Get Into Gear for Cleaner, Greener Cars
Cars are on a high-speed collision course with the health of the planet, but there are some praiseworthy initiatives and alternative solutions which may avert this dark scenario. Geoff Dalglish reports
Cars impact on the environment throughout their lifecycle - from their initial design and the way they are built, to their everyday use on the road and eventual disposal.
Now the more visionary motor manufacturers are making huge strides in designing cars that are easier to build, using less energy and resources in manufacture; that run on less fuel with lower emissions; and can eventually be recycled more easily.
A future scenario is likely to see today's car assembly lines in reverse, with ELVs, or end-of-life vehicles, going down a disassembly line so that re-usable parts can be collected for recycling.
The ultimate goal is zero emissions and zero waste to landfill.
Sadly, South Africa has no plan in place for the recycling of thousands of wrecks that pose an environmental hazard, although it is heartening to see some recent moves to clean up our act.
One of these will involve a levy on all new tyres to fund the environmentally friendly collection and disposal of millions of used tyres, leading to the recovery of rubber for a range of items.
Cleaner, less harmful unleaded petrol will be available nationally from January 2006, all new cars will be fitted with exhaust catalytic converters from 2008, and the sulphur content of South Africa's so-called eco-diesel (containing 500 particles of matter per million) will be reduced to current European levels of 50 parts per million in 2010.
Meanwhile, hopefully, we'll be part of the creation of efficient, future public transport systems with a major swing to cleaner, greener cars.
The electric car is a clean, quiet solution, although it has not made a real breakthrough because of costs, extreme limitations in range (about 100km) and the length of time required for recharging. The cost, size, weight and lifecycle of the batteries are problems that are still being grappled with. Hybrids hold far greater promise.
Hydrogen fuel cells
Many believe that fuel cell-driven vehicles will become a mainstay of mobility in the future, combining two elements - hydrogen and oxygen - to generate electricity that powers an electric motor. The by-products are water vapour and heat, making this technology the ultimate zero emissions solution for vehicle use, although the process for producing hydrogen is not emission-free. A downside of the technology is that the system will require the creation of a vast and expensive infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations, similar to the current petrol and diesel network.
Cleaner, greener engines
For more than a century, we've been served admirably by petrol and diesel vehicles, and they're likely to be a major source of mobility for years to come, although fossil fuels have a finite lifespan. Continuous improvement will see further reductions in fuel consumption and emissions. But before we can enjoy the newest engine technologies, we'll need cleaner fuels in South Africa.
Vehicles propelled by compressed natural gas emit very small amounts of particulate matter and less carbon dioxide than conventional petrol or diesel vehicles. However, natural gas, which is used by bus and taxi fleets in many city centres, requires large storage tanks for the fuel, and delivers less energy than conventional fossil fuels.
Hybrid petrol-electric vehicles
Hybrid technology forms one of the most exciting development paths with more than 250 000 hybrid vehicles already on the road across the globe. The emphasis has been on combining petrol and electric units. Although diesel engines use less fuel and produce less carbon dioxide than petrol engines, they produce more exhaust particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Advanced technologies will see cleaner and more efficient examples of both types of engine in hybrid electric applications.
Biofuels and synthetic fuels
Additives to fuel can be obtained from plant matter to create so-called biofuels, although the additive only makes up a maximum of 5% of diesel fuel. It is also possible to produce synthetic petroleum from natural biomass, with interesting advantages in gas emissions.
Oh dear, not the steam engine again! It is possible to produce synthetic fuel from coal, as Sasol has demonstrated, with coal enjoying much more abundant reserves than oil - probably around 450 years compared to possibly as little as 30 years, according to the estimates.
What's it like?
It's a breath of fresh air, especially if you compare the latest 2005-model Toyota with the original Prius of 1997.
Improvements to performance and efficiency have been as dramatic as the enhancements to styling and driving appeal, the latest Toyota being a comfy, five-door, five-seat hatch that will accelerate you briskly to 100 km/h in around 11 seconds, and clock a top speed in the region of 170km/h.
I drove the original in Japan seven years ago and was impressed with the Earth-friendly concept but rather less so with the actual driving experience. But this is one I'd happily embrace as my everyday transport.
For a start, there's no clutch or gear lever. Instead when you prod the accelerator pedal it starts up and moves off in almost eerie silence, provided you are gentle and only engage the electric motor. In fact, you can choose to run in electric mode alone, using no fuel and causing no exhaust emissions.
Normally you combine petrol and electric propulsion. Push harder on the accelerator and it responds eagerly, the 1.5-litre 57kW petrol engine kicking in seamlessly and augmenting the energy of the 50kW electric motor.
The automatic transmission is infinitely variable, so there's no sense of shifting from one gear to another, but rather of speed gathering smoothly.
Aerodynamics are superb, with low wind noise levels and good cabin insulation from road noise.
The moment you brake or stop, the petrol event switches off.
A TV-style monitor shows you how and when the power is apportioned by the engine and motor, also revealing one of the cleverer features - the regenerative braking system.
During deceleration or braking, energy is stored and the battery automatically re-charged. Cunning.
This means that you never have to plug the Prius in for recharging and you can fill up at your usual petrol station.
The hybrid Toyota manages to squeeze up to 35km out of each litre of fuel, bettering the fuel consumption of smaller diesel economy cars. It also does so with drastically reduced exhaust emissions, and without the sooty exhaust particles or smoke that typifies earlier-generation diesel vehicles.
If you drive 20 000km a year in a Prius, Toyota says you'll save more than a ton of carbon dioxide pollution when compared to a similar-sized diesel car.
Or, put another way, you'd be doing the annual work of a forest of 71 trees that would normally be required to absorb the
Next year, it'll be the cleanest, greenest car on South African roads.
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