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The Week in Sustainable Mobility
Mike Millikin, 16 Jan 05
Every Sunday, Green Car Congress' Mike Millikin gives us an update on the week's sustainable mobility news. Green Car Congress is by far the best resource around for news and analysis covering the ongoing evolution of personal transportation. Take it away, Mike:

Detroit’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) provided numerous green announcements and concept introductions, and provided a view of the developing strategies of the major automakers. Hybrids and diesels received a big boost. So, however, did big iron—big engines, big vehicles. (GCC)

“Right now the drive for more and more power in cars is way larger than the drive for more and more hybrids,” said GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the top carmaker’s long-time design guru.  (Reuters)

Both GM and Ford came out with a number of hybrid concepts and production announcements—including diesel-hybrid concept cars from each.

Ford is accelerating its development of full hybrid-electric vehicles. Although the company has announced no additional models to those already targeted for deployment as hybrids, the time to production has been compressed for some. This will give Ford five hybrid models on the road in the next three years. The SUVs will be based on the Escape platform, and the Fusion and Milan sedans are cousins. (GCC)

The shortening of the production timeline indicates (a) that Ford has worked out some of its supply issues and (b) that is recognizes the business danger of allowing Toyota and Honda to claim the hybrid segment for their own. With Ford’s sales declining, it needs to establish some solid—and advanced—differentiation in the market.

Some of that differentiation and positioning may come through increased utilization of its diesel platform capability. Ford unveiled two very interesting concepts at NAIAS: the SYNUS urban diesel (GCC) and the Meta One diesel hybrid—the first PZEV diesel. (GCC).

The SYNUS is a B-segment car—i.e., small. Popular in global urban markets because of narrow streets and dense traffic, B-cars are almost unknown in the US. Given increasing urbanization, however, Ford thinks that “the time may finally be at hand for the B-car market in the United States”.

Although Ford provided no fuel and emissions data for the concept, the diesel engine is from its Mondeo. With a manual transmission, the Mondeo delivers combined cycle (European) fuel consumption of 6.0 liters per 100 km (39 mpg US) and accelerates from 0-62 mph in 9.8 seconds. The Mondeo emits 159 g/km CO2.

Along with the SYNUS, Ford emphasized the use of biodiesel.

The Meta One diesel hybrid concept delivers outstanding low-emissions performance (hence the PZEV rating), and that dramatic drop in emissions is what Ford emphasized. What was not mentioned was fuel efficiency.

Some of the data emerging from field trials and deployments of diesel hybrid system supports this. Fuel consumption (especially on highway) remains high, or in some cases, even greater, than conventional diesel systems. But the emissions produced are unarguably lower.

And, interestingly, along with the Meta One, Ford stressed the potential of synthetic Fischer-Tropsch fuels as a petroleum diesel replacement.

GM used NAIAS as the venue to show off the capabilities of its two-mode hybrid system, the foundation of the partnership between itself and DaimlerChrysler, by unveiling two concept vehicles. (GCC)

The Graphyte SUV hybrid was not a surprise. GM had already announced that it would implement what it then called (and may still call) its Advanced Hybrid System II in Yukon and Tahoe SUVs starting in 2007. AHS II is a variant of the GM-Allison hybrid system used in GM’s diesel-hybrid transit buses, and is the basis of the future two-mode system.

However, to demonstrate the flexibility of the new hybrid system with respect to form factor, GM rolled out the Opel Astra Hybrid. This concept vehicle uses a version of the hybrid system to deliver fuel consumption of the Astra hybrid of less than 4-liters/100km (58.8 mpg)—25% more fuel-efficient than comparable diesel models, according to GM.

One of the design points of the two-mode hybrid system is to package the electric drive elements within the space of the transmission subsystem; this basically allows the hybrid drive to fit in a wide range of vehicle applications—precisely the point GM was trying to make by showing a big SUV and a small front-wheel drive sedan with a transverse-mounted engine using similar hybrid systems.

The other major GM green concept was its third-generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Sequel. (GCC) GM continues to drive engineering breakthroughs on the fuel cell platforms, steadily approaching equivalent range and performance to conventional cars (although certainly not cost).

The range and performance development are even more impressive when you consider that the Sequel is big—larger and much heavier than a Cadillac SRX or Chrysler 300c.

GM executives are using the phrase “guilt-free performance” to describe what they are providing through their hybrid efforts...and, of course, with the hydrogen work. That translates into providing big powerful cars that consume less fuel and emit fewer pollutants. The size of the vehicle, though, mitigates the benefit of the new technologies.

Delivering a 25% improvement in fuel economy is terrific, but if your baseline for that improvement is 16 mpg, you still end up driving a 20 mpg vehicle.

Advanced automotive technology that provides “guilt-free performance” for large vehicles is eerily similar to fat-free foods enabling guilt-free eating for the chronically obese. The latter has not solved the obesity epidemic, and the former will not solve the incipient crisis in energy and environment.

Other developments from NAIAS:

  • Honda outlined its plans for the next generation of Civic, including enhancements to its gasoline, diesel and hybrid models that all will result in improved fuel economy and lower emissions. (GCC)

  • Toyota continues to move closer to announcing that it will build hybrids in the US. Separately, Lexus noted that it already has more than 11,000 pre-sold orders for the RX 400h hybrid SUV. (GCC)

  • Nissan will build up to 50,000 units of its hybrid Altima in the US starting next year. (GCC)

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