Since the days of Henry Ford and the Model T, cars have always captured the American imagination. For a time, bigger was better and gas-guzzling behemoths like Hummers were all the rage. But times have changed. Retooling the auto industry to produce more efficient vehicles helped save Detroit and advanced vehicles have become so mainstream that Cadillac’s recent Super Bowl ad marketing a luxury hybrid vehicle as a symbol of all that makes America great.
“You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible,” the driver says as he unplugs his car.
While conservative pundit George Will claims Americans are driving bigger cars to show how ungrateful they are for federal efforts to improve fuel efficiency and cut carbon emissions, Americans are actually driving less than they used to, and when they do so, they are often driving smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.
Many people see efficient vehicles, electric cars — cars that use less or no gasoline — as unrealistic luxuries. The sticker price of Tesla’s Model S means it is a pipe dream for the vast majority the population, even if it earns some of the highest ratings ever. But if Americans look to the innovative Next Big Thing for inspiration, believing that anything is possible — what are those next big things?
Here is a look at some of the highlights of what’s coming next in the world of efficient vehicles:
First, what’s happening now? The most visible way that Americans see cars becoming more efficient is through the expanding electric and hybrid vehicle markets. Instead of running on gasoline, these cars use batteries to store an electric charge to completely replace or augment a gas-powered combustion engine. Tesla Motors’ stock continues to do well this year, and it touts impressive sales, but until it offers a model competitively priced with other hybrid or electric vehicles, the vast majority of the population will be entirely insulated from any of its innovative designs. Toyota and Ford currently dominate recent hybrid sales with the more reasonably priced Prius and Fusion. In the plug-in category, Chevy’s Volt competed well with Toyota and Ford’s models, while in the pure electric category, it’s almost entirely Tesla and Nissan’s game with the Model S and Leaf.
A recent study by researchers at North Carolina State University looked at how high electric car usage would have to go before emissions over the whole economy would begin to go down. Because power plant emissions were assumed to increase, they found that electric cars would have to make up more than 42 percent of the total fleet usage to see a reduction of the emissions of key air pollutants.
Replacing an inefficient gasoline-powered car with an efficient one that uses a mix of electricity to charge itself is a good step, but it’s not everything. So what kind of vehicle innovations can consumers look to in order to drop total emissions by a meaningful enough amount to make a dent in carbon pollution?
Look out over a large parking lot on a hot day and it is easy to think about covering the whole surface with a solar farm for cars. Sure, there are efforts underway to install solar shades over parked cars. But what if you could bring your solar panels with you when you drove away? Solar panel-embedded roofs are already available on the Prius, for example, but without the canopy to concentrate the energy, it only powers climate control systems in the cabin. The Ford C-MAX Solar Energi concept car boasts a rooftop covered in solar panels that aim to do more than that.
The designers of the Energi concept car crammed 16 square feet of solar panels on the roof, but that would not be enough to charge the battery on its own over the course of the day — it would take at least a week. The best way that collaborators Ford, SunPower Corp., and the Georgia Institute of Technology found to charge the car’s battery without relying on the grid is to set up a transparent canopy of its own over the owner’s driveway (or office parking lot) that magnifies the sun’s rays to maximize the charge. Concentrated solar photovoltaic power plants operate in a similar manner. The car even slowly moves as the sun tracks east to west across the sky to ensure the energy flows in as directly as possible.
“We call it an 8x multiplier,” Ford’s global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure Mike Tinskey, told Climate Progress. “Without the canopy you’re just getting 1x.”
Tinskey explained that without the canopy, the panel still charges the car, and would continue to do so even while driving. Without the concentrating lens pulling in more of the sun’s energy, however, on an average day it would generate just one kilowatt of charge. A four-hour battery charge takes 8 kilowatts.
With the canopy, the Energi’s charging time drops from a week to six or seven hours. This charging system won’t be feasible for every prospective owner — Tinskey said that working with offices to allow for employee solar charging during a bright work day may be the best option. He also acknowledged that care must be taken to avoid the super-concentrated rays under the canopy without the car there, as they are eight times as strong as normal sunlight.
