We’re on the brink of some very exciting times in the automotive world. Heck, even within the last decade or so, the changes that have been wrought in the motor industry have made driving so much easier and more pleasurable. A lot of the technological marvels that we take for granted today would have been hailed as wizardry for drivers in the early ‘90s.
Potentially marriage-wrecking arguments over who didn’t follow the map properly have been made a thing of the past thanks to GPS technology. The relentless tedium of driving long distance with a limited supply of music has been alleviated by the delights of bluetooth connectivity. Indeed, drivers can now stream whatever the Heck they want via in-car Wifi these days. It’s not all about convenience, though. The history of automotive innovation has always been as concerned with safety as it has with creature comforts. Just look at the way in which onboard sensors have reduced the risk of embarrassing bumps and scrapes while parking. That very same technology has also helped to guard against more serious collisions. Lane assist and collision warning technologies have reduced the collision risk for many a driver meaning that car accident lawyers around the world will hopefully have to do a little less heavy lifting. The endgame of this technology, of course is for vehicles to one day be autonomous, but that’s only one way in which the concept of the motor vehicle as we know it is evolving.
Over the past few decades, growing awareness of our precarious relationship with our environment has left consumers extremely dissatisfied with the efforts of governments and industries to clean up their act (environmentally speaking). A combination of consumer demand and pragmatic urgency have led to widespread change within the motor industry and the transportation sector at large. With increasing pressure on manufacturers to develop vehicles that use more sustainable fuel sources than fossil fuels, the industry has seen a huge surge in hybrid and electric motors. This is a great start, but what will fuel the cars of tomorrow?
Twenty years ago, few could have imagined the enthusiasm with which the auto industry (and the consumer base) would embrace electric technology. While it’s still in its relative infancy, there’s no denying that production of hybrid and all-electric engines has flourished exponentially over the past decade or so. Governments around the world offer substantial grants to incentivize electric vehicle purchasing and the nox emissions scandals at the hands of several high profile manufacturers are also doing their fair share to push consumers away from fossil fuels and towards electricity.
Conventional logic dictates that electric vehicles are not only more ecologically friendly than gas guzzlers, they also represent substantial savings for drivers. Taxi drivers, in particular, have really taken to electric vehicles since the typically short journeys in built up areas that taxi drivers navigate all day every day lend themselves very well to electric vehicles. Since gas vehicles burn more in lower gears, it stands to reason that electric cars would represent savings of thousands of dollars a year for the short distance urban driver.
Skeptics, however, warn that the ecological benefits of electric cars may not be quite as profound as many consumers believe. Some insist that harmful emissions will simply be moved from the roads to the power plants. Indeed, the very manufacture of electric vehicles is currently an issue since it takes roughly twice as much energy to produce an electric vehicle as a gas powered vehicle. For electric vehicle production to be truly sustainable, more research into sustainable production methods needs to take place. Battery manufacturing with current limitations requires 350 to 650 Megajoules of energy per kWh, and batteries themselves need to be made from minerals like copper and cobalt, as well as rare earths like neodymium.
McDonalds scored a major PR coup a few years back when they announced that more than half of their delivery trucks would be fueled by biodiesel recycled from their old cooking oil. As the fast food giant rightly asserts, that’s the carbon emissions equivalent of taking 2,500 cars of the road every year. Sounds great, right? But could biodiesel really be a viable fuel source for tomorrow’s vehicles? Vegetable mineral derived oils are abundantly available and are potentially a lot more sustainable than fossil oils that are used to make gasoline. Substantial changes would need to be made for this to be an effective long term solution, though. Biodiesel causes engine components to deteriorate at a faster rate than gasoline and it clogs up oil filters much faster, too. It’s also worth noting that some biofuels are much greener and more sustainable than others.
Ethanol is already widely used around the world as a fuel additive. The currently used combination E10 is a mix of 1 part ethanol to 9 parts gasoline. Studies have shown that using ethanol as a fuel additive has some effect in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and since most ethanol is derived from corn it’s a pretty sustainable fuel. However, while ethanol may reduce greenhouse gas emissions it creates significantly more ozone than traditional gasoline.
Hydrogen production carries with it an environmental price tag of its own, but it is theoretically far more sustainable than fossil fuel use and many environmentalists actively encourage the transition into a hydrogen economy. Like gasoline, hydrogen is an artificial fuel that transports and converts energy. Its sustainability lies in the fact that it can be created by separating water using electrolysis through solar power or other renewable forms of energy. The separated gas would then be stored in an onboard tank and combined with oxygen within a fuel cell, releasing the energy to power the vehicle. While potentially world-changing, hydrogen does have its caveats. Hydrogen is odorless and burns with a clear flame making leaks incredibly difficult to detect. Naysayers invoke the image of the Hindenburg but in reality the fire that felled the infamous blimp was caused by its flammable outer covering and not the gas itself.
With a little tweaking and a lot more research any of these fuels could pave the way for a greener and more environmentally friendly future.