The theme of this year’s annual meeting of automotive engineers was “Racing to Green Mobility.” The unlikely symbol of the event—the 2009 World Congress of the Society of Automotive Engineers held from April 20 to 23—was California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Hummer. The Governor kicked off the conference by pointing to shortcomings in federal energy policy, while overlooking his role as the most famous promoter of the ultimate gas-guzzler.
Schwarzenegger said, “We need to put policy in place that will not change, so the [auto] manufacturers can know the future direction.” And then he made a beeline to Raser Technology’s plug-in hybrid Hummer H3 on display at the conference. Raser's use of a 200kW traction motor mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission allows the Hummer H3 to run with no gasoline for up to 40 miles.
The message was that government-supported advanced auto technology will allow US drivers to continue driving fast large vehicles without any compromise. A few years ago, Schwarzenegger’s beloved Hummer would be saved by hydrogen. Now, it’s all about electric drive technology, which was championed in many of the sessions. "There is nothing wrong with the Hummer. It's great vehicle," he told The Detroit News. "We should change the technology within those vehicles."
Panelists in a session called “Near Term Powertrain Solutions” didn’t entirely dismiss the idea of smaller car and engines—but doubted that consumers would sacrifice size and power. Dan Kapp, director of powertrain research at Ford, pushed Ford’s EcoBoost technology to draw more power from a smaller engine. But his colleague, Sherif Marakby, Ford chief engineer of global hybrid core engineering, thought it might take more gizmos—like cool interfaces and connections for portable electronics, to move metal. Marakby said, “That’s really key because green alone isn’t going to do it. It’s all this other stuff.”
Panelists in the session “'Does Green Matter in a Try-To-Survive Market” portrayed consumers as conflicted—not willing to spend money on green technology but still wanting car companies to do the right thing environmentally. Alexander Edwards, President of Automotive for Strategic Vision, said, "Most people don't want to compromise their priorities for slightly better fuel mpg."
Those priorities include safety, security, and brand. Scott Miller, CEO of Synovate Motoresearch, said "a growing number of consumers will refuse to do business with a company that is not acting in socially responsible ways." Although people have become more aware hybrids and other advanced powertrain technologies, they still view the internal combustion engine as having a higher reliability, according to Miller.
The Stampede to Electric Vehicles
While many panelists cast doubt on consumers’ willingness to pay for green technologies, others questioned the ability of electric cars—the technology enjoying the most publicity these days—to solve environmental problems. “We’re all stampeding toward an electric vehicle future. I’m not against that…but we don’t know where that could end up yet,” said MIT’s John Heywood.
“There are a lot of problems along the way. The primary one is the cost of these vehicles, and there are some major infrastructure questions as well...To assume this can take over and dominate, that’s a pretty naive assumption at this point.”
Heywood joined others in pointing out that multiple approaches, including smaller, lighter vehicles and new urban design, would be required.
John German, senior fellow at the International Council for Clean Transportation and formerly a hybrid expert at Honda, similarly did not see quick and easy solutions. “Actually, there’s too much technology coming. It’s very difficult to sort through all this,” said German. “The manufacturer that makes an early bet on a technology and is wrong is going to suffer greatly in the competition. We have to go through this process, meet a rigorous development cycle of two to three years, and prove a new technology in production on a limited number of vehicles for a couple of years. And then you need at least five years to spread it across the fleet.”
Long lead times in the auto industry will make it difficult to achieve President Obama’s goal of putting 1 million plug-ins on US roads by 2015. Steven Clark, senior manager of electric energy management at Chrysler, again pointed to a lack of consumer commitment as a primary obstacle. “The current cost of battery technology in low volumes makes it difficult to achieve a two- to five-year payback with $2 gas.”