Hybrids Face New Competitors

When Americans think of improving fuel economy, they most often think of hybrids. The Toyota Prius has become not just a car but an icon for the environmental set. Engineering types who look at hybrids, though, see a bevy of complicated systems that mean added expense for their companies -- and for the consumer. Because of this, a number of auto manufacturers, Ford Motor Co. prominent among them, are revisiting a technology that had its heyday in the ’70s and early ’80s: turbocharging. But this time there is a twist. With its EcoBoost system, a technology we should see in showrooms in 2009, Ford has added direct injection to the equation. This means that fuel is precisely metered directly into the combustion chamber of the engine, making for better fuel economy and emissions performance.

Turbocharging was typically used in the past to promote performance by boosting horsepower, but durability problems gave turbos a bad rap back in the ’80s. These days, though, the EcoBoost is aimed at enhancing economy, and the technical issues that used to plague turbochargers -- throttle lag and bearing failure -- have been conquered. And just to make certain we don’t see a repeat of the failures of past decades, Ford is putting its new 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 engines through a grueling series of tests.

“EcoBoost was engineered with a relentless, disciplined focus on quality that required a zero-defect mindset from engineers as well as our supplier partners,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president, global product development. “The finished product will represent the best combination of production-ready engine technologies of today, poised and ready to deliver the performance, fuel economy, emission levels and value that customers expect.”

As this is being written, a fleet of direct-injection twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 engines have endured more than 12,000 hours of durability operation in Ford’s Dynamometer Laboratory in Dearborn, Mich., which is equivalent to more than 500,000 miles of customer driving. The Ford testing includes 20 individual dynamometer-level tests designed to push the engine to its limits. The testing protocol is designed to verify the reliability of the complete engine system under maximum engine speeds and loads, coolant and oil temperatures and customer driving patterns.

The Road Cycle Durability test, for example, was created to replicate real-world customer driving and vehicle-maintenance patterns. For this test, engines with EcoBoost technology were subjected to 1,000 cold starts, followed by sustained operation at peak torque of 340 pound-feet and peak power of 340 horsepower -- the kind of punishment an engine will never receive in customer hands. In total, this single test required 1,000 hours of extreme engine operation, representing more than 60,000 miles of customer driving.

The Ford engineering team took extra measures to test the EcoBoost’s durability, creating a subset of checks on the reliability of critical components. As you might expect, at the top of this checklist were the high-pressure direct-injection fuel system and parallel-operating twin turbocharger boost system. It is the pairing of these two technologies that give an EcoBoost engine the ability to perform like a V8 engine while offering the fuel economy associated with a smaller displacement engine like a V6 or even a four cylinder.

“Because the 3.5-liter EcoBoost employs the latest in injection and turbocharger thermal management technologies, our tests have shown that we have effectively eliminated the legacy concerns sometimes associated with these systems, including high-mileage combustion deposits on the injectors and turbo bearing coking,” said Brett Hinds, Ford’s advanced engine design and development manager.

Beyond the dynamometer tests in the laboratory, Ford engineers are completing durability testing with installed EcoBoost engine systems on a mix of products, including the Lincoln MKS and Ford Flex at Ford’s Michigan Proving Ground. There the EcoBoost fleet is being subjected to multiple on-track tests to measure its performance at, for example, high speeds and while towing a trailer. In total, these on-track exercises will rack up the equivalent of another 500,000 miles of customer driving, bringing total durability test miles for the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 fleet to more than one million.

Driving Your Way to Better Fuel Economy

Is your driving style costing you money? Are you sending dollars out the tailpipe without even knowing it? For years experts have been telling us that driving techniques can make a difference, but most are still unaware of the effect they can make in fuel economy -- and in your monthly transportation expenditures. Now, after Ford Motor Company took a long, hard look at the issue, its findings are eye-opening. Fuel economy improvements by as much as 50 percent were noted after typical drivers received training in “eco-driving.”

Eco-driving refers to specific driving behaviors that can improve fuel economy, save money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote safe driving. Ford and Phoenix-based Pro Formance Group teamed up to pilot an eco-driving program for its fleet customers. The program employed certified master trainers to deliver hands-on coaching to maximize mileage in everyday driving. Over a four-day period, Ford and the Pro Formance drivers conducted validation tests using volunteers from Phoenix, who were given individual instruction on specific driving behaviors. The Sports Car Club of America verified the results, which showed an average 24-percent improvement in fuel economy as a result of hands-on eco-driving training. 

Not all drivers were able to achieve those results, however. The 48 drivers who took part in the validation tests saw results ranging from six-percent fuel economy improvement to more than 50 percent, depending on their driving style and ability to master eco-driving behaviors. Eco-driving instructors coached drivers to employ smoother braking and accelerating, monitor their RPMs and drive at a moderate speed -- including driving at 55 mph, instead of 65. Keeping tires properly inflated at the recommended pressure and eliminating prolonged idling were other recommended techniques.  

