Green Car Tech: Workhorses Trump Thoroughbreds?

Green Car Tech: Workhorses Trump Thoroughbreds?

Ed. note: This was first publish in Energy Outlook, Geoffrey Styles’ blog on February 1st, 2013.

By Geoffrey Styles

Yesterday I made my annual trek to the Washington Auto Show, which hosts a media day before opening to the public.  Between the show’s focus on policy–a natural draw inside the Beltway–and the opportunity to connect with OEM contacts, it’s always worthwhile.  Besides, the cars never look the same on a screen or printed page as they do in person.  Yet despite all of that, this year’s show left me with what I regard as a healthy form of disappointment: Unlike past years, which provided my first opportunities to see–and sometimes drive–cutting-edge cleantech cars like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, I saw ample signs of evolutionary change but no new revolutions in the offing.

A few data points to support that conclusion: First, the Fisker Karma, undeniably sleek and reminiscent of my favorite Hot Wheels® car of long ago, was arguably the most exotic car there.  It sat unattended and largely ignored.  More significantly, the 2013 Green Car Technology Award announced at the show by Green Car Journal went to Mazda’s “SkyACTIV” suite of technologies.  These include improvements in engines, transmissions and chassis that Mazda plans to roll out across its fleet, along with the North American launch of a clean diesel version of its Mazda6 sedan later this year.  Among the other finalists were Ford’s stop-start and EcoBoost technologies, Fisker’s “EVer” plug-in hybrid powertrain, and Fiat’s Multi-Air gasoline engine efficiency package.  Half the candidate technologies related to EVs and hybrids, while the other half focused on making conventional cars incrementally more efficient–in the process raising the bar that EVs and hybrids must vault.

Yesterday’s policy day also provided a chance to meet with the team from Robert Bosch, LLC, which among its many business lines supplies under-the-hood gear for clean diesels and efficient gasoline cars, as well as hybrids.  Our conversation focused on clean diesel, which remains the least-appreciated big-bang fuel efficiency option in the US, despite its wide adoption in Europe, where diesels enjoy about a 50% share in “take rate”, reflecting consumers’ choices when more than one fuel option is available in a given model.  Diesel take rates range from 30-60+% here, too, but with only 20 diesel models available in the US last year–many of them German luxury models–overall diesel penetration in new cars was just under 1%.  That could start to change this year. Bosch’s Andreas Sambel, Director of Diesel Marketing and Business Excellence, indicated 22 new models slated for 2013 introduction, with the total increasing to 54 models by 2017.

We also discussed future improvements in diesel passenger car technology.  Bosch sees ample opportunities to maintain diesel’s edge over steadily improving gasoline-engine efficiency.  Possible enhancements include engine downsizing, higher injection pressures (already 29,000 psi), the addition of stop-start, and combustion improvement via something called “digital rate shaping“–my jargon takeaway of the day.  I was surprised to hear that diesel-hybrid models are already available in Europe, since conventional wisdom holds that doubling down on two expensive efficiency strategies can’t be cost-effective.  Mr.Sambel offered the view that hybrids are becoming a distinct market segment, and that fuel choice within that segment will appeal to some buyers.  I’ll have to watch for further signs of this intriguing development.  I certainly concur with his take that there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution.  Don’t expect an imminent winner among the proliferating powertrain and fuel choices available to motorists, including biofuels and CNG/LNG.

This year’s DC Auto Show includes a wide selection of nicely sculpted steel and glass, but at least from a “green car” perspective the technologies that made such a big splash a few years ago are becoming a bit mundane.  That’s just as well.  EVs still haven’t taken off, yet, with only 53,000 sold in the US last year out of a much-recovered 14.4 million car total, despite lavish tax incentives.  However, with oil prices stubbornly high and US gasoline prices on the verge of setting new records for this time of year, the evolutionary improvements in fuel economy that were honored and displayed at the DC Convention Center will find plenty of takers.  For the near-term they’ll contribute far more to saving oil and reducing emissions than a few more EVs could.

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