By Dylan Gulson
Spend time in downtown Bathurst lately and among the latest clothing shops, advertisements and McDonald’s outlets, you’re also likely to come across a well-dressed man entering a hybrid sports car, a mum making the school dash in a hybrid Volvo or a youth downloading tunes in a small diesel hatchback. It’s a sign of the times, where electric power, fuel consumption and endless acronyms rule the sales brochures in a changing motoring world. Couple this with a social climate where Android vs Apple is more prominent than Ford vs Holden and the attitudes toward cars are forcing the hand of manufactures to produce, leaner, greener tech, to cram into our already complicated lives. Toyota made the first ‘real’ mass produced leap into the hybrid market with its surprisingly well selling, and now quite old, Prius. At its launch the hybrid vehicle was hailed as the way into the future and was the go to auto for those with ‘green’ on the mind. Boasting low Co2 emissions and a fuel consumption of 4.4 Litres per 100km (Ford’s latest diesel Fiesta achieves 3.9L/100km), motoring enthusiasts scoffed at it, green activists loved it, and the rest just saw an efficient and ugly car. It also became the number one car for Hollywood’s A-list, so when asked what car they drove, they could feel like they were making that little difference and setting a ‘good’ example (Ignore the Ferrari’s and a Lamborghini they arrived at their latest movie premiere in).
The idea behind the Prius was simple; an electric motor powered by batteries to potter around town and a small petrol engine for when more gusto was required. Recharging of the batteries was performed through household mains when resting and by kinetic energy recovery when applying the brakes and by the petrol motor when travelling at low speeds. But behind the press releases and media spin was a car far less ‘green’ than Kermit. The car could only travel 17km on battery power alone and was particularly slow compared to the average family car. Many reports were conducted after the Prius’ global launch in 2001 criticising the costs and pollution involved in the production process of Toyota’s hybrid hero, and much of it was close to truth with Toyota admitting it needed to ‘modify’ their production strategies of future vehicles. The largest problem for Toyota was once the manufacturing process of one Prius was taken into consideration in its usable lifetime; the total emissions of a Prius were greater than that of a regular petrol powered family sedan. This was due mainly to the battery packs that are Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) which takes a lot of resources and fossil fuel energy to produce. It’s not easy being green.
Hydrogen vehicles to the rescue! Well not quite, but to date hydrogen vehicles are holding the prize for the greenest cars out there, as the only material that is emitted from their exhaust pipes is water. That’s right; the very same stuff that rain is made of. Hydrogen also happens to be the most abundant element on the periodic table, making it rather available for our use. So it all sounds too good to be true, and unfortunately it is, as extracting hydrogen molecules and storing them for use in cars is one of the most difficult and expensive processes in the production of propulsion. There are also big costs involved in engineering highly rigid fuel tanks to house the highly compressed gas and this is all before convincing petrol companies to fork out millions of dollars converting petrol stations into hydrogen capable filling points. Currently you could count more family members than places you can actually fill up your wiz-bang hydrogen car. A lack of resources and funding to allow fuel stations to store hydrogen means that a world of water farting cars is some way off yet. But don’t discount it from becoming the new green car of choice in 20 or 30 years’ time as, with most things, it will become cheaper and more streamlined to produce (assuming the world will need the hydrogen vehicles).
So where do we go next, what is the answer to the greener car? And how do you decipher what’s good or bad the next time you decide to buy a car? Well it seems that no matter where we go electric vehicles are being pushed ahead, but it’s not all Prius’ and pollution, as many manufactures have learnt from Toyota’s ventures and invested ridiculous amount of dollars creating more efficient ways of charging, storing and producing electric power. Click through for Wheels magazine breakdown on current electric vehicles.
To this day however, the drawbacks of plug in electric vehicles remain; that being their relatively short driving range and long recharging times (slowly and surely the technology is getting better). The pursuit of efficient motoring has also been speed up by the latest set of regulations in the hyper world of Formula One, where years of screaming V8’s have been replaced by smaller, quieter (not to everyone’s liking) and more efficient Turbocharged V6 engines, complete with hybrid electric power units and advanced energy recovery systems to recharge the batteries. In their world of billion dollar budgets and desire to win, the money invested in these super-efficient electric power units and energy recovery systems are beginning to filter down to manufacturers, and paving the way for reducing the costs of such technologies in every day auto’s. All this work appears to be paying off too, with many small electric cars managing a much healthier range of over 100km, BMW’s relatively new i3 promises an electric only range of 130km, though that pesky recharging problem remains (3 hours to fully fill it with sparks). Despite these draw backs, future gains in efficiency will help make hybrid vehicles a more viable option and despite their association with slow fuel saving motoring, prestige companies like McLaren, Ferrari and Porsche are using hybrid tech to make their sports cars even faster when you want to have some fun, yet as economical as small hatchbacks for when your cruising through town. I don’t know about you, but the thought of using this technology to increase a car’s firepower whilst making it sip fuel like a nun sips vodka is an appealing prospect for motoring enthusiasts.