Thursday, May 22, 2008

Clean Green Wheels

Yesterday I attended the awards ceremony honoring the winners of the Challenge X competition sponsored by the Department of Energy and GM, in which teams from 17 US and Canadian universities vied to produce the highest energy and emissions savings from the same vehicle platform, a Chevrolet Equinox. The 17 cars that pulled up in front of L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC provided concrete evidence that we are on the threshold of a much more diverse transportation energy market, and a more efficient one. Equally encouraging was the new engineering talent on display. However, while these cars demonstrate the feasibility of achieving significant fuel economy improvements in vehicles that consumers will want to buy in large numbers, there were no 100 mile-per gallon miracles in evidence.

The winning team from Mississippi State University replaced the standard gasoline engine of its Equinox with a 1.9 liter direct injection turbo-diesel--a common engine type in Europe, but sadly missing from the Big Three's US lineups, thus far. The car was then hybridized with a 45 kW electric motor drawing on a metal hydride battery pack, and it ran on a 20% biodiesel blend. In fact, although the competitors included a wide variety of powertrains, and even one fuel cell-powered car, the top three configurations were all diesel-hybrids. According to the DOE, the winning team's vehicle achieved a 38% improvement in fuel economy and a 44% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. With the stock Equinox rated at 20 mpg combined, that suggests a result for the Mississippi State car of 28 mpg. As impressive as that is for this "crossover" class, it certainly puts into perspective the suggestions by some politicians that the recently-mandated 35 mpg fuel economy standard can easily be exceeded by cars that match our current expectations. The winner of the ongoing Automotive X-Prize competition will probably not look much like a showroom-ready crossover SUV.

The biggest challenge of improving the fuel efficiency of real cars may not be the technological one so ably addressed by these university teams. Rather, it is making those improvements cost-effective. Combining an up-to-date diesel engine with the energy recovery of a hybrid is a sure bet, in terms of fuel savings. But there's a reason we haven't seen this setup in a production car, yet: it's expensive. Gasoline-powered hybrids already carry a premium of several thousand dollars over the comparable conventional vehicle, and switching one from gas to diesel entails an even higher up-front cost. At $4 per gallon and 12,000 miles per year, the undiscounted fuel savings associated with going from 20 mpg to 28 mpg add up to $4,800 over seven years. Could a manufacturer sell a diesel hybrid for $4,000 over a standard model and make a profit? Would customers line up to buy it? The answer to both questions is not clear, partly because of the extremely limited experience of American consumers with 21st century diesels.

In a brief conversation with a GM official attending yesterday's event, I got the strong sense that the company was as interested in the teams of creative, eager students as in their cars. Competition X thus serves as a pipeline to talent, not just technology. What better way to identify and nurture a new generation of automotive engineers who are motivated by the challenge of making cars more efficient and environmentally sustainable, rather than just more stylish or powerful? Considering that within a few decades China could add as many cars as the US now has, and with oil prices continuing to rocket upward, that is the only realistic way forward for the auto industry.

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