The grand consumer spectacle that is the Canadian International AutoShow comes with an overarching question this year: Will cars become more efficient? With the price of oil rising, and tough new fuel economy standards looming, engineers now see efficiency as the Holy Grail of vehicle design.
The challenge is to do more with less. Thousands of initiatives are being explored, from electric cars to hydrogen fuel cells to minor tweaks of existing technology - like streamlined mirrors that can save hundreds of litres of gasoline over the lifetime of a car.
"We're working on everything," said Ruben Archilla, a senior design engineer at Mazda North America. "There's a lot of creative energy right now."
The quest to do more with less is taking place against a tumultuous commercial backdrop: countless consumers are still willing to buy gas-hog trucks and SUVs that yield fat profit margins for car manufacturers, yet industry executives realize that their survival may soon depend on their ability to produce efficient vehicles.
As the auto show begins in Toronto on Friday, the world's drivers are consuming more than 18 million barrels of oil every day. The rising price of oil and the ongoing crisis in the Middle East have upped the ante for researchers hunting for a new energy paradigm. In the meantime, here's a look at four technologies that will help reshape the car:
Aerodynamic improvements are the free lunch of automotive efficiency. A sleeker, smaller car yields dramatic fuel savings - at highway speed, more than 60 per cent of the energy consumed by a car is used to push air out of the way.
More angular windshields: Steeply angled windshields like those on the current Honda Civic and Toyota Prius will become virtually standard, and cars will shrink to reduce frontal area.
Reduce drag: The drag generated by a moving vehicle is expressed in a figure known as Coefficient of Drag (Cd.) A Hummer H2, for example, has a Cd of 0.57. The Toyota Prius, one of the most aerodynamically efficient cars on the market today, has a Cd of 0.25. Making a Hummer as aerodynamically smooth as a Prius would improve its overall fuel economy by about 25 per cent.
Better belly pans: Belly pans, generally used only on racing cars, will find their way into production vehicles. A belly pan increases efficiency by smoothing airflow beneath a vehicle. Exposed underside components like exhaust pipes, frame rails and suspension arms create significant drag, reducing fuel economy.
Cheap carbon fibre
Because it's so expensive to manufacture, carbon fibre has so far been used only in racing cars and high-end road vehicles (like the Lamborghini Murcielago, which has a carbon-fibre body shell.) Bringing it to the mainstream will yield major improvements in vehicle efficiency due to weight reduction.
A breakthrough at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee promises to reduce the cost of carbon fibre by up to 25 per cent. Researchers at the laboratory devised a way to manufacture carbon fibre using a process similar to the one used to make knitting yarn.
Among the car manufacturers working on mainstream applications for the high-tech material is BMW, which plans to mass-produce carbon interior shells for its new Megacity electric vehicle, which is expected to hit the market in two to three years. The carbon components will reduce the Megacity's weight by nearly 800 pounds.
Because of its high strength and lightweight, carbon fibre can yield dramatic efficiency improvements through mass reduction. Each pound taken out of a vehicle has a cascading effect - reducing the weight of the body, for example, allows the use of a smaller engine and brakes.
Using carbon fibre instead of traditional steel can reduce a car's weight by as much as 25 per cent. On a typical passenger vehicle, this could improve fuel economy by as much as 10 miles per gallon. Ruben Archilla, an engineer and designer with Mazda's California office, estimates that in the average car, a 100-kilogram weight saving will cut fuel consumption by about 5 per cent.
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These revolutionary electrical storage devices promise to vault electric cars ahead of gasoline-powered ones, in the same way that digital cameras pushed aside film. Ultracapacitors offer greater range, higher power, and lighter weight.
Ultracapacitor manufacturers like California-based Maxwell Technologies have reduced manufacturing costs by as much as 75 per cent in the past three years, making the technology increasingly accessible. A number of companies, including Canada's Zenn Motors, are racing to produce advanced ultracapacitors that will revolutionize the electric car industry.
According to MIT researchers, electric vehicles have greater "well to wheels" efficiency than gasoline-powered cars - if you produce electrical power with a fossil-fuel plant, then use it to power an electric car, it goes farther than a gas-powered car would on an equivalent amount of gasoline. But this advantage is offset by the limitations of chemical batteries.
Batteries are heavy, expensive and contain limited power - most battery-powered electric vehicles have a range of less than 160 kilometres.
Ultracapacitors pack much more electrical energy than a battery, and take up far less space. They also release their energy more quickly, and are unaffected by heat and cold.
Ultracapacitors can be charged extremely quickly, allowing an electric car to be refuelled as quickly as a gasoline-powered one.
Researchers believe ultracapacitors could replace batteries entirely in hybrid vehicles and be paired with much smaller batteries in all-electric vehicles, cutting costs while improving the driving range.
A high percentage of the fuel consumed by vehicles is wasted by inefficient traffic flow, but upcoming generations of smart navigation systems will keep cars properly spaced and reroute traffic to less-used routes.
Radar-equipped "adaptive" cruise control is already available on a wide range of vehicles. Mercedes, for example, offers Distronic technology that senses the distance between cars ahead. MIT researchers have devised "Mobility Internet" technology that tracks every car on the road. By sending data to and from every car, traffic flow can be optimized, and accidents, which hurt efficiency by creating traffic jams, can be sharply reduced.
GPS-based navigation systems can be combined with radar-equipped cruise control to ensure that cars remain the proper distance from each other - this will reduce "bunching" which creates cyclical slowdowns on heavily travelled routes.
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