Gradually, our car market is embracing pluralism. Cars powered by gasoline, diesel, battery, fuel cell, or hybrid of above are or will soon be available on the market. Manufacturers are rushing to crank out new cars of varieties and the competition to win is unprecedented. Among them, Toyota has been very successful in hybrid car market and occupying over 51 percent of that market is the verdict. In the diesel car territory, it has long been role of the sole pair, say, BLUETEC of Mercedes and TDI of Volkswagen for many years, until some other vendors such as GM and BMW joined the market recently.
And when we talk about the electric cars, there is nothing short of drama-from the first car manufactured in 1898 by the icon performance car company Porsche was electric, then GM killed their EV1 car project and buried their electric cars in Nevada desert almost two decade ago, to the recent big success of Tesla S Model, we see the manufacturers never forget about electric cars and this time it is here to stay. Even the conventional gasoline cars are coming with variation-a version of modified engine to use liquefied natural gas. Honda Civic, for example, has offered such vehicles for years. Some companies even try to design and commercialize garage natural gas liquefaction devices to take advantages of more LNG available on the market due to technology advances to extract shale gas. In fact, such vehicles were popular in Asian countries such as Taiwan when carburetors were still used in car engines. So using LNG as an alternative is not a new technology and has its own history.
Fuel cell battery as the power source of vehicles has been discussed and developed for decades. The technology of fuel cell battery itself is relatively mature and is ready to play its role as an alternative for conventional engines, except that the infra-structure for hydrogen supplies are not there-and in fact still has long way to go. Despite this, Toyota and Hyundai have recently announced that they will offer fuel cell vehicles soon. And if all above mentioned choices are not confusing enough, there are or will soon be hybrid of gasoline and plugin such as VOLT of Chevrolet and even diesel engine and plugin of some models still in concept stage. The market is getting more interesting, as well as more knowledge is needed to make correct choice for your next car purchase.
To help readers make their decision, I need to firstly propose a simple calculation which I hope to serve as a benchmark for easier purchase comparison. To this end, let’s take one hundred thousand miles as the total driving distance you want to keep the car. If the fuel consumption is averaged to be 25 miles per gallon, you will need 4,000 gallons over the years of ownership and the total fuel cost can be easily figure out. So if you decide to buy a car, which may have better mileage, say 40 miles per gallon equivalent, due to hybrid power, you will need 2,500 gallons and a save of 1,500 gallons, which is less than 6,000 dollars in real saving. In other words, 15 miles per gallon better in fuel consumption will save you roughly $5,000 to $6,000, depends on the gas price. Can the saving pay for the premium price of hybrid before reaching one hundred thousand miles? Not all brands with hybrid can reach that goal. Among the variations in BMW’s 3 series, for example, the ActiveHybrid 3 has a premium price of $6,500 over the non-hybrid model 335i. However, fuel consumption of the hybrid model is not 15 miles per gallon better than the non-hybrid model, so the saving in fuel consumption does not pay for the hybrid-but BMW is a brand with performance in mind, which uses hybrid as a way to increase the engine power as well as to save the gas. In fact, the ActiveHybrid model does have 30 more horse power than conventional one, albeit only 5 miles per gallon better in fuel consumption.
Both electric hybrid cars need powerful batteries. Currently, lithium-ion batteries are the favorite option but unfortunately it is still very expensive and as a result, only high price luxury models such as Tesla S Model can afford battery packs with power over 60 kilowatt-hours, which costs from one third to one half of the car’s total price. This is the partial reason why hybrid models are more popular than the fully electric-they use much smaller batteries, say, between 4 to 20 kilowatt-hours aiming to use electric power only for short distance or urban street driving. To avoid the trouble of not having enough recharging stations, these hybrid models use small gasoline engines as a way extend driving range. So far this design has been used in Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet and BMW i3 models. The idea of range extender is a method coming out of desperation due to very high price yet not totally safe nature of the lithium-ion batteries.
For conservative buyers, the safety of using lithium-ion batteries is a concern. Fortunately, there is a way to address to this problem. A new material called STOBA coming out of nanotech is currently used to prevent fire and explosion of lithium-ion batteries. Such batteries are widely used in motorcycles in Taiwan for extensive test.
Even if lithium-ion batteries are safe to be used in vehicles, it is still far away from being cost effective to compete with vehicles with conventional engines. It is, however, very good to be used in high performance, highly priced sports cars. Also, according to my patent application in Light weight passenger vehicle with expandable body size for collision protection, such batteries are perfect for small urban personal transportations which seat the driver and a passenger in tandem. Such kind vehicles have the potential to revolutionize big city’s infra-structure because they can be parked inside condos or apartments due to small size and no emission to pollute the indoor air. Furthermore, such vehicles can be expanded to bigger size when driving on busy street for better collision protection.
Is electric car which draws its power from grid really green? The answer is both yes and no. From the perspective that power grid burns fossil fuels, it is not green at all. But from another perspective we see that, while the recharging of electric car batteries increases the emission at the locations of power plants, these electric cars do not exhaust emission to urban streets, and this alone is already much greener-because by polluting at few locations, it is much easy to control the air pollution, and thus it is not as bad as some people think.
As to the advantages and disadvantages of having a diesel engine in your next car, I already presented my ideas, please click here Fundamentals of Diesel Cars and My BMW X5 SUV.
So if you don’t care any thing other than a reliable transportation, just go for a conventional vehicle. For buyers with most mileage in busy streets, plugin hybrid is your best bet. On the other hand, you should consider diesel power for your next car if you travel a lot of miles on highway, especially when you plan to use your car for relatively long time and much more than one hundred thousand miles-because diesel engine is built to last and mpg rating is roughly 30 percent better. If you like a reliable hybrid with medium price, there are models available from most big manufacturers such as Toyota Prius. In case you like to own an electric car and are thinking about buying second car for fun and lucky to have a deep pocket, then Tesla or BMW have models for you. Please wait a little bit; fuel cell cars are coming for those who are brave enough to try brand new species. To make your selection an easier task, please use the benchmark mentioned above to compare the costs of vehicle usage such as fuel consumption, repair, trade in value and also the battery replacements.