“By working with Pro Formance to conduct validation testing, Ford is proving that eco-driving techniques are teachable and work across a broad spectrum of vehicles and drivers,” said Drew DeGrassi, president and CEO of Pro Formance Group. “It’s a great initiative for Ford to lead in this country. It’s not the end-all solution for America to obtain energy independence, but it is an important part of it.”

Eco-driving training was launched by Ford in Germany in the 1990s in cooperation with the German Road Safety Council. In the only industry-based drivers’ eco-training course, specially trained and certified instructors run programs for several target groups, including fleet drivers and customers. Several of the master trainers recently traveled to Ford in Dearborn, Mich., to teach the coaching techniques to drivers with the Pro Formance Group. Germany’s eco-driving expertise will help to leverage Ford by developing a pilot program that certifies eco-driving instructors to train Ford’s fleet customers. Hands-on instruction is critical for achieving full potential of eco-driving: Instructors must observe individual driving habits and then customize coaching for more fuel-efficient driving techniques.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the U.S. uses close to 150 billion gallons of gasoline annually. If every American practiced eco-driving and got the EPA-estimated 15-percent benefit in fuel economy, more than 22 billion gallons of gas would be saved.

Ethanol Tries to Ditch Bad Rep

There was a time when renewable fuels like ethanol were considered by environmentalists to be the wave of the future, giving us a literal breath of fresh air. But as the alternative energy scene has evolved in recent years, ethanol has taken a beating. In a cover story, Consumer Reports called it a sham, and studies have been released that offer, at best, contradictory assessments of ethanol. Some of those reports claim it actually requires more energy to derive a gallon of ethanol than the energy that gallon of fuel provides. Meanwhile, some of those who had purchased flex-fuel cars discovered to their disappointment that they were getting fewer miles per tankful, while at the same time, their fuel was costing them more.

This is not to say that ethanol has not had its supporters. In fact, the governors of the Corn Belt states are nearly unanimous in their support of ethanol, and they have been joined by General Motors, which has led the charge for ethanol amidst the auto manufacturers. The past several years have also spawned a number of companies looking to capitalize on the trend to renewable fuels. And though ethanol has taken its shots recently, these companies remain enthusiastic about ethanol’s overall future. Many of them are especially high on cellulosic ethanol production based on nonfood feedstock, and they seek to set the record straight on ethanol’s current and future states, as they see them. Here are some facts and comments on those issues based on information provided by one of those companies, Gulf Ethanol:

  • How much ethanol is produced in the U.S.? According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the U.S. produced 5.4 billion gallons of ethanol in 2007. As of March 2008, U.S. ethanol production capacity was at 7.2 billion gallons, with an additional 6.2 billion gallons of capacity under construction.

  • Will I get lower gas mileage with ethanol-blended fuels than with traditional gasoline? The ethanol blends used today have little impact on fuel economy or vehicle performance. Ethanol has the highest octane rating of any commonly used fuel, but on a gallon-for-gallon basis, ethanol delivers less energy than gasoline. Today's vehicles that are designed to run on gasoline blended with ethanol in small amounts (up to 10 percent) will likely see no perceptible effect on fuel economy. Flex-fuel vehicles designed to run on higher ethanol blends like 85-percent-ethanol E85 experience reduced miles per gallon when using the blended fuel, but these engines can be tuned to minimize the detrimental effects ethanol has on fuel economy by making better use of ethanol’s higher octane rating.

  • Does the U.S. have enough biomass resources to displace petroleum with biofuels without negative impacts to the food supply? A joint study conducted by the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, the Billion Ton Study, estimates that 1.3 billion tons of biomass feedstock is potentially available in the U.S. for the production of biofuels. This is enough biomass feedstock to displace approximately 30 percent of current gasoline consumption on a sustainable basis. The development of technologies to convert cellulosic feedstock (in other words resources neither based on grain nor used for food purposes, such as sorghum, switchgrass, agricultural residues and wood) will make it possible to produce biofuels at levels that could displace 30 percent of gasoline use based on the use of feedstock that is not part of the food chain.

  • Does ethanol require more energy to produce than it delivers as a fuel? Each gallon of corn ethanol produced today delivers as much as 67 percent more energy than is used to produce the ethanol. The amount of energy used to produce corn ethanol has decreased significantly over the last two decades due to improved farming techniques, more efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides, higher-yielding crops, and advances in conversion technologies. Cellulosic ethanol has an even higher energy balance than corn ethanol, delivering four to six times as much energy as is necessary to produce it.

  • Does ethanol result in more or less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline? Ethanol results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. The higher the amount of ethanol blended with gasoline, the lower the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to reduce such emissions by up to 86 percent. Use of ethanol can, however, increase the emissions of some air pollutants due to the fossil energy used for farming and biofuels production. These emissions can be reduced by using improved farming methods and renewable power in the production process.

Hybrids: Stuck in a Rut?

