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Published 15 December 2011 05:00, Updated 16 December 2011 09:47
The end of the world is coming, apparently, unless we behave less like crazed suicidal lemmings and more like giant pandas.
But it’s hard to see any great shifts in behaviour in the short term if we continue with our all-abiding love for hungry road beasts. Nevertheless, we can fool ourselves into believing that we can have less of an impact if we make vehicles that chew through less finite oil and pump out fewer earth-warming particles.
While we have tried to lessen the impact of the automobile by making them out of wood or even covering them with lawn, the fact is we won’t give them up without a fight.
Since the invention of the motor car, the quest to go faster in a smarter-looking, more comfortable vehicle has taken more and more resources and helped lead us to where we are now.
But car makers are trying to change their ways and advances in technology are helping them do it. The designs of 2012 in the prestige market will take these developments further, not in leaps and bounds but in increments.
Functionality aside – think about how the Holden Sandman contributed to teenage pregnancy levels in the 1970s and ’80s – each of the new developments has been designed to do one thing, sell cars.
And that’s the real reason car makers are heeding the increasingly shrill voices of the people who think life on earth will end in one gut-wrenching final cough.
It’s pure capitalist rationality – those that make what people want will succeed while those that don’t will be doomed to fail.
We want cars that go faster (that hasn’t changed) but use less fuel and push out fewer CO2 molecules.
Governments have played their parts in forcing the issue, particularly in Europe where pollution standards have been mandated most rigidly, but ultimately it will be the consumer who will determine the winners and losers.
The local manufacturers will have to keep up as the federal government recently announced a phased introduction of the Euro 5 emissions standard from 2013. This mandates the acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of all new vehicles sold.
But we don’t want all this nanny stuff to ruin our enjoyment of motoring and we want to stay connected in a wired world.
To that end, here are some of the approaches car makers are offering in their quest to achieve the ultimate – zero emissions motoring. These are options now being offered, not concepts.
The first and most obvious is the development of electric cars and hybrids. This is where a lot of new work is being done, from the remarkable $223,000 electric Tesla sports car that can travel 360 kilometres on one charge to the $320,000 diesel-hybrid Porsche Panamera that can go 2 kilometres on electric power alone.
Most car makers are developing vehicles with hybrid technology and are also fleshing out city all-electric cars, which is where 2012 will be a watershed year.
The interest in hybrid technology can be gauged by the reaction to Peugeot’s 508 RXH Limited Edition station wagon. A hybrid diesel-electric combination, it was offered only to online buyers in 12 European countries and all 300 units sold in three days. And all 5000 of Tesla’s first four-door sedan have been sold even before production begins.
All the configurations are being tested – electric motors on the wheels or between the transmission and the engine, in the front, in the back and even amidships.
The impetus for all this activity is the development of better batteries, mostly lithium-ion units and lithium-sulphur but the big thing to remember when considering any electric option is the replacement cost of the battery.
American company Better Place has a solution, with a monthly charge for any number of battery switches for suitable cars at its service station-like replacement centres now being opened across the world. The idea is that when the battery is low, you drive into the station, the battery is dropped out of the bottom of the car and replaced within minutes.
Of the all-electric vehicles, the five-seater Nissan Leaf will be positioned at the premium end of the market when it arrives next year.
Most vehicle makers are also trying the hydrogen fuel cell-electric option. Hyundai’s ix35 SUV is now being tested by EU commissioners across Europe and it is aiming for commercial production by 2015, while Mercedes-Benz is in a joint venture to build 20 hydrogen filling stations in Germany to ensure a reliable supply.
The innovations in the way cars drive that tend to stick, with a few exceptions, appear first in the luxury market where people are more likely to have the money to spend on new ideas than at the budget end.
So you can expect the move to eight-speed transmissions in the prestige market to hit the mass market eventually. The rationale for the extra gearing is simple – the less hard an engine has to work, the less fuel it needs.
These transmissions were first introduced to Australia by Lexus in 2007 but BMW is the first to offer them across its range.
It seems to be a natural progression to continuously variable transmissions, which are appearing in some of the new Audis, keeping the engine operating at its most efficient level regardless of vehicle speed, thus saving fuel.
Turbochargers are proving a very popular solution, even in small petrol engines. The advantage is fuel is used much more efficiently without sacrificing performance.
Car makers are also working on regenerative braking to charge the car battery. BMW and Lexus already use this in several models.
Diesels are also getting a lot of attention. The problems in the past have been controlling emissions and cutting the weight of the engines which, because they are compression rather than combustion, work under higher pressures and therefore need heavy steel engine blocks.
The popular solution is aluminium panels, smaller turbo-charged engines with pressurised direct injection to increase the power-to-weight ratio combined with better body shapes to reduce drag and low rolling resistance tyres.
However, Mazda may have the immediate lead with a lower compression ratio engine that has allowed it to build an aluminium engine block and cut both weight and emissions. Mazda has also developed an ultra-high tensile steel that is lighter and stronger than normal steel for use in bumper bars.
Audi has a partial answer to the problem of diesel emissions. It uses a big V8 diesel with an eight-speed gearbox in its A8 but filters the exhaust gases three times then treats it with a urea solution to remove nitrogen oxides before it leaves the car, producing low pollution figures.
The main attraction of the diesel engine is its fuel efficiency and teamed with electric motors, the figures start to get really interesting. For example, Volvo’s V60 hybrid, which is almost production-ready, has a five-cylinder 2.4-litre diesel plus a 52kW motor on the rear axle with claimed CO2 emissions below 50g/km and an average fuel consumption of just 1.9l/100km.
Another innovation is stop-start technology. This very simply turns the motor off when you are stopped and starts it again when you lift your foot off the brake, saving fuel. Most of the premium marques and many of the basic producers will have at least one model with this technology on Australian roads next year.
Ultimately, though, if you really want to save the world, park your car, hop on a bike and ride to work.
Motoring columns: Range Rover Autobiography, Audi A8, Alfa Romeo Mito and Giulietta, Jaguar XJ, Volvo S60, Can Am Spyder, Peugeot RCZ, BMW 535d, Audi A7 Sportback, Nissan GT-R, Lexus IS F, Lexus IS350 F Sport.