If there's one truth about alternative fuel plans espoused by most of the major automakers, it's that they like an "all of the above" approach. They'll try flex-fuel, offer you some plug-in cars, toy with diesels in the U.S. and work on hydrogen cars for a few years down the road. No one wants to "pick a winner," which is one reason why gas is still winning, but today's automakers are willing to see what alternatives are out there. Just as they've been doing for decades.
Volkswagen recently invited journalists to its Electronics Research Laboratory in Silicon Valley to show off some of these alternatives: the vehicles, powertrains and biofuel partnerships it's working on for a more fuel-efficient future. Taking note of the omission of a hydrogen program, what we saw in California proves that VW is ready to compete in a variety of ways, from the way it makes its cars to the way they move.
Let's start with some of VW's better sellers. We'll get to the cleaner, niche programs in a minute. VW's LEED Platinum-certified Chattanooga plant builds the Passat, and it will be capable of building 170,000 vehicles a year by the end of 2013 (this includes vehicles for export). The Passat is selling well – 8,189 were sold in February – and if you get the diesel-burning TDI Passat, you are rewarded with 43 miles per gallon (on the highway, says the EPA. Combined is 35 and you get 31 in the city). The gas-electric Jetta Hybrid is coming in late 2012 as a 2013 model. That car will use a 1.4 liter turbocharger engine with a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, electric motor and lithium-ion battery to give an estimated 45 mpg (compare this to the TDI, which gets 42 mpg highway), and you can push the car up to 44 miles per hour in EV mode and go from 0-60 in less than nine seconds. It's logical to think that Volkswagen can expect good things from this car, since all-around Jetta sales were up 54.5 percent in 2011.
So, that's some of where VW stands today with its green vehicle work. To see what's next, scroll down.
E-Golf: Improved, But Still Just Testing
The highlight of our trip to California was the chance to get behind the wheel of the all-electric Golf again. We drove an early version of the E-Golf in 2010 and thought this would be a good chance to compare notes. The problem? Test drives were limited to about seven minutes, less than half of what we were treated to last time.
As before, the E-Golf takes the popular Golf model into the 21st Century. A 26.5-kWh battery pack juices up an electric motor that offers 199 pound-feet of torque and a range of up to 93 miles. The motor red lines at 85 kW, but if you engage "Eco" or "Range" modes (the Euro version uses the Comfort+ and Range+ names), then the top power output drops to 65 or 50 kW, respectively. Mark Gillies, VW of America's manager of product and technology communications, told AutoblogGreen that engineers have pushed the E-Golf to 180 kilometers (112 miles) on one charge in Range mode. The 5.1 kW onboard charger can refill the battery in about six hours from a 240V/Level 2 source.
We were curious what else has been changed since our original drive for all the E-Golfs and for the U.S. test vehicles specifically. The most important change? It's no longer called the Golf Blue-e-motion. Aside from that, all of the E-Golfs have undergone evolutionary changes and the e-Golf prototypes that are part of the stateside test fleet have been adapted for the U.S. market, VW's Darryll Harrison told AutoblogGreen. "From a driver/consumer standpoint, the most noticeable change is that of the instrument cluster, which had no colors on the power meter and speedometer in the previous model," he said. Other changes to the U.S. Golfs include:
- Now based on the U.S. Golf, which includes an update to add U.S.-spec sidemarkers, tires, etc.
- An updated condenser that adds hot climate capability
- An update to allow for J1772 charging
- Updated interior instrumentation (compare the picture below to this)
- A tire pressure monitoring system (TMPS)
- An update to a U.S.-spec airbag system
If all goes well, the E-Golf will come to the U.S. in 2014. The current fleet of E-Golfs are based on sixth-generation models (called A6 Golfs), while the E-Golfs that will eventually be sold here will use next-gen models (A7s). That means updates are coming, like the fact that the next-gen Golf is being designed to accommodate a battery pack. Gillies said the way the pack is stuffed under the rear seats and the center tunnel of the A6 is "compromised."
