Concept taxi

Green shoots from tumbleweed

Old gas-guzzling cars are reaching the end of their tenure and, as E&T explains, financially crippled car makers are in a race to hit upon the sustainable car for the future.

The car industry is in a bad way. Vehicles sit unsold on garage forecourts, factories are semi-idle and countless manufacturing jobs are at risk. Even the world's most profitable carmaker, Toyota, has had its first losses in nearly 70 years. While the future of the car is not in doubt, the shape it takes will be heavily influenced by the need to turn this tumbleweed into green shoots.

State aid for the credit-crunched car companies is being offered only in exchange for a commitment to making greener vehicles. GM and Chrysler received $17.4bn in US federal aid on these grounds in December 2008. Around the same time, the European Commission (EC)'s 'European Green Car Initiative' recovery plan also left little doubt as to the action carmakers will have to take to benefit from the mix of loan guarantees, R&D funding, and national investment.

As a result, €400m has now gone to Nissan's European operations for the development and manufacturing of more efficient vehicles at the company's plants in the UK and Spain. Jaguar-Land Rover has received €340m to fund the development of more efficient vehicles, such as Land Rover's proposed environmentally friendly Range Rover and a 'Green Limo' based on the Jaguar XJ saloon. Volkswagen has got a €100m loan towards a new car plant in Pune, India to make low emission hatchbacks for the Indian market.

The EC recovery plan has also produced a rash of tax inducements and scrappage schemes across Europe to encourage car buyers to abandon gas-guzzlers and take up with new fuel-efficient models. Vehicles that emit less than 100g CO2/km, for example, are now exempt from road tax in the UK. 

Motorists seem quick to change their buying behaviour for such incentives. In France, sales of cars emitting less than 130g/CO2 per km increased by 45 per cent in eight months following the introduction last year of a government rebate of up to €5,000 for purchase of a low-carbon car and the addition of €2,600 to the cost of a heavily polluting one. A recent survey by Glass's, the used-vehicle valuation service, found that over a third of UK drivers are looking to downsize to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, with 38 per cent of respondents citing fuel prices and road tax as motivating factors.

Carmakers are continuing to invest in the internal combustion engine while putting renewed effort into electric and hybrid vehicle projects. Fuel cell vehicles are also in the mix, suggesting that in the future our roads will be characterised by a great deal more technical diversity than today.

Flexible fuel

Most carmakers already offer biofuel-friendly vehicles that run on a combination of petrol and ethanol or methanol. There are eight million flexible fuel cars in the US, seven million in Brazil, 600,000 in Canada and 147,000 in Sweden. However, these engines pay a fuel economy penalty of about 30 per cent compared to petrol. Over the next few years, we're likely to see new kinds of combustion systems that can achieve high, diesel-like, conversion efficiencies of around 43 per cent while running on biofuel-based cocktails.

Delphi, Ford, Renault, Volkswagen, and Volvo (with the help of various universities) are working towards the ultimate flexible fuel engine within the EC's €26m New Integrated Combustion System for Future Passenger Car Engines project.

In America, the automotive consultancy Ricardo has been engaged in a similar scheme with Behr, Bosch, Delphi, Federal Mogul, GW Castings and Honeywell. Earlier this year, Ricardo announced its first prototype 3.2-litre V6 engine. It uses a technology called Ethanol Boosted Direct Injection (EBDI) to deliver the performance of a diesel engine at the cost of a petrol one.

By using ethanol's higher octane and higher heat of vapourisation, the company says it is possible to use a high level of turbo charging. "Add in some other advanced technologies, such as direct injection, variable valve timing, optimised ignition and advanced exhaust gas recirculation, and we're squeezing out more power than is possible with gasoline," says Rod Beazley, director of the Ricardo Inc Gasoline Product Group. The prototype EBDI runs on ethanol, petrol, or a blend of both and could replace a large petrol or turbo-diesel engine in an SUV.

Biofuels will eventually create a food/fuel land use conflict but they could provide 15 to 30 per cent of liquid energy before running into difficulty, said Philip Gott, director of automotive consulting at IHS Global Insight, at the recent Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit, US. "There's still a role for the Cadillac," said Gott who has studied the automotive industry for 30 years, adding that liquid fuel cars would probably continue to be the best option for long distance driving.

Plugging into electric efficiency

Electric vehicles (EVs) are arguably in pole position as the government-approved, climate-friendly city motor of choice across Europe. An EV's low-carbon credentials depend, to some extent, on how the electricity is generated to charge it: the more renewable resources or nuclear power, the lower the carbon rating.

A Department of Trade and Industry report from 2000 shows EVs charged from the mains (using an average UK fuel mix) offering a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of around 40 per cent per mile compared to a petrol engine. However, the picture is clouded somewhat,as every source paints a slightly different picture, depending on how the figures are calculated. (see above).

Another pro-EV argument is that unused power plant capacity can charge batteries overnight. Concerns about fuel-security and the risks of over-dependence on crude oil are a further factor behind EVs' appeal.

Spain, for instance, intends to have one million EVs on its roads by 2014 through various measures as part of its Proyecto Movele plan. Seville, Madrid and Barcelona are the pilot cities and their energy authorities will this year begin installing recharging stations for an eventual fleet of 500 subsidised cars. The Norwegian carmaker Think, sold by Ford in 2003, has agreed to deliver 550 TH!NK city EVs for Proyecto Movele during the second half of 2009 and early 2010. A pre-program demonstration project starting with five TH!NK city vehicles will begin early this summer. General Motors is also involved in the Proyecto Movele scheme and is collaborating with Spanish energy company Iberdola on a feasibility study to determine the infrastructure needed to support plug-in vehicles in Europe.

