Hybrid Hype

In response to lower gasoline prices, the sales of many gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles have slowed. Across the country, dealers in many areas are advertising hybrids for immediate delivery at no premium over sticker price. Does that mean the bloom is off the hybrid rose?

Not according to a new study from the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based market research firm. That organization predicts worldwide demand for hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs) will advance rapidly to 3.9 million units in 2015, and it will nearly double that number by 2020. Hybrids are expected to penetrate the world light vehicle market quickly in response to rising energy demand, which in turn has led to erratic fuel prices and increased emissions regulations worldwide.

One thing that has stood in the way of hybrid growth is the premium prices the cars command over similar vehicles in the marketplace, but the study projects those premiums will lessen. As the Freedonia Group said, "Cost disparities between HEVs and conventional light vehicles -- currently estimated at between $1,000 and $3,000 -- are expected to decline as production volumes increase."

Hybrids certainly got a boost at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show when Rick Wagoner, General Motors Chairman, said his company was going to make a strong push to develop and market what he called "electrically driven vehicles," a category that includes hybrids. That means the same corporation that was indicted by the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" now is expected to become a leading light in moving electric vehicles forward. As proof in the pudding, Wagoner vowed GM would introduce a plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn VUE SUV, though he declined to give a date for the debut.

The Freedonia Group study predicted that the primary markets for hybrids will remain the Triad countries (i.e., the U.S., Western Europe and Japan), although the rapidly growing Chinese market is also expected to experience relatively strong demand for these fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles. Within the Triad, the U.S. market is expected to experience the highest levels of demand for HEVs, due to erratic fuel costs, the market's unique government-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements and the lack of significant demand for diesel-powered light vehicles beyond the full-size truck and sport utility vehicle categories.

Despite being less cost-effective than conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, the study said, HEVs have carved out a niche in the U.S. as a "carbon neutral" enabling technology. This niche in part appears to be animated by the extra cost associated with the vehicles, especially regarding HEVs that are both uniquely styled and focused on delivering superior fuel economy. On the other hand, recent attempts by some OEMs to position hybrids as high performance alternatives to conventional gasoline-powered vehicles stalled, due to unfavorable price/benefit levels.

Demand for HEVs in Europe, where overall diesel light vehicle demand has already reached 50 percent of the total market, is expected to be significantly lower than in the U.S. Japan will see increased demand for hybrids going forward, as government agencies and allied associations continue to put tax and other incentives in place to stimulate demand. Elsewhere in the Asia/Pacific region, both China and South Korea are expected to be strong HEV markets, due to government interest in dealing with mobile emissions (China), and because local production is planned (both China and South Korea). Other regions of the world will experience lower hybrid demand.

Based in Cleveland, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes on a wide variety of auto-related issues, including safety and the environment.

Feeling Under Pressure?

If you plan to buy a new 2008 vehicle you will find it equipped with a new feature that could save gasoline and, more importantly, save lives. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), enforcing the provision of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, has required any vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating less than 10,000 pounds sold on or after September 1, 2007, must be equipped with a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS). Many manufacturers are getting the jump on this regulation by installing the systems in the 2007 model year vehicles that are on sale right now.

Tire pressure monitoring systems are designed to alert the driver if the air pressure in one or more of their tires requires attention. What this means for consumers is that their vehicle will help them pay attention to their tires, which is a good thing. Improperly inflated tires not only reduce fuel economy and tire life, they can also compromise handling and safety, as we have found with the rash of single-vehicle tire-related crashes that have occurred in recent years.

"The most important thing that customers need to realize," Tom McInerney, technical service engineer for Ford Motor Company, "is that changes in outdoor temperature will increase or decrease tire pressure by approximately one psi (pounds per square inch). For example, if you park your car in a heated garage and it's minus 30 degrees outside, you'll need to add about seven pounds of air to the tires to compensate for the change in temperature."

While the TPMS's should enhance safety overall, they are no substitute for actually paying attention to your tires. The sensors are not required to illuminate a warning until tires are 15 percent below their certified inflation pressure -- the pressure recommended in the owner's manual and printed on the door-jamb label. That means possible under-inflation can affect handling and tire life before the sensing system registers a problem. Most tire experts recommend that drivers check the air pressure in all their tires, including the spare, at least once a month. McInerney believes tire pressure should always be checked when the tires are cold and suggests that customers should purchase a good digital or dial tire pressure gauge. He says the stick-type gauges are highly inaccurate.

