7 Ways Alternative Fuel Vehicles Will Benefit Consumers

By Eric Cahill

Eric is founder and managing director of Adaptiv Consulting, an independent consultancy focused on innovation and business strategy in emerging markets for sustainable mobility solutions. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. In Transportation Technology & Policy at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. His research aims to equip business and policy leaders with strategic guidance for harnessing the convergence of advances in wireless connectivity, smart grid, and vehicle electrification technologies to introduce new functionality to consumers and expand markets for sustainable solutions to personal mobility globally. Eric holds graduate degrees in Engineering & Management from the Sloan School of Management, and in Technology & Policy from the Engineering Systems Division at MIT.

You may have noticed some unusual cars on your block lately, and if not there, then perhaps you’ve seen them next to you at a stoplight or in the parking lot of your local grocery store.

No, I’m not talking about all those Priuses (ahem, Prii) running about these days, though hybrid cars of a variety of stripes are poised to take off in ensuing years. I’m talking about other alternatives to gas-burners like vehicles that run on diesel, natural gas, and even electricity.

What do all of these have in common? For starters, they’re just plain different. In decades past we’ve had our choice of manual or automatic, cloth or leather, but never before have we ever had to make a decision about what kind of powerplant we’d like in our next ride.

Let’s face it: the arrival of non-gas options at the dealership is a new and strange development, a big change, and one that has not gone unnoticed or unchallenged. Indeed, there are a lot of rumors floating about, some politically-motivated, suggesting that people don’t want these cars. True or no, what do these changes mean for the auto industry, and more importantly, what does it mean for you and me?

1. More choices

For starters, we auto consumers have more choices than we ever had before, and on the surface that would seem to be a good thing. But that isn’t to say that it won’t come at the cost of some initial confusion. After all, if I can’t find diesel, compressed natural gas, or a place to plug in and charge up fast, what use is there for someone like me to consider anything other than the tried and true?

But that’s starting to change. In a break from years past, automakers recognize that consumers aren’t the only ones vulnerable to spikes in gas prices. The collapse of the US auto industry was in part a consequence of bets placed on bigger, heavier, high profit trucks and SUVs with the expectation of a seemingly unlimited supply of cheap gas. But when prices spiked north of $4 (and in some places $5) in the summer of ’08, sales of these big rigs all but collapsed, taking with it the fortunes of America’s once great automakers.

As credit markets faltered and the Great Recession took hold, the federal rescue of the auto industry offered GM and Chrysler a second life. However, it also brought a reckoning with reality: the realization that gas prices may be on a (long overdue) upward trend, punctuated by occasional but nasty spikes that could drive consumers away from dealer lots at the drop of a hat. The antidote? A more balanced product offering, ensuring that automakers are never caught again without more efficient, and more affordable, alternatives.

2. Increased standards

So in a rare display of solidarity between industry and government, US and global automakers willingly acceded to new fuel economy targets. With renewed vigor, they ramped up efforts on gasoline alternatives, and committed to production of a wide array of hybrid-electric, plug-in hybrid, battery-electric, and more recently, diesel powertrains. With the recent boon in natural gas, there is little doubt that vehicles powered by that clean(er) blue flame are also around the corner.

3. Increased competition

The commitment to electrified vehicles (EV) by Nissan, and to plug-in hybrids by GM, was, to some degree, in reaction to the success of the Roadster EV, built by the California start-up Tesla Motors. Released in 2007, this 2-seat sports car proved that electrics could be every bit as sporty and desirable as their gas-powered cousins.

Not one to be outdone by a bunch of Silicon Valley upstarts, auto scion Bob Lutz convinced GM’s risk-averse board of directors to embark on a production EV program of their own, though this one would brag four seats and a 1.4 liter Ecotec four cylinder gas engine to provide that extra range when occasion calls for it.

While initial “xEV” sales have fallen short of their publicly stated targets, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. The fact that these models even made it to market marks a watershed moment in the evolution of the automobile. While they’re not exactly flying off the shelves, they are selling at a quicker pace than hybrids introduced just over a decade ago, and this pace could quicken as fueling infrastructure is added. And while not quite the George Jetson flying cars envisioned by dreamers of decades past, in them we might just be getting a glimpse at the not-so-distant future of what some in the industry are calling a new era of “personal mobility”.

4. Substantive improvements

In a departure from the old days, in which car companies would try to coax buyers into new offerings by making mostly skin-deep changes to their cars every four years, these recent innovations represent much deeper, fundamental change. Take a look under the hood and you will notice some substantive differences that portend even more major changes on the horizon.

The first is electrification. What used to be just a heavy, lead-acid battery for turning over your engine – technology over a century and half old – is now joined by chemistries such as lithium that can store many times more juice at a fraction of the weight. This, in combination with powerful electric motors and high voltage architectures, means power off the line that can literally shove you into your seat like a fighter jet launching from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Even better, lightning-fast torque is instantaneously available the moment your foot hits the pedal. No pregnant pause waiting for the revs to hit the peak torque band when you need to pass that truck in front of you. For those used to that annoying bit of hesitation, the experience of instant acceleration promises to make driving a bit more fun, and safer.

