Tech that saves you money
Forget electric cars and high-tech hybrids. Here are the technologies that will save you big at the pump today.
Electric and hybrid vehicles are not the only answer to the question of fuel-efficiency. Ford's new turbocharged, direct injection 2.0-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder performs as well many V8s, while using considerably less gasoline.
Take a walk through the wealthy streets of California's Silicon Valley — say, downtown Mountain View or Palo Alto — and you just might be able to convince yourself that electric cars are finally taking over. A Chevrolet Volt is charging outside a Starbucks, a Nissan LEAF glides silently down Main Street, and a Tesla Roadster is pulling up to a trendy lunch place with some millionaire tech mogul at the wheel.
But as we all know, Silicon Valley is not representative of the country: The vast majority of Americans still drive gas-powered vehicles. Conventional hybrids such as the Toyota Prius account for only single-digit market share. Electric vehicles are not even on most people's radar, despite the hype over advanced battery-powered cars. The reality is that most American consumers won't see EVs with any frequency for many, many years, let alone own one.
Still, fuel economy is a primary concern of most new-car buyers today. And government-mandated fuel-efficiency standards are about to get considerably more stringent. So how will automakers satisfy consumer demand and government regulations if EVs are still too expensive and rare to make much of a difference?
Improvements in weight, aerodynamics and power-management technologies will be the heroes in any scenario of building "greener," more fuel-efficient cars. "All of these levers will be required to meet new, stricter standards," says Xavier Mosquet, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. Let's take a closer look at five key technologies that will boost mileage, cut greenhouse gases and save you money at the pump.
When hybrids first hit the roads, many people were surprised to hear their car engines go silent when they came to a stop. It turns out that shutting down the motor at a standstill saves fuel and cuts emissions. Start-stop technology doesn't just make sense for hybrids, however. Johnson Controls, a leader in start-stop systems, is investing millions of dollars in the batteries and engine controllers that make start-stop systems possible in all vehicles. Clean-technology consulting firm Pike Research projects that nearly 40 million start-stop systems will be sold in the United States by 2020.
Companies such as Ford have been using start-stop technology on their European models for some time, but until now only a few manufacturers, such as BMW and Porsche, have shown interest in applying the feature to their U.S. models. Ford, however, will introduce start-stop on its American models in 2012 and says it can boost fuel efficiency in city driving by 4 to 10 percent.
Making cars lighter can mean squeezing more miles from a gallon of fuel, and by using stronger steel, automakers can use less steel when building their vehicles. The Energy Department recently announced a $750 million loan to Severstal North America, a Michigan-based steel-maker, to develop lighter metal so that a car can be 10 percent more efficient without being any less safe. The department expects Severstal's steel to save nearly 30 million gallons of gasoline per year.
Advanced plastics, lighter metals such as magnesium and aluminum, and even carbon fiber are also potential replacements, though they're not cheap. Ford is experimenting with a process that injects microscopic bubbles into plastics, making them lighter while maintaining their strength.
David Champion, senior director of the Auto Test Division at Consumer Reports, predicts cars will lose about 500 pounds over the next five to 10 years. He points to the Hyundai Sonata, which shed nearly 400 pounds between 2006 and 2010 while maintaining comparable performance and horsepower.
Sometimes it's not what's under the hood that matters, but the shape of the hood itself, not to mention the rest of the car. Shaving off the lumps and smoothing out the physique of a car can add significant efficiency. As fuel-economy standards ratchet up, expect car companies to clock more and more hours in the wind tunnel to derive ever-slipperier shapes for their vehicles. Ford says that the newest Focus design spent more than 1,000 hours in aerodynamics testing, yielding a 7.8 percent drag reduction.
An astonishing number of tactics are being used to make cars more aerodynamic. The newest Nissan Versa, for example, has been dropped an inch closer to the pavement. Many cars are now being fitted with underbody plates to cover up turbulence-inducing nooks and crannies beneath. The 2012 Ford Focus and 2013 Chevy Malibu have active shutters on their front grilles that remain closed until air is needed to cool the engine, at which point the louvers pivot open.
Wheels with flatter surfaces, lower-profile door handles and more finely engineered side mirrors make small differences on their own, but such design changes can add up. Not only do these subtle improvements reduce fuel consumption, many of them cut down on wind noise, so your drive is a quieter one.
Turbocharging and Direct Injection
In a class normally powered by large V8s, the Ford Explorer SUV will soon be available with the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder EcoBoost, which delivers a market-best 23 mpg city/highway.
Shrink the engine, slake its thirst for gasoline and don't sacrifice any muscle. Sound good? Then take a look at direct injection and turbocharging technologies. Turbocharging pumps more air into the cylinder while direct injection shoots fuel directly into the point of combustion, generating more power and cleaner exhaust. Long considered premium — and failure-prone — technologies, they are poised to hit the automotive mainstream on everything from trucks to subcompacts.
