More musings on everyone’s favorite subject. Cars. Cars are the second largest investment you will make. And since we use them every day, and they are somewhat integral to our lifestyle, they are on our minds.
On a fundamental level, you have to be concerned when the combined auto makers have a production rate of 16 million units a year and sales fall off by, say, 1/3. Where do you go to make up that volume? What about the amount of steel, glass, paint and carpet that this volume of production requires?
Let’s face it, the car is an American phenomenon. Largely the product of Henry Ford’s ingenuity in applying the new discipline of mass production to lower cost and make cars available to a much larger audience, the car has changed the American landscape. Personal freedom to move around whenever you want, at very low cost. The Department of Transportation estimates that there are 137 Million passenger cars on the road today. And that number looks more like 250 Million when you add in trucks, SUV’s, etc.
But things change. And the cost of personal transportation has gone up as our demand for more sophisticated cars has evolved and the cost of major energy sources has increased. More cars on the road means more pollution. More cars also means increased demand for gasoline. Gasoline, taxes and maintenance have driven the cost of automotive operation to more than 50 cents per mile driven.
So what’s the future of car making likely to be?
There is enormous critical mass around the battery technology. Lithium chemistry has achieved the major milestone that was foreseen 20 years ago by electric car enthusiasts. Decreasing the battery mass fraction by a factor of 4 would make practical vehicles with a range of 100 miles or more per charge, a reality. Next year’s planned release from Th!nk is expect to achieve 120 miles per charge for a 2 seater battery electric vehicle. And the development curve for lithium battery technology over the next decade is expected to substantially improve the power density even further.
Hybrid technology has been successful, but the recent versions have been incredibly complex. A drive by wire hybrid is also now a practical reality. The hybrid vehicle is similarly dependent on the battery mass fraction, but leverages on-board charging from a combustion engine/generator that is far smaller than needed for direct mechanical drive and operates at constant speed. This allows huge reductions in pollution, and huge increases in efficiency.
So if the first real production hybrid car gets 50 MPG while generating, what’s wrong with that? That’s more than double the efficiency of the US fleet average.. That also means the true mileage, average of battery power and generator power, is going to be a lot higher that 50 MPG. (It was 125 MPG in my estimate) And if the car saves $5000 per year in operating costs due to increased fuel efficiency and reduced maintenance, would that make it a better investment at $35,000 purchase price. It would pay for itself in 7 years.
Would that help rebuild the sales of cars in the US? I think so. More than 122,000 cash for clunkers did. A major breakthrough in the absolute value of automobile technology will lead to many more people trading their old cars in for something more efficient and low emission. That’s what good engineering is all about.