London mayor Boris Johnson has announced plans to put 100,000 EVs in the capital, including replacing at least 1,000 of the Greater London Authority's fleet of vehicles with electric equivalents, by 2015. From 2011 onwards, the UK government will be providing £2,000 to £5,000 towards buying electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

Established and new carmakers alike see electric cars as key to their future. Nissan says it plans to become a world leader in EVs and will launch one in America and Japan next year, with mass marketing globally in 2012. "Electric vehicles will transform our industry, and we are playing a leading role in this change," says Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. "We became involved from the beginning, we are taking position, we are investing, we are developing technology and we are securing patent and intellectual property around the battery."

Nissan will also continue to develop clean diesel technology, such as the X-TRAIL 20GT launched in 2008 in Japan, and the Maxima, which will come out in America in 2010. Fuel cell vehicle (FCV) technology is also part of its green future, with a new FCV targeted for mid-2010.

BMW, the world's most sustainable car company according to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, is also keeping its green options open. Its highest-profile 'green' project is an electric version of the Mini that can reach 100km/h (62mph) in 8.5 seconds, runs at a maximum speed of 153km/h and has a range of around 161km.

The MINI-E will go on a 12-month field trial in Germany and the US this year, with plans to include the UK in the trial if it gets government support.

BMW has established Scottish and Southern Energy, the largest generators of renewable resources in the UK, as a possible partner for the UK trial. It will be installing the private and public charging points required for the MINI-E test vehicles. Academic support will come from the Sustainable Vehicle Engineering Centre at Oxford Brookes University.

With the average car journey in the UK just 14km (9 miles) and nine in ten journeys less than 40km (25 miles), "a huge number of people could get electric cars tomorrow and not see a difference", said Dick Stimpson from the consultancy Arup at a recent event on automotive sustainability at Oxford Brookes.

Without larger government subsidies, the upfront price of EVs may deter buyers. An electric adaptation of the four-seater Citroën C1 being made in Bedford by the Electric Car Corporation, for example, would still be £3,500 more expensive than the usual model, even with a £5,000 grant. On the other hand, drivers could save that much in a year in reduced running, parking and congestion charge costs. It costs 90p to charge the electric C1's 26 batteries, which give the car a range of 70 miles.

Meanwhile, hybrid petrol-electric technology, today associated with the Japanese firms Honda and Toyota, is moving into high-end vehicles. Porsche, for instance, will be launching a hybrid version of its Cayenne utility vehicle next year. Jaguar's Green Limo project with Lotus Engineering, the Motor Industry Research Association and aluminium construction specialist Caparo, is also based on hybrid technology, with the ambitious aim to achieve a CO2 output of less than 120g/km.

No jet-propelled gyroscopic jeeps?

So far the future of the car doesn't seem all that 'futuristic' - but jet-propelled gyroscopic jeeps, such as the one Dan Dare used to drive, perhaps don't have green enough credentials for the 21st century.

Cars that run on hydrogen promised much but haven't delivered a great deal, although Mazda has just begun a commercial trial on leasing hybrid vehicles to energy companies and local governments in Japan. Mazda's Premacy Hydrogen RE combines a hydrogen rotary engine with an electric motor that takes the hydrogen fuel range of the car to 200km. The car also has a dual-fuel system, which enables it to run on gasoline if hydrogen is unavailable. Questions remain, however, about whether the methods for producing hydrogen can become greener than burning diesel and petrol.

But there is one eco car that wouldn't look out of place in a Dan Dare comic strip: French firm MDI's bubble-shaped Airpod that runs on compressed air. AirPod is a real commercial product that is being trialed by Air France and KLM at their bases in Paris and Amsterdam, starting in May 2009. Another trial will begin in the French city of Nice in December. MDI's low cost, joy-stick controlled three-wheeler can reach top speeds of 64km/h and travel up to 220km on a 175-litre tank of compressed air. Drivers can recharge their air supply in eight hours by plugging the car into electricity outlets, or by going to special 'air stations' where the process takes only two minutes. MDI is already planning a second model, the four-wheeler OneFlowAIR cabrio, which can also burn conventional fuels to extend its range.

Due to its composite material construction, the Airpod is less than a sixth of the weight of a typical hatchback, a factor that is key to energy efficiency. What is also interesting is that the composite can be shipped in containers and built closer to the sales point, thus reducing shipping emissions and cost. Phillip Gott believes that MDI's approach is going to be one future model watch.


Cars are proving to be a critical crumple zone as financial, climate change and fuel security concerns collide. Demand for automobiles in emerging markets, such as China, Russia and India, will apply continued pressure on the industry to reduce car emissions. For this reason, Gott believes that the future for city drivers is car sharing. Instead of owning one or two of our own vehicles, more and more of us will join car clubs and choose the vehicle that is the right size for the journey in question.

For anyone who looks to this greener, more electric and quieter motoring future with nostalgia for the satisfying roar of an old-fashioned emission-spewing internal combustion engine, Lotus Engineering is developing driver noise creation systems that synthesise engine speed and throttle-dependant sounds that are audible through the in-car entertainment system.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them