5. New innovations

But that’s just for starters. Electrification heralds other major changes in the DNA of the automobile that doesn’t stop at the engine block.

Already, many hybrids and “xEVs” equip drivers with the option to select ride “pre-sets” such as economy, cruise, and sport modes. X-by-wire systems, in which simple electrical interfaces replace myriad hydraulic and mechanical linkages, allow for individualized tuning of suspension travel, brake feel, and acceleration response.

An onboard energy storage system, like a powerful lithium battery, can draw, store, and deliver emissions-free power virtually anytime it is needed, whether the car is on the road or parked overnight in a garage.

For example, imagine entering your car to start your daily commute. Your car knows that this is the time you go to work every weekday morning, and it has already warmed up the cabin for you. Thanks to the absence of harmful tailpipe pollutants, this can all happen in the comfort of your own garage.

6. More convenience

Worried about having to deal with plugging in? Consider it a passing phase. Just as the auto industry seemed to have settled on common standards for charging, they moved on to the next great innovation: wireless charging.

A year ago, telecom giant Qualcomm acquired HaloIPT, a British start-up holding patents for a technology that gives cars the ability to recharge onboard batteries with absolutely no plugs or cables whatsoever.

Automaker Nissan has already demonstrated the technology in concert with a parking assist system that automatically guides the car to its parking spot, err, “docking station”. The driver simply presses a button or speaks a command, lets go of the wheel, and the car does the rest. Once parked, the driver simply turns the car off, shuts the door, and goes about their business. No plug. No trips to the gas station, just cheap electricity and “gas in your tank” every time you step into your car.

And if your home is equipped with solar – indeed some automakers such as BMW are considering offering home solar as an option package with your purchase – your ride might even be pollution free, grid free, and cost free.

A growing number of onboard sensors now give cars the ability to take on the most undesirable driving tasks, including parking, emergency stops, and adjusting cruise speeds to traffic conditions in real time. Combined with advanced GPS navigation (including embedded knowledge of terrain and real-time road conditions), and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (such as automatic seatbelt pre-tensioners, headlights that can peer into upcoming turns, and lane departure warning capability) the day when driving can be truly “hands free” is fast becoming reality. Search engine giant Google is spearheading efforts to accelerate development of practical self-driving car technologies, in part by equipping vehicles with the ability to wirelessly tap its vast information database.

While traditional automakers explore the limits of powertrain alternatives to best meet the needs of mainstream customers, new entrants such as NRG Energy, Zipcar, Better Place, and the aforementioned Tesla, Qualcomm and Google continue to explore new territory, pressing the boundaries of what is possible and challenging the global auto behemoths to look beyond their traditional walls for a new vision of personal mobility. Contrary to what skeptics might have us believe, there is no need for this vision to involve sacrifice by consumers; rather, future solutions will bring greater convenience and capability that would not have been thought possible only a decade ago.

Indeed, the evolution of the “connected car” – in which the automobile communicates seamlessly with its own onboard sensor systems, as well as signal and road infrastructure, in order to prevent accidents, decrease time spent in traffic, and link occupants to the web through onboard and mobile devices – is spurring increased electrification of vehicle architectures.

7. Connectivity

Not long ago, auto industry leaders bristled at the idea that customers would willingly cede control to some faceless computer. Oh, how times have changed. With traffic jams an unwelcome nuisance of everyday commutes and mobile connectivity reaching into our cars and diverting our attention away from the road, more and more drivers welcome the day when the connected car will help them put time spent in gridlock to better use.

As mobile connectivity has expanded to fill an ever present role in our daily lives, so too have we come to expect more out of our cars. Could the product developers at AT&T a half-century ago have imagined that the phone would evolve into what it is today? Where once we lived corded lives, today we carry devices in our pockets that pack the power of the supercomputers of yesteryear and connect us to a world of information and social interaction that is quite literally at our fingertips. Might the auto evolve as radically? Consumer expectations are likely to evolve rapidly in the wake of advancing connectivity technologies.

One thing is for sure: as we grow more comfortable with connectivity technologies and more aware of how much good they can do for our lives, we will come to invite these technologies into all facets of the products we use, including the cars we drive. The auto industry will need to go into overdrive to keep up.

Some truly great things will happen. Cars will get smarter, cleaner, and substantially safer. They will get lighter and that will make them much more efficient. And because they are lighter, alternative powerplants will make greater inroads and with it, more choice for consumers.

Instead of purchases that lock us into the use of just one or two cars for many years, in a growing number of areas people can choose to subscribe to services offering them affordable, convenient access to a pool of vehicles. Autonomous driving technology – already legal in states such as California, Nevada, and Florida – could enable these vehicles to arrive ‘on demand’ through our mobile devices at a time and place of our choosing.

In this way, people can obtain vehicles sized and fitted with motors powered by fuels that best suit their individual lifestyles, commute patterns, and needs. Simple online tools, accessible through mobile devices, will make this choice easier. So as our needs change, so will our cars. This is a future we can all look forward to.

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