There was a time a couple of years back when the world was gripped in an oil availability crunch and an environmental wave of emotion that vaulted hybrids to the top of the list as a gotta-have-it technology. Gasoline prices had climbed to then-unheard-of levels, and the Toyota Prius -- one of the first hybrids available and the most iconic -- was hailed as not only the answer to the issues of the time but a harbinger of an inexorable trend toward hybrids. Auto journalists around the world applauded Toyota and Honda for their pioneering hybrid efforts while chiding companies like General Motors for lagging the field in this virally important area. Many were convinced that a major switch to hybrids was inevitable.

It just hasn’t happened. Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Nissan have added hybrid models to their lineups, while Toyota and Honda supplemented their first hybrids with additional hybrid models. Chrysler now has a couple of hybrids waiting in the wings, ready for imminent introduction to the marketplace. But if you believed the pundits who said that hybrids were going to take over the world, you were disappointed. Despite the addition of a variety of Toyota and Lexus models, plus hybrid versions of various Saturn, Chevrolet, Mercury, GMC and Nissan models, the Prius still represents about 50 percent of all hybrids sold in the United States, while the rest of the models scrap among themselves for the other 50 percent. In addition, Honda, the company that introduced the first U.S.-available hybrid (the Insight), pulled the plug on that tiny car and additionally on the hybrid version of the Accord. For midsize and larger cars like Accord, Honda seems to feel that clean diesel is a better long-term choice.

You would guess that this era of unprecedented gasoline prices would present an unprecedented opportunity for hybrids to gain the prominence that many predicted for them. But though interest in and sales of hybrids have increased in correlation with the fuel price run-up, hybrids are still a long way from becoming a dominant technology. In fact, one could make the case that they are still a long way from becoming a mainstream technology. For all the media coverage around hybrids, for all the heat they have generated in the marketplace, hybrids are still a niche.

So can hybrids become the dominant vehicle type, or is the technology essentially a flash in the pan? The answer to that question hinges on two things: Can vehicle manufacturers find ways to build hybrid vehicles for virtually the same cost as building conventional vehicles? And/Or can vehicle manufacturers persuade new-vehicle buyers that hybrids are worth the premium they must pay for them?

The answer to the first question seems like a firm no. Even with the potential development of much less expensive batteries, a hybrid drive system as we know it still involves more components that a conventionally powered vehicle, and more components equal more cost. The touted upcoming low-cost hybrid from Honda might change that paradigm, but so far it seems like a given. So the ball lands right in the vehicle marketers’ court. Can they convince new-vehicle buyers that the benefits of hybrids -- significantly increased fuel economy, lower emissions, less use of fossil fuels -- are worth the additional cost that seems inevitable with hybrid technology? To answer that question, we’ll have to wait and see.

Buying a Good Used Car

If there is one thing that makes people more squeamish than getting up to speak in front of a group of people, it is buying a used car. Pass the Maalox, we all could be in for a night full of indigestion and pain. But the fact is some of today’s smartest vehicle shoppers are buying used vehicles that serve them (and their bank accounts) very, very well. Many auto-buying experts agree: There has never been a better time to buy a used car.

There are several factors working in favor of the used-car buyer. The first of these is quality. They say they don't make 'em like they used to? That's correct: They make 'em much better. Today's new vehicles are the best-designed, best-built, most reliable vehicles in history, and that means that today's one-, two-, three- and four-year-old used cars are the best in history as well. Though they are certainly more complicated than the cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s, today's vehicles have staying power. So if you buy a car that is, say, three years old, it should give you a half decade or more of good service. Of course, it will require some preventive maintenance and some repairs, but in terms of cost-effectiveness, it will be about as good as you can get for your transportation dollar.

Depreciation is another key reason that today is a great time to buy a used car. You know what the number one cost of owning a new car is in the first five years of ownership? That's right. Depreciation. You don't write a check for the loss in value your vehicle is suffering every day, and it doesn't show up in your bank statement, but it hits you in the wallet hard. For example, over the course of five years, a new car might drop as much as 60 percent in value. So your spanking new 2008 model year Chariot will be worth only a fraction of its original cost in 2013. What this means is if you buy a three-year-old vehicle, you can avoid a significant amount of depreciation cost, because your initial cost is lower and depreciation slows over time.

One last bit of good news: The increasing popularity of leasing virtually guarantees that there will be a steady supply of high-quality, well-maintained two- and three-year-old cars to choose from when you decide to buy. These days, about one quarter of all new vehicles is leased as is well more than 50 percent of luxury cars. And many brands would love to help you slide your posterior into a formerly leased vehicle, and they will offer you nice incentives to do so.

A wide variety of car manufacturers have put together special programs to add value to their used car offerings in the form of certified used car programs. While plans differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, virtually all of them have strict criteria for vehicles that may be included. Those vehicles are then thoroughly inspected, brought up to specs and backed by a warranty. Special financing deals are also often available.

The Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) coverage usually mimics that of the original new-car warranty, so if you fear buying somebody else's troubles, the plans from a wide variety of manufacturers should alleviate that worry. So look for factory-backed certified vehicle programs, and you might find that your best vehicle value ever is a used car.