Greener Vehicles Possible Now

Roland Piquepaille’s Technology Trends, in his post “Super-green minivans possible today,” picks up on a Mercury News story that discusses what amounts to a low-emissions minivan, one that meets the stringent California requirements for 2016. Except this car hasn’t been built yet:

According to the Mercury News, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has designed a super-green minivan. The Vanguard is a vehicle concept that could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent and exceed California’s 2016 global warming standards. This minivan, which only exists as a computer simulation, would use existing technologies and could run on a gasoline-ethanol blend. Such a vehicle would only “cost $300 more than one of today’s minivans, but it would save an owner $1,300 over the lifetime of the vehicle.” Of course, as UCS is not a car maker, it’s hard to know if such a concept will really be used by the automotive industry….

While the Vanguard concept has been only really applied to the design of a minivan, its features can also be used in other vehicle classes to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40 percent. Below is a picture showing three classes of vehicles and the reduction of global warming pollutants which could be obtained. From top to bottom are a minivan, a compact pickup truck and a large truck.

It’s going to be interesting to see whether this story is picked up and how it is spun. The issue isn’t whether the minivan and its cousins will work. I guarantee you that MIT students could fabricate the vehicle in a month.

The important thing about these computer designs is that they throw the gauntlet down to the auto industry and show by making use of technology already in use, they could produce much more fuel efficient cars, even in large sizes.

However, note the question is not really making the new computer model into a car. The car is a proof that you can do a lot more with what you have. If the auto industry can’t (or won’t) produce something like the proposed vehicle, they probably could ascertain which established emission-reducing technologies have the biggest bang for the buck, and start incorporating them.

But the weak point of the scientists’ argument is focusing on a particular design and suggesting pricing. Anyone who has looked at new tech products will tell you that assumptions about scale economies in manufacturing are pretty speculative. If they choose to, the carmakers could easily raise doubts about the Union of Concerned Scientists’ cost assumptions, and use that to discredit the underlying premise.

The reason I am skeptical about Detroit’s willingness to make a sincere effort to advance new energy-efficient technologies is that I did some work on advanced batteries many years ago (California and 11 Northeastern states had set a target that a certain percentage of autos sold had to be zero emission, meaning battery driven). Now the legislation was poorly conceived (how do you mandate sales mix?). But it was also clear in dealing with the automakers (and I was working with a potential investor, mind you, we had not drunk the Kool Aid) that although they were spending a good deal of money on research and prototypes, it was simply to stave off criticism. Their real investment of energy (no pun intended) was in killing the legislative initiatives, which they did.

But if stories like this don’t reach a broader audience, they won’t even have to go that far.

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