Thursday, April 21, 2011

Personal Mobility - What's Coming?

There’s a paradigm shift in personal mobility coming at us at warp speed. Now that the oil price regularly sits above $100 a barrel we need to get serious about the future beyond engines powered solely by gasoline and diesel.

The fuel(s) of the future, their availability and use will dictate what we drive, how we drive and when we drive. In fact as this is being written we are beginning to see a significant loss of the freedom and independence which personal mobility provides now.

Whichever route is chosen we have to have not only widespread availability of fuel, but also the infrastructure to deliver it to our vehicles. Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) recharged solely from the power grid are not a practical option in countries like Australia, the USA and Canada, where single journeys can average around 30km.

Renault Zoe

In fact BEVs could be a good solution for crowded environments like Europe, Japan, China and India – but only if the recharging infrastructure is built. But, really it’s just a City Car concept at best, like Renault’s Zoe BEV.

The term ‘Range Anxiety’ is now a part of the lexicon, and the limited distances over which BEVs can be used without a long and unproductive recharge cycle really rules them out as personal mobility devices, the way we currently see our cars.

This leaves us with two options at the moment – first, Hybrids (like the Lexus CT200H) or Extended Range Vehicles (like the Chevy Volt). These are the only formats which provide a decent distance, and allow freedom to move about that we now enjoy.

Lexus CT200H

Beyond that, electric cars are a solution, but only if they’re powered by Hydrogen, or even Natural Gas.

The choices made by the car manufacturers over the next ten years are critical to their survival, because if they choose the wrong format, they lose in the marketplace, simple as that.

In France, Peugeot is developing a Hybrid 3008, using a diesel engine rather than a petrol version, and it already enjoys good relationships with a number of manufacturers and could share its hybrid-diesel technology.

Peugeot 3008 diesel-hybrid

Mercedes-Benz is moving towards Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs), as is Honda, Hyundai and Toyota. The recent F-Cell World Tour using three B Series FCEVs was a good indicator of how advanced Mercedes-Benz technology is.

Mercedes-Benz B Series F-Cell

General Motors is currently selling the Chevy Volt, an Extended Range Vehicle (ERV).

Ford is hedging its bets. Firstly, it is a joint-venture partner with Mercedes-Benz in developing fuel cell technology, and as well it has a range of Plug-In BEVs on its drawing board.

In Australia however, the clear differences in choices between the two leading makers (GM & Ford) once again show that Holden will likely emerge a winner, and Ford Australia will (again) get left behind. Both companies have an entrant in the Green Car segment, and GM is on a winner, and Ford is on a loser.

Chevy Volt

Holden will launch the Volt ERV, and Ford will likely try to compete with the Focus Plug-In BEV. Holden’s Volt will go around 400km, the Focus will travel roughly 100km before it needs an 8 hour recharge.

Focus BEV

The reason Ford Australia will be forced down this path is because Ford of Europe isn’t working on ERVs, because its European drivers travel shorter average distances, so it thinks BEVs will suffice.

The Australian market is too small and insignificant to create a special car for this country, so Ford Australia will simply have to take what’s available.

Affordable Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles are at least ten years away, plus there is the question of a Hydrogen gas refuelling infrastructure. However, Mercedes-Benz is very well advanced with its FCEV technology and could have affordable technology in less than 10 years. It’s at that point Ford could have a winner.

As far as infrastructure for hydrogen refuelling is concerned, this is a very easy series of decisions. If enough car manufacturers choose the FCEV format, then the investment, building and maintenance of a refuelling infrastructure is practical, affordable, sensible and profitable – it just needs some enlightened venture capitalists to get in first and begin the project to build such stations on a global basis.

So where does this leave our Personal Mobility Paradigm? Enjoy how you drive today, because 20 years from now it will be a distant memory.

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