Where is my Car 2.0?

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My wife is looking to buy a car. She is 30 years old. She likes iTunes and reads her news online instead of a newspaper. She is concerned about global warming, and about the war on terror. We’re about to have kids, which brings those concerns to the forefront. So, when we started looking around for a car, we remembered all those cool next-generation automobiles we’ve been bombarded with at auto shows and the news. And we were surprised to find that we could hardly find any. This was caused by a combination of them not having actually made it to production despite the hype, and that the dealers practically pretend that they don’t exist, even when they are sitting on the lot.

This leads to a lot of confusion for people who are actually looking to buy a car based on some of the new technology in the pipeline. Auto manufacturers talk a lot about the research and development and upcoming technologies, but it’s difficult to determine what you can actually purchase today.

Also, press releases and science articles tend to focus on how the technologies work and the impact that will have on emissions, the environment, global warming, and the butterfly population in Paraguay. Instead, even the most idealistic drivers are more concerned with how their lives will be affected with automotive technologies different from what they’re used to. The social commentary this implies is left to the reader.

Hybrid Electric (HEV)

Available: Since 1999

“Hybrids” have been available for a few years already from a number of manufacturers. In the United States, Honda made the hybrid debut with the Insight in 1999. They were joined a few years later by the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius. Today, there is a growing number of Hybrids available or shortly available from most major car manufactures.

A Hybrid is a car that has both an electric and a gas motor. The electric one assists the gas when the gas motor would otherwise be inefficient (like at low speeds). Most hybrids are simply an alternate version of a non-hybrid car, with the notable exception being the Toyota Prius. Hybrids are generally quieter than their non-hybrid counterparts. Japanese Hybrids tend to focus on getting better fuel efficiency, while American hybrids tend to focus on getting more powerful engines at the same fuel efficiency. This follows the general trend of American manufacturers to focus on trucks and SUVs, while Japanese manufacturers focus more on cars.

The biggest advantage, for both the driver and the auto manufacturer, is that Hybrid Electrics are a drop-in replacement for a conventional automobile. You drive it, you go to the gas station, you park it in your garage. The driver doesn’t need to do anything differently that they normally would with another car, and the manufacturer doesn’t have to take a risk of drivers accepting any abnormal requirements.

The trade off for this lower risk is that Hybrids are a compromise of technology and capability, tipped well against technology. There is a limit to how much electricity the hybrid can generate just from braking and excess energy from the gas motor, and this limits the efficiency of the electric motor. For this reason, hybrids can improve fuel efficiency by up to 40%, but you won’t see more than that. Also, in general, Gas-Electric hybrids tend to be either underpowered, or else give up their fuel-savings in favor of additional power to the engine.

Plug-In Hybrid Electric (PHEV)

Available: 2008, if we’re lucky

Plug-In Hybrids are an evolutionary step beyond Hybrids. The general idea is that instead of using the gas motor in the car to generate electricity (which is inefficient), instead plug it in to your power outlet overnight. Other than that basic idea, Plug-In Hybrids are very similar to regular Gas-Electric Hybrids. In fact, you could treat it the same exact way as you treat a regular Gas-Electric Hybrid. While you wouldn’t get the additional advantage of home-charging, there would be no other ill effects.

Why would you want to plug in your Hybrid? Power plants can generate electricity much more efficiently than your car engine. So, where it might take a few gallons of gas to fully charge your Hybrid’s battery (since you must drive around to get it charging), it would only cost you a few cents in electricity to charge it from your wall socket.

This tends to favor people who drive close to home. Toyota claims that their Plug-In Prius, which may debut in 2009, will be able to drive around seven miles on electricity alone. That means that your neighborhood chores will require zero gasoline, and while your commutes to work will still eat up the same miles-per-gallon as a regular Prius, those miles only start to count after you’ve driven seven.

If you are anxious to get a Plug-In Hybrid, there are people who have built their own conversion kits for both the Prius and the Civic. These will void your factory warranty, but may be the ticket if you don’t want to wait until the 2009 model year.

Electric and Series Hybrid Electric

Available: 2008 for super cars, at least 2010 for mortals?

