General Motors says they’re committed to ‘diversifying away from petroleum.’ That sounds like something President Bush would say, but reducing our nation’s dependence on oil was a message repeatedly proffered to me by GM officials throughout the course of the auto show. I’m calling it GM’s grand vision for U.S. transportation energy independence, they call it their ‘Advanced Propulsion Roadmap.’ Either way, GM plans to implement this by investing in a range of new and diverse technologies. It looks something like this:
Increasing Engine Efficiency
The first step is to increase vehicle efficiency and improve emissions by continued advances to the internal combustion engine (ICE). Believe it or not the ICE is still a work in progress. Take ‘cylinder deactivation’ for example, which drops a V6 to a V4 when the extra capacity is unnecessary. One potentially notable technology coming out of the auto show was Ford’s ‘Ecoboost’, which uses gasoline-turbocharged-direct-injection (GTDI) technology to increase fuel efficiency up to 20%. These are diesel engine principles—which are typically 30% more efficient—now being applied to gas models.
Everyone loves new technology, but what about a most basic consideration: vehicle size? This doesn’t seem to be on the radar for several auto manufacturers. It’s not listed on GM’s chart either, even though the Hummer brand announced it will be following that trend (see earlier post on the ‘2nd Greenest Hummer on Earth’).
GM is convinced they’re on the right track with a massive hybrid lineup, bringing us to the next bubble in the cart. I mean massive both in size and scale, since GM will be rolling out a hybrid vehicle every three months for the next four years, and massive in the sense that they’ve installed hybrid systems in some of their largest vehicles, like the Cadillac Escalade.
It seems a little contradictory, but GM doesn’t think so. I spoke with Micky Bly, GM’s director for Global Hybrids, and he said installing hybrid systems in these vehicles achieves a 50% improvement in fuel efficiency. Going from 15 to 22 mpg may not seem like a big step forward when compared to the 55 mpg of the Prius, but on the other hand it could be considered low-hanging fruit since their conversion will save a considerable amount of fuel in the most conspicuous of gas-guzzlers.
But GM doesn’t think the answer will come from fuel economy increases, like the new CAFE standards requiring averages of 35 mpg. Rick Wagoner, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, highlighted in his opening speech that we’ll need 70% more energy by 2050, which means that even with increased fuel efficiency we’ll still be using more petroleum than we are now.
Which underscores GM’s plans for the immediate future: petroleum substitution
Flex Fuel Vehicles
Considering GM’s announcement, and the recently passed mandates present in the new Renewable Fuel Standard, it looks like FlexFuel technology combined with cellulosic or Coskata-type ethanol will be the order of the day. GM is still saying that 50% of their fleet will be FlexFuel by 2012, and if Coskata delivers on ramped up ethanol production, they may have something viable to fuel them with by the end of next year.
Electric Vehicles (E-Flex)
Further into the future, GM will release E-Flex architecture-type vehicles like the Chevy Volt and the Saturn Vue, both electric plug-in vehicles supplemented by small gas generators. The Volt is scheduled for release in 2010, and if GM can’t deliver they may be beaten to the punch by Toyota who also announced a plug-in hybrid for the same year.
Hydrogen and Fuel Cells
There were several hydrogen and fuel-cell powered vehicle debuts this year as well, including the Cadillac Provoq and the Chrysler ecoVoyager. This technology is still a long ways off, but continued advances could some day make it viable.
Ask GM which technology is going to win the battle for reducing our oil dependence, and they’ll say they honestly don’t know. It’s more organized than throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, but it’s hard to say which research will really pay off for them.
GM isn’t the only car manufacturer to have such a strategy. Nissan’s display had a similar graph displayed in their section of the auto show, and you can be sure that Toyota also sees the writing on the wall: it’s high-time time we ‘diversified away from petroleum.’
Photo Credit: General Motors