Monday, July 24, 2006

The Concept of the Car of the Future

When I was a kid, the car of the future was supposed to fly, swim, or do something radically different. I suppose it's appropriate for our era of diminished expectations that the main battleground of future car concepts is now over their means of propulsion and the consumer electronics that they'll embed or enable. Two current prototypes neatly exemplify these options: the Tesla Roadster and the Volvo V70 Multi-Fuel. They represent very different bets on the key choices for non-petroleum transportation energy.

Last week the PR machine for Silicon Valley's Tesla Motors, which makes the world's fastest and most expensive electric car, hit high gear. Over the weekend I received emailed articles featuring the $100,000 Tesla in the Washington Post, New York Times and Wired, as well as a link to some comments and concerns over at Slashdot. The car overcomes the range limitations that crippled GM's EV-1, by using large numbers of the lithium ion batteries that power your laptop computer. This apparently delivers up to 250 miles per charging cycle. The Tesla reaches 60 miles per hour in four seconds, has a top speed of 135, and looks very sleek. It will also dock your i-Pod. Unsurprisingly, Tesla has its own blog.

Volvo's Multi-Fuel station wagon is at the other extreme from the Tesla. It looks like a family car, and it can run on ordinary gasoline, ethanol blends up to E85, natural gas or a methane/hydrogen mix. It carries fuel tanks for both liquid and gaseous fuels, and it's not hard to imagine later versions that could handle straight hydrogen, or add hybrid-electric capabilities. I didn't read about this car in the New York Times, but rather had to dig it out of a report on the Michelin Challenge Bibendum, an annual competition for "sustainable mobility". This year's event featured cars fueled by biodiesel, gas-to-liquids synthetic diesel, and a propane-electric hybrid.

Our limited experience with alternative fuel vehicles so far suggests that their ultimate success hinges on two main factors: consumer response and infrastructure requirements. The former remains a bit of a mystery, and generations of very smart folks have lost fortunes by failing to anticipate it correctly. The latter appears more manageable, since it can be reduced to simpler questions of technical standards, logistics, and return on capital investment. Nevertheless, the methanol cars of the 1980s and the electric cars of the 90s foundered on their infrastructure requirements, and I've heard more than one energy executive suggest that the market will provide a return for replacing the current fuel-marketing system only once.

Tesla and Volvo are taking very different bets on infrastructure. Tesla relies on a single form of alternative transportation energy, electricity, with its existing infrastructure. The Roadster recharges at night in 3 1/2 hours on household current, and the company claims to have determined that on this basis, their car beats the alternatives in well-to-wheels efficiency. I would also argue that Tesla is taking a large bet on future battery cost reductions--if they have any mass-market aspirations--and on the long-term willingness of federal, state and municipal authorities to continue to forego collecting road taxes on cars that don't use petroleum-based fuels.

The Volvo, on the other hand, seems premised on a multi-fuel world, in which consumers will have many choices and will vary them periodically, depending on fluctuations in price and availability. This assumption fits nicely with the recent excitement about cellulosic ethanol and the practical success of natural gas conversions, at least for fleets such as taxis and government vehicles. And from my own observations of the failure of the EV-1, it seems better aligned than the Tesla with demonstrated consumer preferences for being able to hop in the car and refuel wherever it goes.

Whether either of these cars will ever be mass-produced or attain success on the scale of Toyota's Prius is almost irrelevant. Both of them advance the important debate on the future of transportation energy, and both could influence the design of cars for decades to come, if they can make it past their first hurdles of production and public acceptance.

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