01 March 2007

Clean Start

Written by Published in Technology

For an alternative technology to become widely accepted either a paradigm shift or a slow, orderly transition is required. Controversy is inevitable. The car industry is a case in point

Over one century old, the industry contributes countless billions to the global economy, employing many millions of workers around the world (an estimated 12m in the EU are ‘directly or indirectly connected’ to the motor industry, according to the European Union).

Yet these economic benefits come at a price. According to the 2006 Stern Review, the transport sector accounts for 14% of all global greenhouse gases, and the ‘majority of these emissions are from road transport (76%)’. The Report estimated that by 2050 these levels will have doubled, but also noted that as a fast-growing sector, and a sector where it is costly to initiate technological change, ‘studies tend to find that transport will be among the last sectors to bring its emissions down below current levels’.

Our roads are clogged and our cars are choking us. All indications are that the roads of the future will be fuller than they are today.

Congestion will only increase. So is a gradual shift of attitudes already underway, or will our rejection of the automobile-centric economy be swift and painful? The motor industry would argue the former, claiming that it has initiated major changes in the design and manufacture of cars. Their future depends on it. No one disagrees with the premise that fossil fuels are a finite resource, or that their consumption produces CO2, a greenhouse gas that makes a major contribution to global warming. Technological determinists suggest that the gradual decline in the availability of fossil fuels will spur on research in alternatives, eventually leading to much-needed cuts in carbon consumption. Their counterparts, the fatalists, point out that this approach fails to address the scale and urgency of the problem.

At the heart of these debates sit the car manufacturers, striving to maintain – and grow – their business model in the face of legislative action and a changeable consumer mood. By assuming that our devotion to the automobile will remain constant and unflinching, car makers have focused on ways to alleviate the damage caused by the internal combustion engine, either by honing it for greater efficiency or by doing away with it altogether.

The environmental impact of modern cars is assessed principally in terms of grams of CO2 emitted per kilometre. Current European Commission proposals suggest reducing average emissions levels to 130g/km by 2012, a target which has caused consternation among car makers, notably in Germany. To date, only Fiat has reached the level of 140g/km that the industry voluntarily suggested it would attain by 2008.

Everyone else has a long way to go. Recent trends towards larger cars and demands for increased safety means that the average CO2 g/km in the UK SUV sector is just over 260g/km; in America it is far higher.

While a company like DaimlerChrysler can produce the ultra fuel-efficient Smart car (around 90g/km), it also makes the Maybach limousine and Mercedes McLaren SLR supercar, two of the least efficient vehicles on the market. The average output across the entire DaimlerChrysler range is therefore seriously skewed by these extremes, muddying the debate.

We’re not ready to give up on fossil fuels just yet, but there are signs of gradual change. Every motor show sees new hybrid and fuel cell concepts, all pointing hopefully to a low-emission, decarbonised future that will allow the car to retain its role as cultural status symbol.

For example, can sports cars exist in a low-emission future? French manufacturer Venturi and Californian maker Tesla both think so, marketing the Fétish and the Roadster respectively, both all-electric cars capable of out performing many of their conventionally powered rivals. Lexus, Toyota’s luxury arm, even believe there is demand for a low-emissions supercar, and the forthcoming LF-A will reportedly share the same drivetrain as its unwieldy but (relatively) efficient 600h luxury saloon.

But real change needs to engage the mass market. The Smart brand offers perhaps the most sensible approach to conventional-powered motoring; a two-seater city car that uses an efficient petrol engine, producing less pollutants than many hybrids by recognising the most common way of using a car is with two or fewer occupants. Diesel and electric Smarts are in the pipeline, but the latter offers few advantages over its fossil-fuelled siblings. Likewise, manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Ford, Honda and Toyota are all capable of creating small cars that sip fuel abstemiously. By using refined conventional technology, they arguably present a better short-term solution than the darling of the environmentally friendly motorist, the Toyota Prius, simply by virtue of having fewer complex parts, simpler manufacturing processes and no need for ranks of hard-to-dispose-of batteries.

The Prius remains an elegant solution, an example of a company setting out to conquer a market and sate a consumer desire that previously didn’t exist. Toyota has its critics, but even its engineers don’t see the hybrid as anything more than a short-term stop-gap, a way of slowly shifting the marketplace away from traditional totems like performance and speed towards more socially responsible indicators like fuel efficiency. That said, we are on the cusp of a mini hybrid revolution, with imminent models from Audi, Volkswagen, Nissan, Lexus, Ford, Porsche, Cadillac and more. Many of these manufacturers are making their first foray into the technology, having made allowances for hybrid power to be ‘slotted in’ to existing models, late in the product life-cycle. For the most part, the new hybrids will be high-end vehicles, sports cars and SUVs, whose hybridisation simply takes the edge off dismal environmental performance ...

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