Road to Liberty through Innovation

By John Morris in Washignton DCInnovation was the buzz word at this year’s SAE World
Conference at Detroit, 13-15th April 2010 which saw a very strong
Austrian presence through main congress sponsors AVL and MAGNA, the Austrian
automotive suppliers.  US company FORD announced a joint venture with the
Styrian company MAGNA to produce the battery electric FORD Focus. MAGNA E-Car
Systems was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year and behind the
scenes, MAGNA has agreed to a joint venture with the US company to produce an
electric model of the famous FORD Focus at the MAGNA works at Graz,

The new battery electric FORD Focus will be a plug in version
of the acclaimed family run around. It will have an electric motor, better known
as an electric drive train as its called in the automotive world, and emit zero
emissions when being driven. It will rely on battery recharging facilities and
will suit people who have their own garage, parking lot or access to charging
stations on their journeys or at their destinations such as work places. 

Contrasting the MAGNA venture, Graz rivals AVL used the
Detroit congress to unveil the latest Wankel Rotary Engine prototype, the
revolutionary crankless engine which emerged in the 1970s and never really took
off due to issues of high fuel consumption and excessive engine wear which made
the engine unfeasible as a serious business proposition. AVL are no slouches
when it comes to adapting old ideas for new purposes. An AVL spokesman says that
the Wankel engine is ideal as an APU (auxiliary power unit) which generates
electricity and can be ideally integrated into electric cars to recharge the
battery on the go. The AVL Wankel engine would run at a constant speed and only
be used when the battery needs recharging thus fuel consumption would be
optimized. AVL also point out that the small compact size of the Wankel engine
means that there would be far less weight in the vehicle than with traditional
engines and the smaller battery required means further savings as well. Vital to
the recharging process are smart control systems. Micro processors will be able
to tell when the battery needs recharging and so the Wankel engine will only
kick in when it is absolutely needed. The vehicle will drive on an electric
drive train the whole time and the engine simply only generates electricity for
the battery itself. This will extend the longevity of the battery and further
more it means that the driver of the vehicle has more freedom of mobility as
recharging stations are no longer required thus calming any “range anxiety”
which arises when people are scared to drive with an electric vehicle in fear of
not being able to return home again. This concept is known as the EREV or
Extended Range Electric Vehicle and is one favoured by US giants General Motors
(GM). GM spokesperson Britta Gross, said that GM’s Chevrolet VOLT is the result
of extensive market research. “We did our homework on this one and came up with
a car that drives off the battery. In the US, 80% of the journeys are 40 miles
(64 km) or less per day. The Chevrolet or Chevi VOLT has a battery with a range
of 40 miles ensuring 80% emission free driving. We added a range extender so we
get virtually unlimited range taking away the range angst and liberating the
driver and ensuring mobility”. The GM range extender is a compact engine in the
vehicle which is fueled with gasoline requiring minimal amounts of fuel to
generate the necessary electricity required to power the vehicle’s electric
drive train. Britta Gross and her GM team have hit on a massive reality: the USA
is about liberty and having that “Freedom of movement”, to go where I want and
when I want is vital to the American culture. The Chevi VOLT EREV vehicle is
designed to meet the demand of the critical US consumer. “We had very specific
design targets which depend on smart management systems in the car”, explained
Britta Gross. The Chevi VOLT looks like a car, is a car and meets the questions
of the most severe critics. It is a car that liberates mobility and offers an
environmentally friendly solution at the same time.

The EREV concept of which the Chevi VOLT is a fine example,
would also save billions of tax payers’ money in negating the necessity for
recharging infrastructure throughout the road systems. It simply makes sound
refreshing sense and could well impact on the automotive landscape. In
California, the EREV concept is receiving widespread interest, but with a
revolutionary twist. California is focusing on Fuel Cell technology. Fuel Cells
are based on reactions between hydrogen and other elements inside the cars and
these chemical reactions are used to generate the electricity. The advantage of
this concept is that the emissions from the vehicle exhaust are pure H2O water.
Fuel Cell Range Extenders seem like an ideal concept: energy production with
zero pollution. The down side is that hydrogen production and storage is
extremely expensive and problematic. However, it is hoped that within the next
25 years, the issues of hydrogen will be resolved and our cars will be running
around without causing harmful emissions.

Although MAGNA is focusing on an electric battery car, MAGNA
E-Car systems Director Dr Peter Reif confirmed that MAGNA is also looking
closely at the EREV option and developing an alternative range extender to that
offered by Graz rivals AVL. Battery costs are a major hindrance to E-Cars.
Experts at the SAE Congress in Detroit stated that batteries will have to come
down to US$ 300 per kW hour to make them a viable business proposition. The
current cost is around US $ 650-750 and whilst the US Department of Energy
demands that costs come down to US $ 450 by 2015, this is short of what will
make the battery a viable proposition. The challenge for MAGNA to reach a sale
price for the FORD Focus battery electric vehicle that will be affordable and a
desirable consumer commodity will be by no means an easy one to attain. The road
to transportation liberty is going to depend on smart market research,
technological innovation and smart design as the key factors. GM seems to be
ahead of the game on this one, but time will tell who has made the best

By John Morris in Washington DC