Carley’s Corner: Future Shock

Carley’s Corner: Future Shock

Back in the 1970s when I was an impressionable young college kid, I read a book called Future Shock by Alvin Toffler (it was required reading for an Anthropology class). The book accurately predicted many of the changes we are experiencing today. Essentially, Future Shock is “too much change in too short a period of time.” The rapid pace of change overwhelms people as they struggle to keep up with “information overload” (another term coined by Toffler).

With that said, consider this: According to a recent study by the IBM Institute for Business Value, all cars will be hybrids of one type or another by 2020. The next 10 years will see more changes in automotive technology than the past half century!

Anyone who is in the auto repair business today will be seeing more and more hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrid electrics and pure electric vehicles as we move forward. Though most new hybrids come with extended factory warranties of up to 10 years or 150,000 miles, these warranties only cover the major hybrid components, not the entire vehicle. And eventually, even the hybrid components will come out of warranty. Currently, hybrids only account for about 3% of the U.S. car population. But those percentages are predicted to grow at double-digit rates in the years ahead in spite of the current economic recession. Why? Because the current slump in auto sales (which is good for the aftermarket repair business) is generating pent-up demand that will eventually boost new car auto sales as time goes on. As long as people keep driving, their vehicles will continue to wear out.

In 2008, Toyota sold more than 150,000 Prius hybrids in the U.S. The next best-selling hybrid was the Honda Civic (30,000+ cars). Ford sold more than 18,000 Escape and Mariner hybrids. California currently has the most registered hybrids of any state (40,000+). Nationwide, there are more than 1.5 million hybrids on the road.

The Global Hybrid Car Market Forecast for 2010 predicts U.S. hybrid sales should surpass 1 million vehicles a year for the first time. The demand for hybrids will obviously depend on fuel prices and the economy, but if fuel prices go back up and economic conditions improve, sales are expected to grow 12% a year or more through 2015.

People who say hybrids are too expensive and don’t make economic sense apparently haven’t talked to people who drove hybrids when gas was $4 a gallon. The fuel savings provided by the hybrid powertrain paid for the extra initial cost in a year or less. With gas back down to less than $2 a gallon (for now), a two-year payback is still quite reasonable.

The next big change that’s coming in 2010 and beyond is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Chevrolet will be leading the charge with their new Volt model, which can reportedly travel up to 40 miles in pure electric mode for urban commuting. Toyota hasn’t said when it will start selling a plug-in version of the Prius, but prototypes and aftermarket conversions show the conversion can deliver even greater fuel economy.

The only thing holding back a large-scale hybrid revolution is the battery bottleneck. Sanyo and Panasonic are the main suppliers of hybrid battery technology. Sanyo supplies the high voltage hybrid batteries for the Honda, Ford and Mazda hybrids, while Panasonic supplies the batteries for Toyota and Chrysler hybrids. The only U.S. hybrid battery manufacturer is currently Cobasys, which makes the high voltage batteries for Saturn VUE, Saturn Aura and Chevy Malibu hybrid models. Unfortunately, Cobasys has had some quality problems and had to recall 9,000 of its Saturn hybrid batteries because of leakage and failure issues. Limited battery production capacity will limit the production of Chevy’s Volt to no more than 10,000 units when it finally hits dealer showrooms in late 2010 as a 2011 model. But as time goes on and manufacturing capacity improves, Chevy predicts sales will grow.

Other vehicle manufacturers are also introducing new plug-in hybrids as well as pure electric vehicles. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mercedes unveiled its BlueZero E-Cell PHEV that will go on sale in 2012. The new Mercedes plug-in electric will have a range of up to 60 miles in electric mode.

In Europe, Renault unveiled two new pure electric vehicles at the Paris Auto Show that will go on sale in 2011. Renault says electric commuter cars could easily capture as much as 15% of the European car market by 2015.

The world’s first mass-produced plug-in electric car is already in production in China. Made by BYD Company and backed by billionaire Warren Buffet, the commuter car has a range of up to 62 miles. The company hopes to sell 180,000 of these cars in its own domestic market in 2009, and then start exporting the cars to the U.S. in 2011.

Nobody argues with the fact that pure electric vehicles are cheap to operate, but some wonder where all the power will come from to power these vehicles. According to a recent Pacific Northwest Laboratory study, there is ample off-peak generating capacity in the U.S. now to power as many as 73% of all the cars on the road today if they were replaced with plug-in electric or pure electric vehicles. Such a move could cut our demand for oil in half!

Even more exciting is the concept of traffic providing its own power source. An Israeli company called Innowattech has developed piezoelectric generators that can be embedded in road surfaces to generate electric power from the vehicles passing over it. Piezoelectric crystals create electric current when they are subjected to pressure, mechanical motion or vibration. A highway fitted with piezoelectric generators could generate about 400 kilowatts of power per kilometer, the company says. The power could be used for roadside lighting, fed back into the power grid or used to power about eight EV vehicles. Roads that generate their own electricity could revolutionize how power is generated and used. There’s certainly no shortage of traffic in most urban areas, and the heavier the traffic, the better if this scheme pans out.

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