Tesla Motors shocked the automotive industry in 2006 by announcing an all-electric sports car which could outrun a Ferrari. The Tesla Roadster has a range of nearly 250 miles before it needs to be recharged, by plugging it into an electrical outlet. At a cost of around $100,000, these aren’t for the average driver, but Tesla plans on using the technology created for the Roadster on a line of family sedans called Whitestar, which they plan on introducing as a competitor for BMW’s and Mercedes possibly as soon as the 2010 model year. If things go well, they are also planning a more affordably-priced sedan after 2012.

Ignoring the EV-1 which GM released and then recalled in the early 90’s, Chevrolet plans on releasing the much anticipated Volt. This muscle-car-esq electric vehicle drives as far as 40 miles on a single overnight charge. While this may not sound like a lot, the Volt also has an on-board gas generator, which means that you can fill up at the pump, and drive it almost like a regular car. This is known as a Series hybrid – The gasoline engine doesn’t drive the wheels like a conventional car. Instead, its only purpose is to recharge the battery while the car is on the road. This is an advantage over the Tesla Roadster, as it means that you can take the Volt on a road trip without having to worry about plugging in. GM has a bad track history with technology, and most consumers are wary about their true intentions. For example, many have alleged that the GM fuel cell program was really just a PR stunt to push off having to upgrade it’s auto technology base by pretending to be proactive. Time will tell, and while GM claims that it won’t be ready until 2012, hopeful rumors hint at 2010.

Other automakers are pursuing Series Hybrids as well. Some other potentials on the horizon besides the Volt are the Saturn Vue and Volvo ReCharge.

Fuel Cells

Available: Don’t hold your breath

Fuel cells are touted to be the next-generation car technology. Fuel cells are a replacement for batteries. Instead of charging your car with electricity, you fill it’s fuel-cell with a fuel (usually hydrogen), and the fuel-cell uses that to create electricity, without the need for a conventional motor or power generator.

A fuel cell does not describe a type of propulsion – just a power source. For example, a Hybrid Electric Vehicle might use a fuel cell instead of batteries, or a full electric vehicle might as well. While fuel cells promise to boost the efficiency of such vehicles, they are not required. That’s a good thing, because no one really knows how to make them yet.

Practically every auto maker has announced intentions of producing a fuel-cell based car. There are several prototypes, usually costing several million dollars and with significant performance problems. The technology simply isn’t there yet, and it doesn’t look like its going to be ready any time soon. Manufacturers like to use fuel-cell technology as an example of what they are developing for the future. Unfortunately (especially in the case of GM), this is really just an excuse for why they have no interesting technologies in the present.

Hydrogen

Available: Never

For a while, hydrogen-powered cars was the talk of the town. Yet, years later, there isn’t a single mass-produced hydrogen automobile. Why not?

While gasoline and even electrical outlets are commonplace throughout the United States, you would be hard-pressed to find liquid hydrogen at your local filling station. Even worse, it can be dangerous stuff. Hydrogen is explosive at room temperature, and either super-low temperatures or super-high pressure us required to keep it contained in a gas-tank. Given how much easier it is for people to switch to an electric car versus a hydrogen one, don’t expect hydrogen cars to make it to mass production any time soon. In fact, no car manufacturer has any such plans, although some government agency vehicles and public buses do run on hydrogen, and BMW has a number of prototypes which they have processionally showed off since 2001.

Which do I get?

Unfortunately, the lesson learned here is that there isn’t too much choice in the marketplace yet. If you can wait 6 months, you may be able to get a Plug-In Hybrid from Toyota. Then again, maybe not. Toyota hasn’t promised anything. If you have $100,000 to burn, you can get a super car-class Tesla Roadster that you can’t take overnight away from a power socket.

However, if you are in the market for a car today, the only technology readily available is a regular Hybrid. The good news is that they are gaining popularity, and many manufacturers are making them. My wife will be looking at models from Honda, Nissan, Toyota, and Lexus. If anyone makes an announcement that they will have a Plug-In Hybrid available in the 2009 model year before we make our purchase though, we’ll definitely hold off until that comes out.

And we’ll trade up whenever the Chevy Volt becomes available. Right before we book tickets on Virgin Galactic to the Budget Suites hotel on the moon.