Each year, I survey the hot automotive news to inform you about what is most compelling or most oft-reported. This year, it seems to break down to fuel-related news and technology changes. The third most popular stories seem to involve metals and materials, but even they are fuel-related.
What keeps our cars moving is a constant topic of discussion. With CAFÉ standards driving more efficient propulsion technologies, a variety of options seem to be on the table. These include natural gas, electric, diesel and even hydrogen.
Will more cars be electric in the future? Tesla seems to think so. They just announced the GigaFactory, which will produce lithium batteries. In fact, as many as 500,000 lithium-ion battery packs will be able to be produced annually by 2020. Given that a high of only 100,000 all-electric vehicles were sold in 2013, they are obviously banking on market growth.
But where will they get the lithium? The Energy Department rates lithium supplies at “near-critical risk” between now and 2025. Projects are being developed to return the U.S. to global-supplier status. As recently as the late 1990s, the U.S. produced 75% of the global supply of lithium. The challenge is that environmental activists who want us to draw our power from the wind and sun are opposed to producing the metals necessary to capture and use this alternative energy.
Infrastructure limits development and adoption of alternative-energy vehicles. Natural gas is one option to replace gasoline in automobiles. GM announced that it will be producing a bi-fuel Chevrolet Impala sedan that can operate on either gasoline or compressed natural gas (CNG). It is expected to go on sale this summer as a 2015 model.
An outside-the-box option being tried by several manufacturers is hydrogen. Infrastructure will certainly be a limiting factor because hydrogen is tough to transport and store. Hyundai has produced the Tucson in a fuel-cell model, which is available in showrooms right now. Honda and Toyota will have production models available sometime in 2015.
One of the early moves to reduce the consumption of gasoline was adding biofuels to our gas. Targets were established, but because our fuel consumption has decreased, less ethanol is being used and the legislated targets cannot be met. This has created a push to increase the ethanol blend in our fuels to 15% from 10%. Doing so could destroy about two-thirds of the cars currently on the road. It appears that the EPA is working on a proposal to reduce the federally mandated ethanol content in the U.S. fuel supply to prevent this from happening.
Technology is changing how our cars look and eventually how they drive (themselves). A Carnegie Mellon University professor believes that autonomous operation is not really that far away. After all, we have speed control, automatic braking, parallel parking and lane-departure systems. How far off is a driverless vehicle? Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) wireless systems are being tested to allow cars to “talk” to each other, which will speed up the adoption of various autonomous systems. Navigant Research believes that 75% of vehicles sold worldwide by 2035 will have autonomous features.
The discussion of big-picture tech changes causes us to consider how tech tweaks will affect what we drive in the near future. As some of the technology we already mentioned becomes cheaper, the following will likely be on your next new car: collision warning with automatic braking, advanced cameras, lane centering and adaptive headlights. The Ford Fusion SE already has the lane-keeping and centering options available for $1,200.
With new technology coming, some of what we are familiar with in our cars will be a thing of the past. Let’s take a look at a few of the items that will be no more in that next new car. With the development of highly efficient automatic transmissions, the manual transmission will go the way of the buggy whip. The mechanical parking brake and keys will be no more, and you won’t find a spare tire. We understand that a tire-inflation kit will replace it. Ashtrays are a thing of the past with USB ports and auxiliary power occupying that space. The CD player will be a relic just like its predecessor, the cassette tape. The number of vehicles that include a CD player dropped 75% in 2013. And, finally, the front bench seat is no longer offered in passenger cars.
The rest of the story seems to center around lightweighting of vehicles through materials technology. You probably know about the aluminum usage in the F-150 and many other production vehicles. Magnesium will also be incorporated where it can as well as composites as costs come down. It’s all about fuel economy, and your next car – regardless of its size – will be more fuel efficient. IH