with only the final third to fill, a target already identified as well within reach in a recent combined report from the US Departments of Agriculture and Energy. Also see Newsweek's recent article. The Senate may be full of politicians, but they're not stupid and they can read! The Energy Policy Act is a lot smarter than some of its critics.

It may get even better. If batteries become available which are cheap enough and robust enough to be economically viable in the optional plug-in role, many hybrids will have batteries added which will enable them to travel the first 30 miles or so using energy collected from solar panels or a wind turbines or other sources of renewable energy, private or public. French nuclear power can already meet a massive overnight load, not just for France, but for Europe. England's current dependency on France for electrical power may eventually be broken, around 2050, if 'hot fusion' is finally given the backing that science fiction has always assumed. We already know we will be able to make it work properly (www.fusion.org.uk/mast/news/jun05.html), and there is a reasonable chance it can become commercially viable; not always the same thing – see Concorde.

If fusion works on a grand scale by 2050, it could be in trains, MBTs and large trucks by 2070, and our grandchildren's cars by 2100. With refueling only a few times a year, just add a surge power unit or two for high power, high efficiency and cost reduction. In this 'fully distributed power' scenario, fuel cells are merely a transitional technology. However, surge power units are the foundation technology for vehicular applications, supporting, first, reciprocating engines, then fuel cell 'engines', then fusion engines. If fuel cell vehicles are delayed beyond 2025 in volume, by then we may already be convinced that the 'end game' of micro fusion reactors is practicable. If micro reactors are realizable, I can't see many 'hydrogen highways' being built, outside California.

Note that there are no realistic plans (yet!) to extract energy from a fusion reactor of any size other than in the form of heat. If that remains the case, the Senate's definition of a hybrid is still applicable; we are still talking heat engines. In a large fusion (or fission or coal or gas) generating station, heat energy from the reactor or boilers is turned into kinetic energy by large steam turbines. Now shrink that image, and connect the micro turbine directly to one of the high-speed rotors of the kinetic energy surge power unit. Works for me – I hope! However, what we do know is, that if efficiency still matters by then (and it will be a strange world if it doesn't), getting the energy immediately into kinetic form and keeping it there through the regenerative braking cycle of a land vehicle is theoretically and inherently the most effective way forward, quite literally. Of course, the practical resolution of this for fusion power is still at least a generation away, but it would seem sensible to at least begin to explore in the general direction we expect boldly to go. Scotty, this bit was for you.

John Gilkison is doing a grand job of tutoring the 'aerodynamics class' elsewhere in EV World, so just let me observe that the devil-driven obsession with 'butch' shapes and unnecessarily high vehicles has caused the US to import a massive and still increasing amount of extra foreign oil since the SUV craze started. And this has come at a punishing cost, measured not just in money. The latest proposals from Washington on new fuel consumption targets are purely weight-based, with unnecessarily large concessions for heavier personal vehicles. Here's a much simpler and more effective additional measure to persuade SUV buyers to get their 'habit' under control.

There should be an additional federal EPA test of each new model's fuel consumption at a steady 70 mph on a disused (but resurfaced) federal runway, both ways, with no more than a 5 mph wind blowing. The mpg figure that results should then determine the maximum speed the vehicle is permitted to use on the freeway. Right now, any police officer reading this piece is getting understandably nervous. Relax, officer! No need to stop that pickup with a gun rack! Speed cameras will detect the infringement, and the system will notify the owner that the offense has been committed and that the fine has been added to the next annual license fee. On change of ownership, one of the key moves for any potential buyer of an SUV or other potentially profligate vehicle will be to check what the next license fee is going to be for that particular vehicle, which may well lose the sale. Only if the vehicle isn't re-licensed will further legal steps need to be taken. Of course, there needs to be a backstop (such as vehicle confiscation if three or more fines are outstanding) to prevent the well-off from abusing the system.

