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The Automobile's Bright Future Part 1
By: Michael Cooney

If you’re concerned over the claim of some that the automobile’s future is in doubt, hold your horses! Relax. Go for a Sunday drive. The car will be with us for a long time. Those predicting its demise are most often those who want to herd us into electric trains, buses and onto bicycles.

First, amazing advances have been incorporated into the venerable Otto-cycle four-stroke internal combustion (IC) engine that has been the vanguard for autos since the late 1800s. Digitally controlled electronic fuel injection hooked up to computerized fuel management systems, combined with efficient pollution control systems have radically altered the IC engine’s effectiveness. Few realize, for example, that modern Corvettes routinely get 30 mpg on level stretches of freeway with the cruise control set at 65 or 70. Yet that’s been the Vette status quo for the past decade!

Adding an electric motor to assist the IC engine is a recent development that brought the term “hybrid” to our auto vocabulary. The 1999 Honda Insight was the first hybrid sold here. I tested one and averaged nearly 50 mpg with my usual mix of city, freeway, and mountain driving.

Take the two Toyota hybrids reviewed elsewhere in this issue of Business Life. They prove that hybrids are viable, mainstream vehicles that greatly conserve fuel while also increasing a car’s range. With the Camry, you can reasonably expect around 600 miles on a tank of gas. As for the numbers, I got 42.7 mpg in the Prius and 36.2 mpg in the Camry. I also averaged 43.1 mpg in a Honda Civic Hybrid. Each was driven for one week.

But now let’s look ahead at what else is coming down the road soon.

Contrary to the apparently deceptive and inaccurate movie “Who Killed the Electric Car” the reason pure electrics didn’t make it was due to poor battery technology. When the GM EV1 appeared, it used 26 regular lead-acid car batteries. It was a sleek, stylish two-seater… with a range of 55 - 80 miles. Version 2, with early NiMH batteries, had somewhat longer range, but overheated, requiring a separate air conditioning system just to keep the batteries cool! Mercifully, production ceased in 1999.

To avoid crushing the GM EV1s, criticized and lamented in the film, GM would have had to continue making parts for it (required by law), and get their dealers to service it—stocking parts and training service technicians—all for a total U.S. fleet of only 1,117 cars. Not feasible. But that was then….

Today’s hybrids use advanced rechargeable Nickel-Metal-Hydride (NiMH) batteries. Same chemistry as the little AA rechargeables you can buy at any department store. They are a big improvement, but still are not efficient enough to give a pure electric car the range most consumers want. In a hybrid configuration, where you also have the gasoline engine there whenever you need it, it’s a good combination. But there’s something much more exciting just around the corner!

The key to two grand developments coming up soon is the Lithium-Ion (LION) battery. Yep, the same type that’s in your laptop right now. Problems had to be overcome, such as its tendency to overheat and explode when fully discharged. Now that such problems are being dealt with, you’ll soon see two new types of cars on the road that will gradually revolutionize what you drive.

The first is Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs). Right now, you never plug in a hybrid. The gas engine, and coasting or braking, charge the NiMH battery pack as needed. With PHEVs, the car will have a LION battery pack that will provide most of the power for the first 50 miles of driving, after which it will act like a regular hybrid, switching between gas and electric motors.

An overnight charge using regular household current will ready it for the next day’s drive. This means that those commuting up to 50 miles a day will not use the gasoline engine much during the work week, and thus should see an average of 100 mpg or more for their commutes. On longer drives, it will sip fuel like a regular hybrid.

A local company called Clean Tech will soon be installing the LION conversions into Toyota Prius hybrids. You can learn more at

And if all this sounds interesting, you won’t want to miss Part 2 appearing in the next issue. See you then!