The benefit of a concept car like this would be another step away from a fossil fuel powered grid. Since most transportation is still powered by petroleum, and a lot of the grid is powered by coal, beginning to supplement the fleet with direct solar power would start to cut carbon emissions. Ford estimates that savings at four metric tons of CO2 per person.
Because the Solar Energi concept car is a plug-in hybrid, the sun helps to top off the capacity of a vehicle with a range of up to 620 miles. Bob Sheth wrote on Electric Forum that “the vast majority of concept vehicles will never make it to market” though they show how a major auto company can build a car that “is not only good for the industry but also gives potential customers of the future food for thought.”
For now, while the solar version evolves from concept to reality, the normal plug-in hybrid version is currently available. The Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid gets a combined 100 mpg between its electric battery and hybrid gasoline engine. Though the car’s detractors may complain about price (around $33,000), storage, and pickup, its fans (over 10,000 sold so far) love the flexibility of a plug-in hybrid with the comfort of a conventional car.
Tinskey explained that the reasoning behind such a concept car was to show what’s possible while the potential market develops — these cars are not going to be commercially available until consumers see them as safe and robust options. Yet the idea of a car that requires no fuel or outlets for most trips (but is equipped to handle both options), while powering itself by the sun is sure to appeal to many.
The world’s first full-sized solar truck
Rest assured, internal combustion engine fans, Via Motors’ XTRUX has a big V8 engine powered by gasoline, but the hybrid truck also has a 24 kWh decent-sized lithium-ion battery pack and two big electric motors that combine to over 800 horsepower. That’s all well and good for an electric hybrid truck, but what sets this truck apart is the big solar panel in the back.
Similar to those Prius models that have a small solar panel in the roof to augment on-board power needs, this truck uses power harvested from a big solar panel covering the truck bed. The sheer mass of a V8 truck means that the solar power cannot carry the truck as far as it could a sleek sedan, but no other truck can recharge the battery while sitting out in the parking lot or off in the woods on a sunny day. There will be two options: a 400-watt model will cost $2,000 while providing six miles of electric range, and an 800-watt model will cost $3,000 and provide ten miles of electric range. The power can also be used to drive power tools using the truck’s onboard outlet. The solar charge is more to extend the range than anything, but this would be the world’s first full-sized truck powered by solar panels.
Like the Ford Solar Energi, timing and pricing remain a mystery. Until this truck reaches the market, are there new, efficient options for people who prefer pickups?
The amazing aluminum truck
The Ford F-150 is getting a makeover, and that makes people nervous. At the 2014 Washington Auto Show, it seemed like the vehicle that people most wanted to touch — but were afraid to — was the brand-new, 2015 F-150.
They had heard the rumors, that it was made of aluminum, that it had gone light, gone soft. They wanted to see, and hear, for themselves. Rap two knuckles against the blue chassis and instead of a resounding clanking sound, they got a flat, absorbing, plasticky, thunk. Several asserted that the skin had to be plastic — no way was that truck made of aluminum and light-weight steel. Why would Ford do this?
Well, for one thing, the new F-150 dropped 700 pounds, meaning that drivers save on fuel, and are able to tow that much more weight than before. This helps with improving the automaker’s average fuel economy. Another benefit of switching over to a lighter material is that it actually makes the truck more resistant to scratches and bumps.
Water vapor exhaust fumes
One of the main attractions of the Washington Auto Show was the Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle concept car: brightly lit, slowly rotating up on a podium. It didn’t have a traditional tailpipe, just a place for water vapor to leak out the back.
Hydrogen cars — vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells that emit nothing but water vapor as exhaust — have been a pipe dream for decades. The recurring joke is that hydrogen is the fuel of the future … and always will be. The cost of creating an infrastructure from scratch to fuel a fleet of hydrogen cars has long been an issue.