Like many other vehicles new to the market this year, 2007 Ford and Lincoln Mercury vehicles are equipped with a direct sensing system. Each of the four road tires has a sensor mounted in the valve stem. This sensor reads the air pressure of each tire, transmitting data every minute once the vehicle reaches 20 mph and every hour when the vehicle is traveling at less than 20 mph or at rest. When a sensor detects that the tire is under-inflated, it sends a signal that illuminates a warning light on the vehicle's instrument panel. A solid light indicates that one or more tires need air. A flashing light indicates a system fault, requiring that the vehicle be brought into the dealer for service.

The warning light will reset itself and turn off once tire pressures are set to recommended specifications and the vehicle has been driven above 20 mph for at least two minutes.
McInerney reminds customers not to drive on a flat tire if at all possible as it could damage the tire pressure sensor, and damage to the sensor is not covered under warranty. Sensors can also be damaged if the repaired or replacement tire is improperly mounted.

Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems are required by the federal government and cannot be disabled by the dealer. And for those of you who covet "rims," you should know that aftermarket wheels and tires are not recommended as they may cause the system to malfunction.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley reports on the auto industry, vehicle safety and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Brake by Wire

You might soon be saying goodbye to brake cylinders, hydraulic lines and brake fluid. Siemens VDO, a global supplier of electronics to the auto industry, has developed a vehicle braking concept that turns the conventional braking system of your car on its ear. Called the electronic wedge brake (EWB), the system is a low-power, low-energy 12-volt by-wire braking technology that uses a car's kinetic energy to stop itself. The system not only rids cars of potentially troublesome master cylinders and leaky hydraulic lines, it also eliminates the need for brake boosters and traditional antilock braking control.

Just as hydraulic-activated brakes replaced mechanical brakes in the 1920s, Siemens VDO expects its system to prompt a switchover from many manufacturers because of its advantages over conventional hydraulic systems. It lowers overall weight and makes for greater reliability and improved safety with reduced servicing requirements. By doing away with the hydraulic braking system, it also helps to make the vehicle more environmentally friendly. In addition, the EWB works much faster than conventional hydraulic brake systems, enabling shorter stopping distances on challenging driving surfaces, such as ice and snow.

Because it uses the standard 12-volt vehicle electrical system, the system can be readily installed in a wide variety of vehicles, opening up new design potential because the hydraulic-free wedge brake takes up less space both in the engine compartment and in the chassis. EWB is based on technology developed by eStop, a firm which was acquired by Siemens VDO in early 2005, and its control-related foundations originate from German Aviation and Aerospace Center applications. During braking, a brake pad attached to a wedge is pressed between the brake caliper and the brake disk. As the wheel turns, the wedge effect is automatically intensified. This allows any level of braking power with a minimum of intricacy.

Vehicles using the electronic wedge brake will have an intelligent wheel-braking module fitted to each wheel. The module consists of brake pads, a wedge attached to the wedge-bearing mechanism, a mechanical power transmission between two electric motors, and a sensor system for monitoring movement and force. When the driver engages the brake pedal, the EWB system electronically transmits the activation signal to the interconnected brake modules. When the brake activation signal is received, electric motors actuate a wedge-bearing mechanism to move the wedge into the required position, according to the sensor feedback values. This causes the brake pad to press against the brake disk. Based on the principle of self-energization, the braking effect builds up very rapidly, while the intelligent control prevents any danger of the wedge locking up. The mechanical decoupling of the brake pedal and the brake also will prevent the often-misunderstood pulsing of the brake pedal when antilock brakes near maximum braking effort.

While it might seem this system would be vulnerable to failure, the principle of "unstable" control structures was taken from high safety-critical systems for aviation and aerospace applications and adapted for automotive purposes. Similar to airplanes, the EWB has a sophisticated redundant architecture, making the system extremely safe and reliable.

A final bonus of the electronic wedge brake is that it also can be used as an automatic parking brake. This allows vehicle designers to do away with the traditional manual parking brake, while preventing the vehicle of the future against rolling away when parked.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about automobiles and the human condition. He lives in Villeperce, France.

How Smart is your Car?

Rear-view TV cameras, multi-zone heating and air conditioning, parking sensors, electronic stability control systems, theater-like audio -- today's vehicles are absolutely stuffed with technical wizardry.  The new features will allow cars to perform feats that were virtually unimagined a decade ago.  There is a downside, though.  The multiplicity of vehicle systems can't communicate and interact among themselves very well.  Instead, like kids at a grade school sock hop, they seem to stick to their own little groups and not worry about others much.

Not only is this inefficient; it is also ineffective. Even though today's cars have more computing and sensing power than ever before, they are not nearly as smart and, more to the point, as easy to operate as they could be.  While auto manufacturers are already introducing intelligent application solutions to individual issues like sound or safety on a piecemeal basis, this incremental addition of features and functions is probably not the most effective approach, according to a new report from Strategy Analytics.  Instead, looking at cars as robots might be a better way to build automobiles in the future.

