Smart Energy Living - November 2011

Menu of Auto Choices Grows :
Hybrid and electric cars join more efficient models

By: Rebecca Cantwell

     Major auto manufacturers are busily rolling out new hybrids and electric cars while gearing up for new fuel efficiency standards. But as one executive noted recently, what customers really seem to want is akin to fat-free cheesecake.

 Elctric car

      “They want all the flavor and deliciousness but not to make sacrifices,’’ said Mike Robinson, vice president of Environment, Energy and Safety Policy at General Motors Company.

      Chevy’s new electric Volt, he says “is like that.’’ It allows drivers to operate just on the electric battery. But they can also switch to gasoline and travel up to 375 miles on a tank of gas.

      GM is collecting information from drivers of its new electric car on such topics as how many miles they’re getting per charge. But the automaker seems especially pleased  that owners report  the Volt is “Fun to Drive’’. 

  Hybrid Cars

      Robinson and others spoke  about the challenges of rolling out new generation vehicles and trying to anticipate a fast-changing market  on a panel during a "Smart Energy'' conference recently hosted by the Washington Post and streamed live.

 100% electric Car

      Toyota is the veteran with 11 years of experience marketing hybrids in the U.S.  But with electrics and hybrids set to move towards the mass market, the company has  “a lot of uncertainty as to what is the right approach,’’ says Tom Stricker, Vice President of Technical and Regulatory Affairs, Energy Environmental Research, Toyota Motor North America, Inc.

      Early adopters such as those who are already driving a Prius may not look at payback times and technology issues the same as a broader customer base.  “”But for the everyday customer, it s all about price,’’ Stricker  noted. Thus, Toyota is rolling out new members of the Prius family including one with a lower electric range designed to take costs down.

      First generation electric cars, such as the $40,000 Volt are like other new technologies that “cost a bundle. But we are relentlessly going after cost,’’ Robinson said. “”Driving cost down is huge.’’

      But so is offering a variety of choices and letting customers decide. “The key is to get these technologies in the customers’ hands and let the market decide,’’ says Bob Holycross, Manager of Environmental and Energy Planning, Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering Organization at Ford Motor Company. “Customers are not going to give up the utility and comfort. They want higher efficiency but they want everything else too.’’

 NREL Electric Cell Engine

      One of the biggest problems in trying to gain traction in the new industry is lack of certainty about the future. That is one reason the car companies worked with the Obama administration on developing higher fuel efficiency standards for autos built in 2017 to 2025, said  GM’s Robinson. “Now we know the target and that tells us what the future is supposed to look like.’’

      In July, the Obama Administration announced an agreement with the industry to raise fuel efficiency standards to a fleetwide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

     Environmental groups backing the standards, organized under the coalition Go60MPG, say the new standards will

      --Cut U.S. oil dependence by 1.5 million barrels per day in 2030 – equal to what the
U.S. imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq last year.
      --Create nearly 500,000 new jobs, both in the auto industry and the economy at large.
      --Save U.S.  consumers more than $44 billion in 2030 alone – even after paying for
the cost of fuel-saving technology.
      --Clean up our air by preventing 280 million metric tons of heat-trapping global warming pollution from entering the atmosphere in 2030 alone.

      A draft of the regulations based on the agreement is being written by federal agencies. The National Automobile Dealers Association is fighting the proposed new standards,

      In the meantime, the automakers are continuing to make improvements to boost fuel economy.  Ford’s  Holycross  said the company is migrating most of its gas-powered engines to  more fuel efficient ways of operating, And power-assisted steering, aerodynamic improvements and other design boosts are part of “a glide path of year after year improvements in fuel economy,’’ he said.

      For General Motors, it’s all about energy diversity. “”We talk about electric cars as the holy grail but in the meantime we need gasoline, and fuel efficiency on internal combustion engines is critical,’’ Robinson said.

      Additionally, biofuels, compressed natural gas, and fuel cells will likely show up on the  future  automotive menu.

For more information:
The federal government site on fuel economy:
Go60MPG – A coalition advocating for greater fuel efficiency:
See the “Smart Energy'' link for videos from the Washington Post conference:

Photos courtesy of NREL

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