From the outside, the car makes a noise that's not unlike a soft Wookiee growl. It's perhaps the geekiest pedestrian warning sound we've heard from any EV. Given VW's advertising association with Star Wars, we can imagine this being played up in some future E-Golf commercial. Until that happens, you can hear the sound in this short video.
VW is testing the vehicles in the U.S. because of the different driving styles here – we have no Autobahn, for example – and to that end we'd like to voice our Yankee support for something we truly enjoyed in the Golf blue e-motion: adjustable regen. Seriously, all EVs need some version of this. VW's Gerald LeBlanc told us that one reason VW is keeping the selectable regen is that it makes for more engaged driving. We heartily agree, even without an Autobahn.
When Volkswagen introduced the Beetle TDI at the Chicago Auto Show in February, we did the math and figured the diesel bug would offer fun and some frugality: only 140 horsepower but with 236 pound-feet of torque plus 29 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. On the wet mountain roads outside of San Francisco, the Beetle TDI made itself right at home but, sadly, we only had about three minutes behind the wheel (seriously). Still, it was enough to prove we were right – the car is peppy and sounds great – and now we want more.
VW gives you some visual clues that tell you've got a turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel engine under the hood – three dials, a turbo boost gauge, an oil temperature gauge and a stopwatch – that pop out from the dash. But with the engine running, you don't need to see to know. We'll share more detailed thoughts when we get to spend more time with this one.
To run that Beetle – and the rest of VW's diesel fleet – in a greener fashion, VW recently announced two partnerships with renewable diesel companies Amyris and Solazyme. The important thing to note is that the fuel these companies are making is not biodiesel, it is not made from fats.
Instead, they're producing ultra-low-sulfur-certified fuels that are chemically identical to diesel but made by algae. The algae have been genetically modified to produce hydrocarbons instead of alcohol. Both companies are promising to have full-scale commercial plants up and running within the next 12 months.
Finding a cleaner source of diesel fuel is important to VW, since it is pushing its oil-burning vehicles here in the U.S. in a big way. The results have been good, too, since 21.6 percent of all VWs sold in the the U.S. last year were diesel. As part of the renewable diesel deal, VW will give each company a 2012 Passat TDI and 2012 Jetta TDI to use for testing for the next 12 months. You know that that means: We'll be hearing more about all of this as time goes on.
Partnership will advance research in automotive renewable diesel solutions for current and next-generation TDI® Clean Diesel applications
Belmont, Calif, March 21, 2012 - Volkswagen of America today announced partnerships with Amyris and Solazyme, two of the world's leaders in renewable fuels, to evaluate emissions reductions and demonstrate the performance of TDI® Clean Diesel technology when powered by advanced biodiesel and renewable diesel fuel.
Under the respective agreements, Volkswagen will provide both companies with two products each-the all-new 2012 Passat TDI and 2012 Jetta TDI-in order to closely examine the effects that the fuels produced by Amyris and Solazyme will have on Volkswagen clean diesel technology and the environment. (Amyris converts plant-sourced sugars into renewable hydrocarbons for fuel and chemical applications; Solazyme has developed a technology that harnesses the oil-producing ability of microalgae to develop renewable oil products.) The 12- month evaluation period will equip Volkswagen engineers with valuable data that will aid in the ongoing enhancement of TDI Clean Diesel technology and help the brand to develop more efficient, cleaner burning diesel powertrains for future products.
"Partnering with two leaders in advanced biofuel technology supports Volkswagen's goal of offering a competitive suite of technologies that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve fuel efficiency and fit the diverse needs of our customers," said Prof. Dr. Jürgen Leohold, Head of Volkswagen Group Research. "In order to achieve our long-term desire of bringing CO2-neutral mobility to the market, advanced gasoline and diesel engines-like TDI Clean Diesel technology-must play a major role; and renewable energies to power these advanced powertrains are needed on a large scale."