But there is a reason people keep trying, primarily because powering a vehicle with hydrogen has undeniable advantages. The car does not need a heavy battery pack, so it functions as a light, spry electric car that carries only compressed hydrogen. The fuel cell converts the hydrogen into electric power to drive the motor by chemically oxidizing it, yielding only hydrogen and oxygen — water. Nothing is burned, and it does not require a charge from the grid. It therefore emits no greenhouse gases.
Topping off the fuel cell every 300 or so miles is an issue, though, especially when this can only happen in a few places in the United States. Honda has been leasing the FCX Clarity to brave souls in Southern California since 2008, and unveiled the FCEV concept car last year, upping the range from 230 to 300 miles. This still means that even getting to San Francisco from Los Angeles is a dicey affair because there are only nine public hydrogen fuel stations. In fact, there are only ten in the entire country, with the last being in Columbia, South Carolina. The California Air Resources Board aims to have 70 fueling stations up and running in the state by 2016. Hyundai has offered the Tucson ix35 Hydrogen Fuel-Cell vehicle for lease in Europe for years, and in 2015 it will start leasing the American version.
Toyota plans to offer its Fuel Cell Vehicle for sale in 2015, as well, and given the company’s ability to sell a lot of hybrid electric Prius models to the American market, it could be the company to make hydrogen a normal way to power thousands of commutes and road trips. The car would have a range of 300 miles and would be refueled in about as much time as it takes to pump gas — around three minutes. Toyota points to a study with the University of California at Irvine showing that only 68 refueling stations would be needed between San Francisco and San Diego to support 10,000 vehicles. Bob Carter, a Toyota senior vice president for U.S. automotive operations, said in January to “stay tuned, because this infrastructure thing is going to happen.”
Toyota expects to price the car at a bit less than $100,000, meaning they would be more expensive than Tesla’s electric cars. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in January that “there is still the need for substantial cost reduction” with regard to fuel cell technology. After a modest roll-out in Japan, Europe, and California, the idea goes, the price would drop to between $30-50,000 by the end of the decade.
Is that a car or a tricycle?
Don’t be alarmed, the car is supposed to lean into turns. More of a scooter that keeps you dry in the rain, the Toyota i-ROAD is powered by a lithium-ion battery. While it’s very unorthodox, Car and Driver said “we’re genuinely tickled by this Toyota concept.”
Toyota is starting consumer trials in Japan soon to see if this is a feasible car to produce. If so, it’s likely the i-ROAD would start out in Japan or Europe where the 33-inch width would be an asset on congested roadways and drivers would find widespread charging stations. Elio Motors has a gasoline version of the three-wheeled car that promises 84 mpg, meaning a range of 670 miles per tank. The price fits most budgets at $6,800, and they expect production to start in 2015. No word yet on the price of the i-ROAD.
What about charging?
This Tron-like concept car from Toyota is called the Fun-Vii and isn’t likely to show up in dealerships any time soon in this form, but it does show where the more imaginative vehicle designers are looking for the next-next generation models. Though much of the attention goes to this fuel cell-powered smartphone-like changeable colors on its exterior, one thing the company is pretty sure it will be able to do is charge without plugging in. In fact, earlier this year Toyota announced it would begin testing wireless charging technology on some modified Priuses. The service is available courtesy of Bosch and Evantran to Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt owners who shell out over $3,000 for a home system, which can charge a car in half the time a conventional 120V outlet does.
Electric vehicles are not just useful for low-emissions travel — having a large battery of stored energy plugged into the grid so close to home has other uses, as well. The military has found that having a fleet of electric vehicles on domestic bases can actually make them money when they are plugged into the grid. Electric grid operators love having a network of vehicle batteries to either draw upon when electricity demand spikes or to dump excess power onto when demand drops. This vehicle-to-grid technology is worth so much to the utility that the revenue more than covers the lease payments for the electric cars.
Other families are turning their Priuses into emergency backup generators for when the power goes out. This comes in handy as the electric grid becomes more vulnerable climate change-fueled storm activity, like Superstorm Sandy.