23 April 2011

Ford to build Focus plug in hybrid, and the future of green automotive technology

Seems Ford is going to, er, focus on the Focus platform. As early as the end of this year, they plan on rolling out four versions:

Normal drivetrain, available with 6 speed manual or 6 speed automatic

All electric version a la the Nissan Leaf.... limited range, will require 240 V charing station, and so prob. not too competitive except niche treehugger market

Hybrid version using the same technology as the Escape and Fusion hybrids already on the market, which are heavier and less fuel efficient than Insight and Prius

Plug in Hybrid, (also requiring 240 V charging station), which will compete with the Volt. 500 mi. range on a tank of gas, but they haven't announced the expected "all electric" range yet. One thing about plug in hybrids: if you run the wipers, the air or heat, the lights, the sound system, etc. all at once, they all use the same juice, and the motor can come on as soon as 20 miles out in the Volt in very hot or very cold weather, especially if you also want it to jackrabbit from every stoplight, which uses a lotta juice.

Still, the plug in hybrid Focus is the most interesting of Ford's plans. GM spent a ton of money developing the Volt as an integrated system, and it's a great car by most reviewers' estimations, but it's very expensive for a small space constricted and not exactly luxurious car. Ford seems to have decided to try to build the near equivalent using more off the shelf and third party componentry, and to sell it for closer to the cost of the regular car. It will be interesting to see how that works out. 

One difference already out there between the Ford technology for plug in hybrid and the Volt is that the Volt uses pure electric power to drive the wheels, using the generator only to provide electric power when the batteries are depleted to a certain level. The Ford design will kick over to something more like a so-called conventional hybrid, where the engine partly drives the wheels and partly charges batteries. I believe in the long run the GM design has certain advantages. 

GM Volt-type plug in hybrids have a potential you hardly see anything about in the media: the long term prospect of running the generator charging engine on almost anything. There's really no need for the engine to run on gasoline. These are small engines, designed to run at constant speed. They could easily be biodiesels, hydrogen or methane turbines (expensive but very efficient), or engines designed to run on exotic biofuels if that industry gets going soon, as there are some signs it might. It's not clear to me that the Ford design would have this same potential; if the engine is used for actual motive power, it would have more design constraints that might make the use of a small biodiesel engine or other greener fuel design less feasible.

The day will come when these technologies are cheaper than gasoline engine cars, if not to buy, then over the life of the car. And when that tipping point arrives, we will see a near complete conversion to green automotive technology in a surprisingly rapid period of time.

I saw recently where among factors affecting whether a qualified adult in the United States has a job or not, having a running automobile is much more of a determiner than education level. We're not going to get Americans out of their cars anytime soon. Sure, in some areas, more public transportation could reduce highway miles (and congestion), and I'm all for it... but we need to concentrate, with public as well as private investment, on developing solutions for carbon neutral (i.e. nonfossil fuel) affordable automotive technology. The development patterns in our country during the 20th century mean that we are, for the foreseeable future, a nation of the automobile, and we have to learn to make cars that don't burn oil. There's just no way around it. 

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