Recent motor shows show a small number of emerging trends that will give very few benefits. The most overhyped theme is hydrogen fuel while truly useful features, including better steering and bigger doors, are hidden behind the gloss. Avoid the junk over the next five years and get read for some real improvements in car design after 2010.
All the recent motor shows show a small number of emerging trends that will cost you money and give very few benefits. Some trends will eventually be useful. Avoid the junk over the next five years and get read for some real improvements in car design after 2010.
The common themes are hydrogen fuel, better steering in tight spaces, and cars that have bigger doors.
Hydrogen produces very little power which is the reason we use carbon for fuel. The lack of power makes hydrogen an alternative to safe, clean, pollution free electric cars but not an alternative to carbon based cars.
Carbon provides the grunt power for heavy loads and long distances. Hydrogen might survive as a fuel for driving short distances in crowded cities but electric cars are already doing a better job in that market. Hydrogen is promoted for suburban driving but hybrid petrol/electric cars are already doing a better job in that market.
I live in Australia. Australia is hot and we drive long distances. Most of the cars sold in Australia are designed for driving short distances in the cold. Both batteries and hydrogen work for short distances. Hydrogen has just one advantage over batteries and that is sustained performance in cold weather where batteries lose power. Hydrogen makes sense for northern Japan, Korea, and Scandinavia.
For Australia the lost of battery power in cold weather is only relevant to the vehicles we send to our research stations in Antarctica. Hybrid petrol/electric cars work over our long distances. Hydrogen has no advantages in Australia and has lots of disadvantages. Expect the hydrogen car to get lots of sales here among the fashion victims and expect most of the "hydrogen powered" cars to use more electricity and carbon than hydrogen.
The world's worst polluting petroleum products contain some hydrogen. The hydrogen makes those fuels liquid instead of solid black coal. If governments let you sell hydrocarbons as
hydrogen based fuel then all liquid fuels can be called hydrogen fuels. When you are driving a big fat heavy gas guzzling American car, start talking about the car's
hydrogen based fuel.
Hydrogen has to come from somewhere. You need power to produce hydrogen. Where will all that power come from?
Fuel cells convert fuel to electricity and gas at room temperatures. You can plug a fuel cell in to your notebook computer and use the notebook continuously on a 35 hour flight from Tasmania to Scotland. Every few hours you pour in a little more fuel. The fuel can be vodka; which is readily available on most airplanes and is usually tax free. Those fuel cells are often sold by marketing people as
hydrogen fuel cells.
Real hydrogen fuel cells use pure hydrogen and the only country currently implementing pure hydrogen is Germany. Germany does not state the source of the electricity used to create the hydrogen.
Marketing people often use
hydrogen fuel cell and
fuel cell together when talking about hydrocarbon fuel cells which convert both hydrogen and carbon to electricity. Some of the hydrocarbon fuel cells use the high energy of the carbon atoms to strip oxygen from hydrogen in water, giving you a pure supply of hydrogen for a hydrogen fuel cell. You feed in a mix of hydrocarbon and water. The first stage of the hydrocarbon fuel cell produces carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The second stage mixes the hydrogen with oxygen and produces water plus electricity.
The fuel for current fuel cells is alcohol. Common vodka is 40 percent alcohol. The fuel cell converts the carbon from the alcohol in to power. The hydrogen in the alcohol makes the alcohol liquid at low temperatures and provides a token extra dash of power. Unfortunately alcohol has too much hydrogen to remain liquid in the heat of Australia which means the alcohol will have to be mixed with, or replaced by, a heavier liquid. The water in alcohol helps the alcohol remain liquid at slightly higher temperatures but not high enough for use in cars.
Hydrogen fuel calls are impractical unless you have very high pressure storage for the hydrogen and high pressure tanks are not allowed in airplanes. They can be used in cars but the addition of small amounts of carbon is far easier and safer than those high pressure tanks. Expect the fuel cell industry to push dual carbon/hydrogen fuel cells and to hide the fact that they are hydrocarbon fuel cells. Expect the suppliers of hydrocarbons to start selling
hydrogen fuel that is liquid at room temperature without pressure.
Nuclear power plants can feed electricity direct in to electric cars. If that electricity is diverted in to hydrogen powered cars then the electricity has to go a factory that produces hydrogen. The factory will be waste most of the electricity producing hydrogen. You then have to transport the hydrogen to the refuelling stations where you will waste more power compressing the hydrogen in to the heavy expensive hydrogen storage tanks.
If you feed nuclear power direct in to electric cars then there is no conversion loss and much less transport loss. Customers can recharge at normal food and shopping stops instead of special hydrogen refuelling stations. Batteries weigh the same or less than hydrogen storage tanks. You can recharge a battery at every stop which means you can use batteries that are much smaller and lighter than the huge heavy hydrogen tanks.
Plants produce lots of liquids containing hydrogen. Can we use those liquids as hydrogen sources? Yes. We already use alcohol from plants as fuel.
Most of the "hydrogen based" fuels from plants are standard everyday hydrocarbons the same as petroleum. All the fuels contain carbon. All the fuels produce carbon dioxide when used. The difference with using plants is that the plants take as much carbon dioxide from the air as they place back in the air. If we use plant based fuels then we maintain a carbon balance.
Those lovely aromatic oils we extract from plants are all hydrocarbons. You could use a $500 drop of rose oil to fuel your notebook computer for a few minutes. Your $88,698.90 bottle of Gianni Vive Sulman Parfum VI could seduce a beautiful woman for the night or propel your fuel cell car for 20 seconds.
