Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Auto-makers vie to wow public with the coolest eco-cars

Fisker Surf hybrid car
It's back to the future with the coolest electric cars at the Frankfurt Car Show, which is showcasing a fleet of revolutionary, green, efficient, and quiet vehicles – as virtually every automaker is pushing out a low-carbon model or three to fit every type of market.

The first cars were electric. A hundred years ago a bus company in America ran intercity services, lifting spent batteries out and replacing them with charged ones in double quick time at depots at each terminus.

Internal combustion engines took over because they were easier to use and because of the independence they gave their owners. Now, it's back to the future, as personal mobility is the key.

Electric two-wheeled vehicles actually outsell cars in some cities, for example in China. And in Europe, sales of electric motorcycles and scooters outstrip electric cars.

And although petrol heads (should we start calling them 'battery-heads'?) want to know which is the fastest electric car (try the Tesla Roadster - 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds with 288bhp), the latest Frankfurt Car Show showcases 'green' vehicles of every type - all in a Hall to themselves for the first time.

Germans are flocking to see them – not least because their country has a goal of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2020.

The Tesla is being followed up soon with a 'Model S' 7-seater with a range of 300 miles on a single charge. But, since the vast majority of journeys are short, it's not range but low running costs that are going to persuade more and more people to shell out the extra £1000s for an electric or hybrid model.

City-based two-seaters are emerging along the lines of the successful Smart car, such as Audi's futuristically-shaped Urban Concept electric car. This gets to 37mph in six seconds, with a top speed of 65mph, and is half the weight of your average city car due to its carbon fibre, plastic and aluminium body.

Smart is not resting on its laurels and is launching the Forvision, which promises to increase range by 20% and has PV cells powering low-energy light-emitting diodes, infrared reflective films and high performance insulating foams.

Volkswagen - currently resisting a Greenpeace campaign to get them to make more low-carbon vehicles - is responding with a low-cost single-seater called NILS with a top speed of 80mph and a range of 40 miles.

Vauxhall is also launching a two-seater called the RAK e which it says has a 60 mile range and reaches a top speed of 75mph. It does 0-60mph in under 13 seconds and weighs just 380kg.

Renault, already turning out four electric cars – the Fluence, Kangoo EV, Twizy and Zoe – is launching a fifth, called the Frendzy (who thinks up these names?), at Frankfurt. This half-van, half-car obtains 59bhp using a lithium-ion battery pack and has a side with doors and side windows for the family to climb in; and on the other side a sliding door with an integrated 37-inch widescreen display at the rear, which can display work messages or advertising, linked to a BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer.

In van mode it can store 2250-litres of cargo of many shapes due to a flexible fabric roof, or morph into a family car with seats folding out of the floor and the colour scheme changing.

BMW has two models on show - the i3, a small, electric, city-style 4-seater, and the i8, a fast, electric-petrol hybrid that features in the next Mission Impossible film starring Tom Cruise. Both will leave the production lines in 2013.

They, like other modern cars, are being built using light-weight carbon fibre composite material borrowed from space vehicles.

Forced by legislation to improve their efficiency in terms of miles per unit of fuel, making their cars weigh less is one way that manufacturers are meeting these targets.

The 3-litre barrier

Over its whole range, the German auto-maker has cut its 2006 average of 186 grams of CO2 per km to 148 grams by 2010. Other tricks to achieve this 20% improvement include changes to the engine, aerodynamics, components, a new stop-start button, turbo air vent control and regenerative braking.

Its goal is to break the '3 litre' barrier - travel 100km on 3 litres of fuel. It's almost there: its 2012 116d model with 116 PS needs 3.8 litres per 100 km and emits 99 grams of CO2, a big improvement on its 2011 model with 4.5 litres and 118 grams.

Turbo-chargers increase the air entering engines, which Alex Ismail, CEO of Honeywell Transportation Systems, says can boost fuel economy by 20% for petrol cars and an incredible 40% for diesel.

He says that this technology is going to mean fossil-fuel cars will be around for a long time yet, as it will help manufacturers meet the ever-tougher emissions-regulations that legislators around the world are setting.

"Despite the buzz around electric vehicles, it's clear that automakers are looking primarily at turbo charged engines to help quickly green their fleets and meet the regulatory targets," he says.

Globally, vehicles are responsible for about 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Hybrids proliferate

More and more electric-petrol hybrids are set to hit the roads, hot on the exhaust trail of the Chevrolet Volt, which emerged in 2010. Toyota has a Prius-based plug-in hybrid scheduled for 2012 and Ford's C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid follows in 2013, with other models due from Daimler and BMW.

In fact Toyota is extending the Prius brand into a family, with a seven-seater too, known as the Prius+. The plug-in version is claimed to have CO2 emissions as low as 49g/km.

For the top-end American family market, Henrik Fiskar is launching an incredibly sleek hybrid 5-seater, due for production in 2013, that can do 300 miles, with 981 lb-ft of torque, and acceleration of 5.9 seconds to 60 mph, with a top speed of 125 mph.

Even Jaguar is going green, with a two-seat hybrid known as the C-X16 Concept that uses a Formula 1 style hybrid boost which lets it do 0-62mph in a blistering 4.4seconds, reach a top speed of 186mph, on a CO2 emission rating of just 165g/km.

Ford is not to be out-done and is touting a 4-seat fastback with a plug-in hybrid called the EVOS Concept, which is taking connectivity to the next stage on the way to the car we saw Tom Cruise driving in Minority Report. It includes a cloud-computing-optimised powertrain that knows when to save energy and switch modes, based on the predicted travel route, weather conditions and emission zone restrictions.

One thing is sure – manufacturers are falling over themselves to make these next generation low-carbon vehicles seem cool, and that is a sure-fire way to capturing the public's imagination.

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