No Silver Bullet for Clean Cars, Expert Says

April 4, 2006

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“There is no silver bullet” — no single, advanced powertrain technology that will solve the country’s need to reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency, said Jeff Alson, director of the EPA’s office for Transportation and Air Quality. Alson was one of six speakers to outline what is likely to be a complex mix of advanced powertrains and alternate fuels that will dominate the automotive landscape in the decades to come.


Exactly what that landscape will look like is anything but clear, if the forecast of a blue-ribbon powertrain panel is any indication. The group generally agreed that in North America, gasoline technology will remain dominant, at least into the 2020 range, though what will be under the hood by then may have only the most basic systems in common with today’s engines, said Klaus Borgmann, director of powertrain development at BMW.


A variety of new systems will help deliver dramatically improved performance and fuel economy out of the gasoline engine. The latest variable-valve timing systems alone are increasing mileage by ten percent or more, and lean-burn engines, which BMW hopes to soon launch in Europe, could add another ten percent or better. Eventually manufacturers will have to focus on “energy management,” Borgmann said, “dealing with all kinds of energy onboard the car.” BMW, he noted, is even looking for ways to convert the heat of the exhaust into electrical or mechanical energy.


The hybrid is fast becoming the most popular way to address the issue of energy management, at least where the media is concerned. The panelists, however, cautioned that the added costs and other issues involved in hybrid technology may prevent it from going fully mainstream. Even Toyota’s Dave Hermance told the audience that a 25-percent share for hybrids could be optimistic. Another question raised was what type of hybrids would dominate? There are micro-hybrids, which can only capture and re-use minimal amount of waste energy; mild hybrids, like the Honda Insight, which cannot run on electric power alone; and full hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius.


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While mileage claims for hybrids have come under question, there’s increasing recognition of the diesel’s efficiency, noted Chris Cowland, technical director at AVL Powertrain Engineering. Improvements in diesel technology have been reinforced by Audi’s recent victory at the 12-hour endurance race at Sebring, with the diesel-powered R10 racecar. Diesels now outsell gasoline cars in Europe. But John Moulton, president of Robert Bosch Corp.’s powertrain division, emphasized that before diesels can gain traction in the U.S., makers need to solve some nagging problems. New emissions standards for oxides of nitrogen and particulates are still troubling, and the solutions under development are costly. Even so, the panelists generally expected to see diesels account for as much as a quarter of the U.S. market within the next 15 to 20 years.


But don’t rule out the gasoline engine, the panelists agreed. Some even more dramatic approaches could make it nearly, perhaps even as, efficient as the diesel, various members noted, with technology such as turbocharging and direct injection. Honda Senior Manager Yasuyuki Sando pointed to the automaker’s experimental HCCI engine, which operates much like a diesel but runs on gasoline. In other words, it uses compression rather than a spark to ignite the air/fuel mixture. “It has the potential to achieve even lower CO2 emissions than the diesel,” said Sando.


The one thing that everyone agreed on is that the pace of work on alternate power is ramping up. No surprise, said EPA’s Alson, for “The price of oil changes everything.” And with the cost of a barrel of petroleum expected to continue rising, the momentum for change is growing. What it’s likely to yield is a mix of different powertrains that will allow buyers to find the solution best suited to their own needs and budgets.

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