Open Road

The future of alternative-energy vehicles

Is there a viable future for hybrids, electric vehicles, and other alt-fuel cars? Yes, I think so, and I believe there must be. Before I get into that, however, I'd like to share why I haven't yet jumped on the bandwagon.

I've had the opportunity to test-drive the Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry Hybrid, and Toyota Highlander Hybrid. While all were decent vehicles and I was impressed by the regenerative braking (which helps slow the vehicle down while recharging the battery), I did not enjoy the driving experience. I care about the environment, but at the same time I still enjoy the acceleration and sound of a standard internal combustion engine.

As for electric vehicles, I'm excited about their existence and the instant torque they offer, but I personally have several concerns with them at the moment: initial cost of the vehicle (which will go down over time), the longevity of the battery charge and fear of being stranded (i.e. "range anxiety"), availability of charging stations, added weight of the battery packs (as weight affects performance), effects of extreme temperatures on the battery packs, and the environmental impact of actually building these cars (i.e. chemicals for the batteries, generation of electricity via coal, etc.).

Still, as I said, we need to have these alternative-energy vehicles. Why? Because, no matter which side of the energy debate you're on, one thing is clear: The Earth contains a finite amount of fossil fuels. Scientists can argue all day as to when we will run out of oil or coal, but there is no question of if. What will happen to electric vehicles in areas where electricity is generated via coal? And the fact remains that the vast majority of vehicles on the road today are powered by gasoline. Not to mention that between the US and China alone, we are consuming a massive share of the world's energy resources and are emitting hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, which is contributing to global warming.

Thus, we need to keep exploring other possible sources of energy (preferably renewable), and perhaps other forms of transportation. What we have available today might not be the perfect solution, as all of these vehicles still necessitate some non-renewable resource from the Earth, but it's a step in the right direction.

So what's the solution? I believe we need to take a multi-pronged approach:

  • Continue refining hybrid powertrains to deliver even more miles per gallon.
  • Continue developing battery packs for EVs that can withstand extreme temperatures with little to no effect on charge, as well as increase range.

  • Likewise, continue developing infrastructure to support electric vehicles, such as charging stations at the office or shopping mall.

  • Design cars to be ever more aerodynamic in order to reduce drag coefficient and thereby improve fuel efficiency.

  • Complementary to the above, find ways to reduce vehicle weight, as more energy is required to pull more weight. This can be achieved by removing unnecessary features from vehicles and by using lightweight-yet-strong building materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber.

  • Rather than give up on the internal combustion engine altogether, find ways to make engines more efficient. This can be done by reducing the engine displacement (i.e. 2.0 liter instead of 2.5) and adding technologies such as direct-injection. Another idea is to use a smaller engine and apply a turbocharger, which works by compressing air and forcing it into the engine (keeping in mind that engines run on fuel & air).

  • Encourage people to change their habits, such as car-pooling, using public transportation when possible, grouping tasks in a more efficient way so that less driving is required (not to mention it will save time), and accelerating a bit more gently rather than driving with a lead foot.

  • Last but not least, continue exploring other ways to generate power. Who knows, there could be an entirely new type of engine that has not yet been discovered, or perhaps a synthetic chemical compound that can produce energy much like gasoline does.

Will alternative-energy vehicles be embraced by consumers? I genuinely believe so. Take a look at these facts:

  • Toyota has sold over 1.5 million Priuses (Prii) in the US alone.

  • Toyota has released a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle aptly called the Mirai (that's Japanese for "Future").

  • While not yet as successful as Toyota or Tesla, other companies are offering hybrids or EVs, including Honda's CR-Z, Mitsubishi's oddly named and slow-selling i-MiEV, Nissan's Leaf, Chevrolet's Volt and upcoming Bolt, and BMW's i3 and i8.

  • Tesla's beautiful Model S has received rave reviews from automotive journalists, showing that an EV can provide a top-notch driving experience.

  • The Ford Mustang, one of America's most iconic vehicles, is now available with a 4-cylinder turbocharged engine dubbed EcoBoost that offers decent power with up to 6 miles per gallon more than the V8-equipped Mustang GT.

  • Exotic car makers are joining in on the game, with Porsche introducing a hybrid supercar called the 918, McLaren offering its P1 plug-in hybrid supercar, and Ferrari finally toying with the idea of ditching its large-displacement engines in favor of turbocharging smaller engines or hybridizing.

  • A company called Zero Motorcycles has been offering electric motorcycles for several years now and continues to push out new-and-improved models. Even Harley-Davidson has showcased an electric bike called Project LiveWire, although it will likely not be mass-produced.

So yes, I believe consumers will continue embracing new vehicle technologies – albeit not overnight. It takes some time to become comfortable with new tech, and it also takes time for production costs to decrease due to economies of scale. But we will get there. Throughout history people have evolved and adapted to new technologies. Likewise, we will do the same with automobiles.

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