"Think Blue is not just a tagline, but a state of mind at Volkswagen and is the driving force behind our goal of bringing sustainable products, technologies and solutions to the market while reducing our collective environmental impact," said Tim Mahoney, Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Volkswagen of America. "Strategic partnerships with leading-edge companies like Amyris and Solazyme reinforce our ongoing commitment to producing a fleet of eco-conscious vehicles and will ensure VW's leadership position in the clean diesel space into the future."
During the year-long evaluation, Volkswagen will measure the environmental impacts from the use of cleaner burning renewable diesel formulas. Initial analysis indicates that while advanced biofuels are comparable to standard diesel blends in terms of performance, there are tremendous opportunities to reduce vehicle emissions.
"Amyris' renewable diesel's proven superior cold weather performance, high cetane and comparable energy density to petroleum diesel have enabled us to obtain one of the highest blending registrations certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," said Mario Portela, Chief Operating Officer, Amyris. "Our partnership with Volkswagen, like our work in Brazil, where nearly 200 buses are running on various blends of Amyris diesel, is another important milestone in expanding OEM acceptance by showing our fuels eliminate the performance challenges of first generation biofuels while still enabling significant reductions in greenhouse gas and tailpipe emissions."
"Volkswagen has continually been at the forefront of automotive innovation providing safe, quality, and environmentally sound vehicles to consumers," said Rogerio Manso, Chief Commercialization Officer, Solazyme. "Solazyme's 100 percent drop-in renewable diesel is compatible with existing infrastructure and vehicles, and provides the world-class engine manufacturer with an advanced diesel replacement that drives significant Greenhouse Gases (GHG) as well as ground-level emission reductions."
VW TDI® Clean Diesel Momentum Continues
The announcement comes on the heels of an impressive year for Volkswagen TDI® products in the United States where high-mileage, clean diesel TDI models accounted for 21.6 percent of sales in 2011, a significant increase over recent years. In fact, February 2012 sales of clean diesel products were up more than 54-percent over prior month. Adding to the tremendous sales success of TDI-equipped vehicles, VW recently announced that the 2013 Beetle TDI will become the sixth clean diesel model available in the brand's U.S. lineup.
About Amyris, Inc.
Amyris (NASDAQ: AMRS) is an integrated renewable products company focused on providing sustainable alternatives to a broad range of petroleum-sourced products. Amyris uses its industrial synthetic biology platform to convert plant sugars into a variety of hydrocarbon molecules-flexible building blocks that can be used in a wide range of products. Amyris is commercializing these products both as No Compromise® renewable ingredients in cosmetics, flavors and fragrances, polymers, lubricants and consumer products, and also as No Compromise renewable diesel and jet fuel. Amyris Brasil Ltda., a subsidiary of Amyris, oversees the establishment and expansion of Amyris's production in Brazil. Amyris also has fuel distribution capabilities in the United States through its subsidiary, Amyris Fuels, LLC. More information about Amyris is available at www.amyris.com.
About Solazyme, Inc.
Solazyme, Inc. (NASDAQ: SZYM) is a renewable oil and bioproducts company that transforms a range of low-cost plant-based sugars into high-value oils. Headquartered in South San Francisco, Solazyme's renewable products can replace or enhance oils derived from the
world's three existing sources-petroleum, plants and animal fats. Initially, Solazyme is focused on commercializing its products into three target markets: (1) fuels and chemicals; (2) nutrition; and (3) skin and personal care. Solazyme®, the Solazyme logo and other trademarks or service names are trademarks of Solazyme, Inc.
About Volkswagen of America, Inc.
Founded in 1955, Volkswagen of America, Inc. is headquartered in Herndon, Virginia. It is a subsidiary of Volkswagen AG, headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany. VWoA's operations in the United States include research and development, parts and vehicle processing, parts distribution centers, sales, marketing and service offices, financial service centers, and its state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Volkswagen is one of the world's largest producers of passenger cars and Europe's largest automaker. Volkswagen sells the Beetle, Eos, Golf, Golf R, GTI, Jetta, Jetta SportWagen, Passat, CC, Tiguan, Touareg and Routan vehicles through approximately 600 independent U.S. dealers.