A new federal law will be needed, which will require that vehicles deemed 'profligate' should be limited to 10 mph below the posted freeway limit. (Let's keep the math simple.) The new rule will apply on freeways only, because big bluff bodies aren't particularly wasteful below 40 mph. The DoT will determine the rising annual mpg 'profligacy' thresholds and publish them, with several years notice. To ease the transition, there will need to be a buffer period of, say, three years when the rules don't apply to older vehicles, but beyond that, ALL vehicles older than five will be regarded legally as 'profligate', unless manufacturers get each particular older model tested. This is intended to reduce the exposure to manufacturers from their customers hanging on to their big old SUVs, just because they can drive them faster (legally) on the freeway than the big shiny new SUVs in the showroom.

Of course, if a vehicle can use E85, it will be tested on gasoline (testing on E85 would be an unfair handicap). The incentive to use E85 rather than gasoline needs to be mainly financial, so the relative cost per mile is the key parameter for any driver approaching a gas station. If the lower price per gallon of E85 outweighs the higher mpg on gasoline, in goes E85. Of course, we've already reached this stage with current prices, but try finding an E85 pump in Los Angeles, New York or Washington DC! (see www.e85fuel.com/database/locations.php?state=dcDistrict%20of%20Columbia)

So the challenge of achieving a measure of Energy Security by moving from gasoline to E85 is not that difficult for vehicle manufacturers, relatively easy for governments, and a positive turn on for farmers (they'll grow whatever is profitable, subsidies included!). But 'Big Oil' must be in a real quandary.

On the one hand, very little investment will be required at the retail end of the business, particularly if governments 'pump-prime' with subsidies for installing E85 pumps and tanks in gas stations. On the other hand, the back end business will no longer involve frequent trips to exotic palaces filled with dancing girls and gifts of diamond encrusted watches, but could become a vicious struggle to prevent 'Big Agriculture' from 'doing a Venezuela' and setting up its own E100 stations. "Get farm-fresh extra-virgin ethanol here!" "A free bottle of 'drinks booster' with every 10 gallons!" "So clean, you can drink it! - but please, not while you're driving!" Of course, powerful forces (think Prohibition) will prevent E100 being offered to the public in the US (and in the UK, particularly in Scotland and Wales. France – qui sait?), but Big Agriculture is bound to make major inroads into retailing E85. I'm sure Canada, Norway and Scotland will be happy to provide the final 15% gasoline required, as their gasoline markets begin to shrink faster than their refinery capacity and oil reserves.

In Europe, most heavy trucks are governed (not just limited) to 56 mph (90 kph), which would save US trucking companies (and the country) a fortune, but cause a riot amongst the drivers. It was irresponsible of the Sunday Times journalists to pick 50 mph as their cruising speed, because they were preventing the big trucks they complained were intimidating them from reaching their legal cruising speed. Some might also consider it irresponsible of the federal government not to insist that all vehicles weighing over 5 tons laden are fitted with electronic governors that use GPS to prevent the road speed of trucks exceeding the local speed limit applied to passenger cars. Why should 30 tons of truck capable of braking at no better than 0.55g be able to sit only feet behind a car traveling at the car's legal limit, and force the car driver to accelerate over the limit to open up a safe gap? Should a truck be able to do 40 mph past a school?

Given the value of these big vehicles and the savings to be made (in tires, brakes and lives, as well as fuel), the relative cost of fitting such systems to all large vehicles, new and old, is trivial and probably recoverable within months. Most trucking companies just need the excuse of a federal mandate to override the objections of the drivers. They'll want to implement the new regulation in a hurry. So let's propose a governed speed limit of 60 mph for big trucks, with 60 as the limit for 'profligate' lighter vehicles, but with an 'acceptable margin of error' to permit a profligate vehicle to draw gradually away from a following Juggernaut, and let sleek vehicles do 70, legally. If we don't get our act together on this, the lobbying for a return to the old, blanket 55 mph limit will get stronger, and might prevail at the next panic. Followed by the draconian level of electronic surveillance already being implemented elsewhere. Big Brother is stirring!

California may decide that 'profligate' vehicles are inherently less safe (too heavy for their brakes, too high, too much fuel onboard), and may elect to introduce a new, discriminatory, speed limit. Purely on the grounds of safety, of course. Absolutely nothing at all to do with fuel consumption, which is exclusively a federal matter.


Times Article Viewed: 28126
Published: 03-Oct-2005


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