Tech

Goodbye to gas guzzlers

Sensible alternative vehicles are starting to hit the roads

Danylo Hawaleshka November 20 2000
Tech

Goodbye to gas guzzlers

Sensible alternative vehicles are starting to hit the roads

Danylo Hawaleshka November 20 2000

Goodbye to gas guzzlers

Tech

Sensible alternative vehicles are starting to hit the roads

Danylo Hawaleshka

The car is a showstopper, no doubt about that. Ever since Nigel Fitzpatrick got his red Honda Insight last May, Vancouverites have been making little comments like “neat,” or stopping and asking him how he likes driving a car with a gas-electric hybrid engine. His teenage daughter, in a testament to the Insight’s cool factor, looks forward to being driven to school in it. Fitzpatrick, whose company, Azure Dynamics Inc., is developing a control system for a hybrid van, says he loves the sporty twoseater’s tandem of a one-litre, threecylinder engine seamlessly married to a quiet battery-powered motor. Visits to gas stations are infrequent. The only problem is the attention. “If you get on a ferry,” says Fitzpatrick, “you’ve got to make sure you get out swiftly—otherwise, you’re surrounded.”

The Honda Insight, as well as Toyota’s four-seat Prius sedan, are just the first in a wave of alternative modes of transportation that industry analysts expect to see on North American roads over the next decade. Ford will offer its Escape sport-utility hybrid in 2003, and General Motors expects to release its full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups in 2004, improving fuel economy by nearly 15 per cent. DaimlerChrysler is developing its Durango SUV hybrid for 2003, saying it will boast 20-per-cent better mileage than the gas-powered version.

The major manufacturers are also developing cars powered exclusively by batteries, like GM’s speedy EV1, available through lease in California and Arizona. And they are eyeing natural gas, as well as the holy grail of automotive propulsion: non-polluting fuel cells. Meanwhile, a slew of futuristic bicycles propelled by small but powerful electric motors hold out the promise of alleviating, if only a little, the congestion in Canadian cities—and lungs. The need for a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine is pressing. The world uses more petroleum now than at any other time in its history—about 75 million barrels daily— and the oil won’t last forever. Gasoline prices, as every motorist knows, have been hitting record levels in recent months. Vehicular emissions play a major role in global warming, which most scientists believe is real and getting worse. Today, there are 700 million cars and trucks in use worldwide, and the number is expected to climb to one billion by 2020, according to Hiroyuki Watanabe, managing director ofToyota Motor Co. “The age of the internal combustion engine,” says Watanabe, “is over.”

That may be overstating things a bit, by current thinking anyway. The U.S. department of energy estimates hybrids will account for less than seven per cent of the world’s vehicles by 2020, while electricand natural-gas-powered vehicles will represent at most two per cent. Vehicles with fuel cells under the hood are expected to make up less than one per cent. Still, Watanabe’s enthusiasm is understandable. Hybrids, unlike electric or fuel-cell cars, meet three key criteria for mass acceptance: reasonable price, range unhindered by spent batteries and convenient refuelling.

Honda’s Insight gets up to 25 km per litre on the highway, about 10 km per litre more than its gasoline-fuelled equivalent, and retails for $28,820. Its batteries recharge under braking, harnessing the energy in its wheels. Honda has sold 3,000 Insights in North America, currently available only with a manual transmission, though an automatic is due in mid-2001. Toyota’s Prius has the advantage of being a four-seater with an automatic transmission. Worldwide, Toyota has sold 40,000 Priuses, retailing in Canada for $29,990. Jean-François Banville, an Environment Canada engineer in Montreal, says hybrids will serve as a bridge between the comparative gas guzzlers of today and the fuel-sipping innovations of tomorrow, whatever those turn out to be. “Hybrids,” says Banville, “will dominate the next 10 to 15 years.”

‘The age of the internal combustion engine is over,’ says Toyota’s boss

Then what? Experts aren’t quite sure. The industry is pushing hard to develop fuel-cell technology, which mixes compressed hydrogen with oxygen to produce electric power with no harmful emissions (or modest ones, if the hydrogen is first refined onboard from natural gas, methanol or petroleum). Burnaby, B.C.based Ballard Power Systems Inc. is at the forefront of fuel-cell development, and says DaimlerChrysler, Ford,

General Motors, Toyota and Honda plan to have fuel-cellpowered cars available as early as 2004. But the prospect for their widespread use in the near term appears limited, due to their high cost and a lack of safe sources of hydrogen.

Natural gas offers an immediate alternative. John Lyon, president of FuelMaker Corp. of Toronto, estimates there are about 50,000 natural-gaspowered cars and light trucks operating in Canada. Compared with gasoline and propane, natural gas burns cleaner. Last month, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. took a 20-per-cent stake in Lyon’s firm, which builds heavy-duty natural-gas compressors to refuel forklifts, fleet vehicles and Zambonis. With Honda’s cash infusion, FuelMaker plans to shrink its patented technology

and develop a $1,500 refuelling station for the home over the next three years.

The pump, says Lyon, will be designed for mounting indoors on a garage wall, rather like the outlet for a natural-gas barbecue. It will be the key, he says, to developing the consumer market for cars like the natural-gaspowered Honda Civic GX, sold in the United States for up to $6,000 more than its gasoline equivalent. Despite the higher initial price, Lyon says natural gas is an economical option because the fuel costs the equivalent of about 40

cents a litre, compared with the mid70s for gasoline. “That’s basically half the price to travel the same distance,” says Lyon. “That’s quite an incentive.” Part of the global effort to clear the air revolves around getting drivers to use electric cars on short trips within cities. Ford’s battery-powered Think City, a tiny but roomy two-seat hatchback capable of a top speed of 90 km/h and a range of 85 km, is available in Europe, and Ford plans to bring it to North America in 2002. In August, Ottawa issued new regulations making it legal to sell low-speed electric vehicles for road use in Canada. These cars, sometimes

disparagingly referred to as souped-up golf carts, will be limited to maximum speeds of 40 km/h. The provinces, which control vehicle registration and driver licensing, are now mulling how best to deal with the vehicles.

Dynasty Motorcar Corp. in Kelowna, B.C., isn’t waiting. The company is gearing up production for the U.S. market under the IT banner, for “intelligent transport.” The plant, with a planned capacity of 10,000 units per year starting in April, will first produce a four-door electric hatchback and a van, with a convertible planned for the summer. Barry Good, Dynasty’s chairman, sees his new markets in gated communities, airports, university campuses and resorts. Good expects a fully loaded, four-door IT with four seats to retail for $15,500.

If that’s still too rich, an electric bicycle might be the ultimate low-speed alternative. The federal government has drafted regulations to permit power-assisted electric bikes with a top speed of 32 km/h on the road. Marc LaFontaine, owner of three Sportable bike shops in the Ottawa area, is eager to see the regulations come into effect, likely in spring. LaFontaine is the Canadian distributor of eBikes, which retail for $2,000 to $3,500. He has 50 people on a waiting list to buy the electric bikes once they are legal. “If we could get five or 10 per cent of the commuters off the road,” says LaFontaine, “think of the ramifications environmentally.” Everyone, it’s true, would breathe easier. G3