"Automakers interested in developing smarter cars can learn a great deal from the US military's efforts to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles," said Neena Buck, vice president of the emerging frontiers program at the research firm.

As with many mature, consumer-oriented products that have a long history of development, today's cars suffer from feature overload, often at the expense of the driver's understanding and reaction time, Strategy Analytics says. With more and more computing devices on board cars, product planning and marketing groups within car companies are providing the usual checklist approach of features and functions within each category of car in order to compete with their rivals.  But this ad hoc approach to features can result in cars laden with unused and/or unusable features.  Some of the luxury vehicles from European manufacturers are so dense with features that it is doubtful most owners even try to use them all, much less use them on a day-to-day basis.  In fact, some automakers are finding that adding features actually injures their customer satisfaction scores.

Part of the problem is that a knowledge gap exists between vehicle manufacturers, who are accustomed to feature-by-feature comparisons and incremental additions to cars, and developers of autonomous vehicles who have had to re-think the design of a vehicle from the ground up. A new Strategy Analytics report discusses how automotive OEMs and suppliers can leverage work done in autonomous robotics systems to create smarter vehicles that can recognize their occupants, understand driver and passenger needs, continuously anticipate obstacles and problems, and inform or assist the driver to take appropriate action.

"More and more, competition within the automotive industry is going to be based on intellectual property and software built into vehicles, in addition to the physical design and visual appeal of the actual car," said Ian Riches, director, Automotive Electronics Service. "Vehicles with built in self-awareness, as well as ongoing situational awareness, are going to become increasingly commonplace, as high-end offerings in today's passenger cars migrate to all vehicles across the board."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about automobiles and the human (not to mention robotic) condition.  He lives in Villeperce, France.

Live and Local in your Car

For years in-car television has been largely a silent and effective baby-sitter for children in backseats.  Over the course of a lengthy car trip keeping the kids occupied isn't just desirable, it can actually make the drive safer by limiting driver distractions.  At first, in car TV was confined to videotape or DVD playback of pre-recorded material.  Then KVH Industries and the DirecTV satellite service changed all that by offering live TV for in-vehicle use.  Now the model has changed yet again with the announcement that DirecTV can now deliver live local news, weather, traffic, sports and other local entertainment programming to your car.

This means that, as a driver, you can hear (and your passengers can watch) live local news programs and other local programming like sporting events while you drive.  This gives vehicle occupants the option to obtain a wide variety of information and entertainment as their vehicle goes down the road.  For example, imagine your passenger viewing a detailed traffic map containing real-time traffic data.  He might then tell you areas to avoid. Local news, sports and entertainment programs will also be accessible to passengers and, in audio form, to drivers. The offering of local channels to vehicles is part of a strategy by DirecTV to target the more than 20 million U.S. vehicles expected to have in-vehicle passenger video systems by 2011, according to analyst firm Frost & Sullivan. The new service gives local programmers the chance for greater participation in the expanding live mobile media market, including creating and producing shows aimed at viewers on the move.

This isn't pie-in-the-sky futuristic thinking either.  Local broadcast channels are now available to mobile customers on the open road within the continental United States via DirecTV to vehicles that have been equipped with a KVH TracVision A7 mobile satellite TV system. The mobile customers will be able to receive their local broadcast channels within designated market areas where DirecTV already offers them to home viewers. Because of this, local channels availability may vary by market, but you probably won't be left out since DirecTV delivers local programming in 142 markets, representing 94 percent of U.S. television households.
 
To receive local channels in your car, you must become a DirecTV customer and you must purchase a TracVision A7 satellite TV system.  The new system is a refinement of the previous TracVision system that includes an integrated GPS unit and new 12-volt receiver jointly developed by DIRECTV and KVH. The "Total Choice Mobile" with local channels package is available for $44.99 per month and offers more than 185 channels.
 
"With consumers' growing demand to watch news and entertainment services whenever and wherever they want, the in-vehicle market has come to represent the next frontier in live digital multi-channel entertainment," said Daren Benzi, vice president, Sales Development and Strategy, DirecTV.

"More and more U.S. motorists now consider their vehicle as an extension of their living room, and, like at home, are demanding live entertainment and information over DVDs and prerecorded content," said Ian Palmer, KVH's executive vice president for satellite sales. "That trend, combined with the phenomenal growth of in-vehicle entertainment systems -- more than 52 percent of full-size SUVs and 40 percent of luxury SUVs and minivans among 2005 and early-release 2006 models have in-vehicle video screens according to J.D. Power & Associates -- suggest that live, in-car satellite TV is the next must-have vehicle technology."