In the U.S., Ford has been aggressive with turbocharging and direct injection, and has combined its patented versions of each under the EcoBoost brand name. Ford's F-150 pickup with a V6 EcoBoost engine is already outselling its V8 cousin, despite costing nearly $1,000 more. While the newly redesigned Explorer SUV has been well-received, it is about to get another major update — the addition of a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine with a combined city/highway mileage rating of 23 mpg, making it the most fuel-efficient 7-passenger SUV on the market.
On the microscopic side, Ford confirmed earlier this year that it will introduce a new 1.0-liter 3-cylinder EcoBoost engine into its tiny Fiesta. In all these cases, direct injection and turbocharging allow a smaller engine to perform same duty as its larger predecessor. No wonder Ford says EcoBoost will be available on 90 percent of its models by 2013. Mosquet of Boston Consulting Group says he expects that direct injection and turbocharging, along with several of the other technologies listed here, will show up on most new cars by 2020.
You may not care how many gears your car has, but if more gears and even an extra clutch meant better gas mileage, it might get your attention, right? In the quest for a more efficient internal-combustion engine, transmissions are going to be big players. No automaker is ignoring the gearbox, but they are displaying an array of different approaches to its function in a vehicle's powertrain.
The two main technologies currently being applied to the transmission are dual clutches and a growing number of gears. Dual-clutch technology assigns one clutch for the even-numbered gears and one for the odd. People tend to like them for their fast shifting, in addition to more efficient power management. More gears mean more efficient transfer of power to the wheels, but also more to manage, so it often takes increasingly advanced computer systems to keep everything spinning smoothly.
Mercedes-Benz hasn't been shy in introducing more advanced and efficient transmissions. The compact CLC coupe, which will make its way to the U.S. in 2014, is powered by an inline 4-cylinder engine and a dual-clutch, 7-speed transmission, while the new B-Class hatchback, to be unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show, will offer both 6- and 7-speed dual-clutch gearboxes.
Ford has been developing advanced transmissions as well. Branded as Powershift, Ford's dual-clutch transmission is already at work in the 2012 Ford Focus. Hyundai will debut its first dual-clutch transmission in the 2012 Veloster, and Mazda says its 6-speed Skyactiv system combines both continuously variable and dual-clutch transmissions to deliver smooth shifting and up to 7 percent better fuel efficiency.
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The "Missing Link" in the battle for higher MPG is driver education. Every day on the highway I get passed by people driving 50% faster than the speed limit and end up catching them at the first stoplight or speed zone with my cruise control set to the speed limit. In the city I see people racing from stoplight to stoplight, switching lanes in a panic to get to the front of the pack, only to be stuck by a red light and get caught by everyone who is driving sensibly. I seem to get there just as fast as them in my '95 Toyota that averages about 39 MPG around town.
Cars have gotten far too heavy, but the problem with making them lighter now is all the heavy commercial equipment and huge SUVs that will still be on the road. Safety cage or no, a 2000 pound car stands no chance against a full size pickup.
Turbocharging has always been a great idea, and I think Direct Injection will be eventually. For now, DI generates a lot of deposits in the engine due to fuel not washing over the intake valves, so recirculated oil vapor and gasses just build up and turn rock hard on the intake valves.
There's always a learning curve with new and advanced technologies. If we can do these things without it costing the consumer an arm and a leg either through initial purchase or repair costs, then we've got nothing to lose.
All this high tech that is supposed to save us money also provides automakers a justification to tack on additional costs, not to mention the complexity of these new high tech features that diminish the long term reliability and add to the service costs down the road when they fail.
It doesn't work like that. First there are plenty of places in the U.S. (you may not live there) where rear drive either won't work in the winter or is very difficult to say the least. Front wheel drive with good snow tires WILL work in 99% of those situations for on the street commuting, but there are other applications where 4 wheel drive is necessary.
As for electric cars, that electricity comes from somewhere so your eco footprint may be far worse than a conventional car depending on how that electricity was generated. Because of this, electric cars are not the panacea that many tree huggers think they are.
As far as alternative energy's go, Hydrogen is the best hope that I can see, but I doubt we will see any real inroads there for 15-20 years but more efficient internal combustion engines that are being developed now will mate with Hydrogen just fine.
Electric cars do not have a 200 mile range, or even 100 that you claim. There are plug in Hybrids (Chevy Volt) that after the electric power has been exhausted in their battery's (real world about 30 miles) a 4 cylinder engine kicks on to generate more electricity, this is what gives the range it has.
As for Tesla, It is so expensive because it has so many battery's this is not feasible for most people. Real world also the range drops significantly. If driven like a sports car, (which it proports to be) your range will drop to about 30 miles. And real life situations driving like a regular car (not trying to hypermil) you might get 80 miles than you need to charge it for 12 hours, not going to get to Grandma's house very fast that way, better leave on Halloween to get there for Thanksgiving.
Don't believe me? check out Top Gear's segment on the Tesla
Finally, please realize every one and every family is different. Family with 4 kids has different transportation needs than a single person so there vehicle of choice will be different. please stop trying to put all pegs in the same hole.