It does not matter whether the car of the future is going to fly or run along a type of track set in the road, the key problem is the nature of the fuel it burns to produce motion. Needless to say, today’s manufacturers cannot agree and are placing their bets on different fuels and different technologies to exploit it. In all this, the most interesting fact is that none of the manufacturers are prepared to write off the gas-burning engine. They all agree it’s going to be around for years to come.
Chrysler is looking at trying to reintroduce diesel to the US market while working on plug-in hybrids. Ford is developing a range of electric vehicles plus what it calls the EcoBoost engine (always look for the environmentally friendly name). This combines fuel injection, variable valve timing, and turbocharging to get more power out of less fuel. General Motors is also working hard on electric technology while pushing its Ecotec engine.
If we assume there’s no one technical solution that’s going to dominate the green market over the next decade, this leaves us with the internal combustion engine plus one or more of the following possibilities.
1. Ethanol, more commonly called E85 or Flex Fuel was supposed to provide commercially satisfying market opportunities for the farming industry and relieve some of the dependence on crude oil. Unfortunately, consumers lost enthusiasm once they realized the poor mile-per-gallon performance it delivers. This “great idea” has also taken a considerable amount of corn out of the food chain and so driven up the cost of food as demand now outstrips supply.
2. Diesel remains unpopular in America despite the significantly better fuel economy and better torque at the low end. It seems our drivers look for performance which, in general terms, means a gas engine. Nevertheless, both GM and Chrysler have diesel models and are predicting the market for diesel vehicles will grow from its current 3% to 10% of total sales over the next five years.
3. Compressed natural gas, which is mostly methane, is moving out of the commercial vehicle market with the major US manufacturers offering both dedicated and bi-fuel models in areas where there’s an infrastructure of places selling the gas. In terms of emissions, CNG is the best performer. There’s also a plentiful supply — enough to last for at least one-hundred years which gives us plenty of time to develop alternative fuel technology.
4. Electricity has not proved as popular as predicted. This is due to the relatively poor performance of the batteries and the lack of a proper infrastructure for recharging. All manufacturers are producing all-electric vehicles to comply with federal and state laws, but it’s going to be some years before all-electric vehicles become sufficiently efficient to gain market acceptance.