Green machines take center stage at Chicago Auto Show
The environmentally concerned driver and the technophile alike will find a myriad of new models showcasing the latest technology in electric and hybrid drive at the Chicago Auto Show. The next wave of electrified cars offers a range of choices tailored for different customer needs.
During a recent Chicago appearance, Tom McCarthy, chief engineer of advanced research for Ford Motor Co., said Ford surveyed Chicago area drivers and found fuel economy was the most important factor in the purchase decision. He also said 67 percent of respondents said they would consider a hybrid or electric vehicle. With 150,000 hybrids on the road now, Ford is predicting up to 25 percent of the U.S. fleet will be hybrid or electric by the year 2020.
Purpose-built pure electric vehicles from mainstream automakers like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i are on sale now. Last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit saw electric-powered concepts ranging from utilitarian with the Nissan e-NV200 electric cargo van to fun with the Volkswagen e-Bugster, a roadster version of the Beetle with a custom look.
McCarthy said Ford is proceeding with “electrifying platforms versus single vehicles.” That way the company can enjoy economies of scale by not building a unique electric-only vehicle “that doesn’t share componentry” with anything else. Look for electric variants of the Ford Focus and Ford C-Max in the near future. Other companies – including Toyota, Fiat, Hyundai, Volvo and Mini – have taken a similar tactic by announcing electric versions of their familiar models.
While hybrid has become a household word, defining a hybrid vehicle is getting more complicated. Today the term hybrid encompasses mild, full, plug-in and two-mode variations. The similarity is each uses a combination of technologies in an effort to reduce fuel consumption. All U.S. hybrids are gas-electric hybrids, using a gasoline engine in concert with an electric motor or motors.
Automatic start/stop technology is employed in what we used to call a mild hybrid; it will be making its way into many more vehicles in the future. It functions to keep an extra battery pack charged up via power from the engine. These vehicles will turn off the engine when coming to a stop and then generate electricity from coasting. Battery power is used to run accessories while stopped with the engine off, thereby not burning gasoline or creating emissions, and then to restart the engine automatically when needed. Another technology that is incorporated is regenerative braking, which captures the normally wasted energy used to stop the vehicle with the brakes and uses it to recharge the battery.
A full hybrid typically performs all of the above functions and also has an electric motor that can drive the wheels without using gasoline engine power. To save fuel, the electric motor can propel the vehicle at lower speeds, when parking, traveling in stop-and-go traffic or when starting off from a complete stop until a certain speed is reached. The gas engine will turn on when that speed is attained or when the batteries get run down.
With hybrid cars now in service for more than a decade, it’s clear the technology is improving. One recent significant step has been the lithium ion battery, which extends electric range, increasing fuel mileage. Toyota, one of the true pioneers of hybrid drive, introduced the Prius c last month at the Detroit Auto Show. Come to the show for a look at this latest member of the expanded Prius lineup with a city rating of 53 miles per gallon.
It’s not surprising that hybrids are getting more efficient in economy cars, but what is surprising is a new trend of hybrid drive becoming the powertrain of choice for luxury and high-performance cars. Perhaps the glamorous new Fisker Karma can take some credit for getting it started. Unfortunately, Fisker will not be displaying at the show, though you will see some luxury and performance hybrid vehicles from other brands. Chairman of Daimler AG Dieter Zetsche said the company is looking at “making green cars cooler and cool cars greener” during last month’s Detroit debut of two Mercedes-Benz luxury hybrids for production (and an electric pickup truck from Smart).
Detroit also saw Acura and Lexus square off with two sexy hybrid sports cars. The Acura NSX concept is a look at the replacement for the original non-hybrid NSX, coming in three years. Lexus was more evasive about the exact future of the LF-LC, but presented it as a showcase for its “next-generation hybrid powertrain.”
Chevrolet retains the spotlight for the first plug-in hybrid on sale (though it prefers the term extended range electric vehicle). A plug-in hybrid has a larger battery pack that you plug in to recharge; that way, the first several miles of the day – perhaps an entire commute – are driven on electric power alone. Once that initial charge is used up, the engine starts driving the wheels and/or acting as a generator to recharge the battery. Look for new Ford C-Max, Ford Fusion, Toyota Prius and Cadillac ELR plug-in hybrids on the way.
Now that electrified vehicles are ready for prime time, their biggest competition may come from the conventional gasoline engine. By combining technologies like direct injection, variable valve timing and turbocharging with advanced transmissions, the 40 mpg club is getting bigger all the time.