Great auto fuel debate looms

It is said the Chinese have a curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Someone must have expressed a similar wish for the automobile industry, for the times we live in are certainly interesting — to say the least.

As we enter a new decade, there are lots and lots of questions for the industry to address — and the past doesn’t seem to be as rich a mine of answers, or even clues to answers, as it used to be. The economic and financial issues that burst the world’s bubble of complacency haven’t been entirely settled yet and they have a direct effect on the automobile industry — itself a most important component in the world economy.

One fundamental question is that of what exactly is going to fuel the vehicles of the future. Not long ago, in North America, cars and trucks ran on gasoline. Period. OK, there were some heavy-duty pickups and the occasional VW using diesel, but gasoline was the lifeblood of the automobile world. Two separate situations combined to effect some big changes.

As belief grew that human activity affects the climate and the United States began to realize that much of the world’s oil was controlled by people who weren’t necessarily their friends, a search for solutions began.

Technology that would have been impossible even a few years ago because of the limited computing power then available, brought remarkable new efficiencies to bear.

Variable valve timing, direct fuel injection, cylinder deactivation and a new generation of transmissions accomplished the almost unimaginable by both increasing power and reducing fuel consumption, but cars still burned gas and that, for some, was what needed to change.

When two major lobby groups come together on an issue, one thing is for sure. The taxpayer is going to have to come up with some dough.

This was the case when the environmentalists, the agriculture lobby and the decrease-foreign-oil enthusiasts all got behind ethanol. Ethanol is alcohol, and it burns more cleanly than fossil fuels. It can be made from corn, domestically grown corn. What could be better than that?

Except, ethanol doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of energy in it as gasoline. That means you have to burn more of it. There is also the question of whether it makes sense to take food-growing land out of production to make something to burn.

There are other ways to make ethanol, using fibre from agricultural or lumbering sources that would otherwise be wasted, but fans of those processes don’t have anywhere near the funding or political clout of the friends of the government-subsidized corn growers.

Diesel engines have dominated European roads for decades, thanks to tax policies that made diesel about half as expensive as gasoline in some countries — although still pretty pricey to North American eyes — and the tendency of diesels to use less fuel than gas engines.

North American diesel had long had a very high sulphur content, which made it difficult to adapt European diesel technology.

A significant number of American states, adding up to a large percentage of the total auto market, had pollution legislation in place that was so strict that not even European vehicles could pass.

Government-mandated changes industry at the turning point in the composition of diesel fuel went a long way toward making diesel power, and its superior fuel consumption rate, a possible future option for North American vehicles.

There is also bio-diesel, which is created from plant waste. Diesels can even run on waste cooking oil, although this can leave passersby with a terrible craving for french fries.

The trouble with diesel engines, for those who believe in greenhouse gases, is that they still involve combustion — and that means they have exhaust.

To move past this, designers began to look again at a technology that was a competitor to gasoline in the earliest days of the auto industry — electricity.

The thing about electric vehicles was always that they needed hundreds and hundreds of pounds of batteries.

Big, heavy batteries that didn’t leave a lot of room for people or stuff and ran out of charge pretty quickly.

New battery technology has eased the space problem and hybrid technology addresses the question of range.

This new technology, though, depends on batteries made with rare earths — 97 per cent of which are mined in China, and China just cut back their exports.

The real problem for manufacturers is that all the changes in the industry are being driven by decisions made by governments, not the market.

Would they be making dual-fuel vehicles that can burn either ethanol or gasoline if they didn’t have to? Probably not.

The industry’s concentration on electric vehicles has been blamed on American state governments that make it compulsory for companies wanting to sell any cars in their jurisdiction to offer an electric option. That isn’t exactly what their laws say, but that’s what they mean.

North American manufacturers are facing mandated fuel consumption standards that will require a 25 per cent improvement in light truck mileage by 2016.

Light trucks accounted for half of all U.S. passenger vehicle sales this year.

North American manufacturers make almost all those trucks and that segment accounts for almost all their profits. Trucks will have to be lighter. Can lighter trucks do the work they have always done, or will companies have to invest in very expensive new alloys? Toyota and Nissan could get by without their truck lines. Ford, GM and Chrysler’s Ram division can’t.

It is a vexing time to be in the business of making cars, or laws. Automobile-related industry is the most important part of the North American, and possibly the world, economy.

Without it, millions of people would be out of work. At the same time, there are large constituencies that see automotive emissions as a major environmental problem and want to reduce or eliminate American dependence on foreign oil.

Both the automakers and governments have to get this stuff right — the future depends on it.

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