GM sees future: Cars and drivers full of booze
Autopilot alcomobiles for drunk drivers
US motor heavyweight GM is determinedly presenting itself as a technological innovator ready to break with its old-school, big iron image. The car colossus' CEO, Rick Wagoner, has been giving speeches and briefings in recent days boosting his firm's efforts in development of new, greener prime movers and radical electronics.
The flagship of GM's shiny-kit push is the new Cadillac Provoq concept car. The Provoq's primary power is provided by a hydrogen fuel cell; like most such vehicles, it adds a substantial battery to deliver decent acceleration and hill-climbing performance. The battery gets topped up from the fuel cell during times of lower power demand, as when coasting downhill or sitting stopped in traffic.
Provoq. We may not be running out of oil, but
we're damn sure running out of car names.
The Provoq adds a few new bells and whistles to the standard hydrogen-car configuration. There is an option to charge up the battery overnight from a wall plug, and GM reckon the car can go 20 miles on battery juice alone before the fuel cell needs to fire up. There's a small rooftop solar panel, too, but GM say this is only of use for helping power minor electrical gear such as the interior lights - it would take forever to charge up the drive battery.
Regarding greenness, the Provoq taken by itself is clean as a whistle, emitting only water vapour. However, its hydrogen fuel is effectively a way of storing energy from other sources. At present hydrogen fuel is made by reforming natural gas, a process which releases large amounts of CO2 and is highly inefficient. It would be less carbon-intensive, and considerably cheaper, to simply run vehicles on liquefied gas.
The idea of such cars, however, is that in future hydrogen might be made by using electricity to crack water. When asked where this electricity would come from, motor execs - knowing that it isn't their problem - usually speculate that it could be generated by renewable means such as wind or solar. This would be a lovely clean, green system.
Sceptics point out, though, that most estimates suggest renewables can't meet existing electricity demand - let alone provide loads more juice to make hydrogen. (Even Greenpeace projections don't suggest that renewables could yield better than 50 per cent of world energy needs by 2050, and they need to assume a lot of "smart use of power" - eg, not using as much - to get this figure.)
Thus the "hydrogen economy" is one in which a lot of new power is available from something else - perhaps some form of nuclear generation. But the sort of customer who might pay big money for a green car is often uncomfortable with nuclear power, so GM aren't stressing that aspect of the Provoq.
The company has some other ideas up its sleeve, anyway. Unlike the Provoq - which is just a concept and isn't offered for sale - the company's so-called FlexFuel vehicles can actually be bought. Even better, they don't cost much more than regular cars.
When GM use the term "flex-fuel", they mean that a car can run on E85 ethanol, or ordinary petrol, or any mixture of the two*. Ethanol is made at present from food crops, like corn. Its production currently involves a lot of fossil power, too. As things stand, powering transport with ethanol would drive food (and probably booze) prices sky-high - perhaps starving a lot of people round the world. There's a lot of doubt as to whether enough cropland actually exists, especially if a lot of the biofuel must actually be used to power the production plants.
So ethanol isn't green yet, any more than hydrogen. But it might be in future, if processes to make it out of agricultural waste or biomass not requiring prime farmland - even saltwater algae, maybe - can be made to work.
For now, ethanol isn't just un-green - it's also pretty hard to find. GM's Wagoner told reporters yesterday that customers who have bought his FlexFuel cars are complaining furiously about the lack of ethanol pumps.
"It has been remarkably difficult," said Wagoner of efforts to get E85 onto the forecourt. "We've been doing more work than I thought we would need to."
GM isn't actively pursuing other kinds of green-motor tech at present. It famously ran a large trial of a fully battery-powered car, the EV1, in California, but subsequently recalled all the test cars and binned the design. This led to many wild-eyed allegations of a sinister big-oil/big-iron conspiracy, but Wagoner says that the EV1 simply ran its battery flat much too fast.
"If you want to drive around and not worry... that hasn't worked yet," he said.
Frequent recharges are a serious problem for most battery cars because charging takes such a long time - typically several hours. (At least one new technology claims to have cracked this, but it's not yet widely available on the road.)
Since the demise of the EV1, the main poster-child for all-battery cars has been the Tesla Roadster, and many still have high hopes for the snazzy electric supercar. However, there have recently been delays to delivery and boardroom battles at Tesla Motors. The initial cars are now to be delivered "with a few components, such as the transmission, that will need to be upgraded at a later date."
Electric cars also have the same problem as hydrogen ones - that they would need loads of new juice from somewhere. On the other hand, they are often favoured by greens as it is thought that the batteries of unused, plugged-in vehicles could act as a reservoir of stored energy for the power grid, smoothing out surges in supply and demand.
For its part, GM isn't going fully electric again in a hurry. Wagoner says it will bring out its Chevy Volt - a petrol-electric hybrid with a big enough battery to usefully use mains power - by 2010, though he said it would be a "stretch" to achieve that date.
The one new car thing that the motor colossus seems confident it can do soon is make a car which drives itself, at least some of the time. This isn't green, but it would obviously be a boon.
"Autonomous driving means that someday you could do your email, eat breakfast, do your makeup, and watch a video while commuting to work," Wagoner said in a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
Or get drunk and let the car drive you home, of course. Though it would be unwise to swig E85 siphoned from the tank; it's 15 per cent petrol.
"In other words, you could do all the things you do now... safely," said Wagoner, puckishly.
Apparently, GM boffins reckon they could have hands-off, booze-friendly cars ready for 2018. ®
*Others believe that such cars should also be able to run on methanol blends, saying that methanol can be made from non-food sources right now.