In cold climates you can use a variety of common methods to convert plants in to a clean fuel named alcohol. In hot climates you need something heavier and oil from plant seeds converts easily in to bio diesel which works in cars and trucks during extreme hot weather. If your climate is somewhere in between hot and cold, simply mix bio diesel with alcohol.
Hydrogen hates to be stored. Hydrogen atoms do not stick to neighbouring hydrogen atoms without intense pressure and extreme cold. You cannot safely maintain the extreme cold in a car or the intense pressure in a crash. How do you store hydrogen?
One way is to add an absorbent material to hydrogen tanks. This makes hydrogen tanks almost exactly the same as conventional car batteries and is one reason why batteries are better than hydrogen.
The easiest way to store lots of hydrogen is to add some carbon atoms. The carbon atoms link up the hydrogen atoms in dense liquids that are easy to store in small light weight tanks. The carbon atoms also provide far more power than the hydrogen atoms which means you use far less fuel. This is why we currently use carbon based fuels.
Some of the
hydrogen fuel cells are actually carbon/hydrogen hybrid cells that process carbon to provide power and process hydrogen so they can be labelled Green. The extreme pressure and expensive absorbent materials used in hydrogen storage tanks makes them no more green than the better choices from modern batteries. The addition of some carbon to the fuel suddenly makes the storage problem go away.
One consistent problem with modern cars is there large turning circle which means you cannot turn easily on narrow roads or park in difficult spaces. Most modern cars use front wheel drive which means the power has to go through flexible shafts to the front wheels. Those flexible shafts are not flexible enough to let your car turn in a small space.
One reason I have not traded my twenty year old car in for a shiny new car is that I cannot find a well designed modern car with a small turning circle. My car can turn inside 10 metres which lets me turn out of my house on to the local road using only one lane of the road. The closest modern equivalent car has a turning circle of over 11.5 metres. That extra 1.5 metres means I my car would need two lanes of the road to complete the turn. I would have to wait for both lanes of traffic to be empty before driving out on to the road. I can give numerous other examples of occasions when I was able to drive my car somewhere where an equivalent sized modern car can not go.
Toyota's Fine-X show car shows the way for the future. The Fine-X does what I suggested back in the 1980s before the technology was ready. The Fine-X bypasses the petrol/electric hybrid and goes straight to the type of system called diesel electric when used on trains. Instead of using an electric motor to supplement the diesel or petrol motor, you commit the engine to generating electric power. You place an electric motor on each wheel and drive the electric motors from a mixture of power sources and batteries.
When you have an independent electric motor on every wheel, you can turn all the wheels to get faster tighter steering. You can turn all the wheels at one and you can turn every wheel further than you can with standard mechanical drive systems. Your car should be able to turn within it's own length. You can park in the spaces that other people envy.
The diesel electric approach has several advantages. You do not have to use diesel. Diesel is great in Europe where it is common and cheap. In Australia diesel is common in the country but not common in the city. In Australia diesel is far more expensive than conventional petrol. If you disconnect the hydrocarbon power source from the wheels then you can use any power source or even multiple power sources. You could have a small diesel engine next to a small petrol engine.
The important part of diesel electric is the electric part which means you can use batteries and you can recharge the batteries using power generated from braking. The batteries provide the peak power which means you need only a small petrol engine to charge the batteries while you are cruising along or stopped at the traffic lights. You can top up the batteries with cheap off peak electricity while at home.
Australia and some other countries have cheap off peak electric power but do not have provision for charging electric cars. The power companies should start now with off peak charging systems. Have one power socket in the garage connected to the off peak system so that people start buying electric cars. People will top up their hybrid cars today and move to full electric as batteries are improved.
The full electric car gives you all the advantages of all wheel drive, all the advantages of hybrid power systems, and lets you turn in to spaces where no one else can go.
Cars are getting smaller which means smaller doors. People are becoming older which means they need bigger doors. The only alternative today is to stop buying cars and by the type of vehicle called a 4WD in Australia and an SUV in America. Car makers are experimenting with sliding doors and dual opening doors where the front and back doors both open from the middle of the car. Both types of doors will become more common because people are getting less room to open their doors.
I tried to park an average size car in the garage of a modern building and found the garage to be a tiny size suitable only for a 1940s style Morris Minor. If the car had sliding doors then I could get in and out of the car without having to breath out. Using that car in that garage would be practical instead of an extreme Yoga session.
The move to bigger doors is accompanied by a move to make the top of the doorway higher and squarer so that you can get your head out of the doorway without concussion or a visit to the chiropractor. Modern diets include more dairy products which means taller people. Up until this year only Mercedes made tall small cars. A couple of years ago Toyota made their Camry a token two centimetres taller. This year they released the Kluger which shared most components with the Camry and is another few centimetres taller.
In the future the Japanese manufacturers will all have small cars that are tall. The Toyota Fine-X has an almost square doorway to give you better head room. They choose an attention grabbing gull-wing doors but the same body shape would make a fin match for sliding doors.
Expect the Europeans to copy the Japanese in a couple of years and the Americans to copy the Europeans several years later. In fact the only hope among American cars is the German owned Chrysler who managed to repackage the headbangingly short Neon as the acceptable PT Cruiser before the Germans stormed Chrysler's board room.
Expect more clones of the Mercedes A series and M series. Expect cars with shorter fronts, shorter backs, and longer middles with wider doors. Expect sliding doors to jump from a few rare people movers and some vans to the everyday car.