One of the phenomena of the modern age is the ubiquitous automobile. Will it stay, or will it wither away like the typewriter, the street phone booth, the tape recorder, and the Kodak-film camera? I think the auto will stay because of its necessary function. However, a sea change is already taking place in many respects especially its propulsion system.
The automobile provides people with convenient door-to-door mobility as long as a road infrastructure is built. Mobility is essential for the growth of the economy and the development of business centers, suburbs, and satellite towns. Furthermore, there is a close link between the middle class and private auto ownership. In China and other emerging countries, private auto ownership explodes because a huge middle class is being created. It seems that the masses benefiting from economic growth want to enjoy the freedom and pleasure that come with car ownership.
The number of autos in the world surpassed one billion in 2011. The car is the biggest oil consumer burning more than 60% of all the oil produced in the world. Two challenging questions arise: Do we have enough oil as the cars multiply? What will happen to the environment as they continue to burn oil? Although we may want to debate these questions forever, a critical factor is silently changing the world. It is the relentless rise in oil prices since the first OPEC embargo of 1973. In the US where the private car is an essential part of life, retail gasoline has risen from $0.30 a gallon in 1971 to above $4 today. The rise is even steeper in Europe and Japan. The price factor has already caused a quiet revolution in the auto industry.
Fast rising oil prices put a premium on fuel efficiency and quality. The battle being waged in this new emphasis has produced three big winners: Japan, Germany, and lately South Korea, which are able to capture increasing shares of the growing world market. The well-established players such as the US, France, Italy and Great Britain are relegated to regional auto producers. The emerging players such as China, India, Brazil and Mexico are mainly producing for their own local markets at present.
The battle for fuel efficiency and quality has led to numerous bankruptcies in the West, notably General Motors, Chrysler, Rolls Royce, and Saab. The most dramatic success is achieved by Japan in the US auto market, which is the largest in the world only being surpassed by China recently. When Toyota began pushing its sales in the US in 1970, Japan’s market share was close to zero. Today, Japan’s share has risen to 53% of the US auto market.
Rising oil prices mandate squeezing out more miles out of a gallon of gasoline. The first solution involves two paths simultaneously being pursued. First, make the car lighter by using more plastics or composite materials instead of aluminum or steel. Second, improve engine performance by designing the engine to burn less fuel. Both paths have physical limits imposed by existing technologies. The progress tends to be gradual with increasing costs.
The second solution is to substitute gasoline with other fuels. It is not an easy thing to do because gasoline has the natural advantage of being liquid, light and easily portable. It has a well-established retail infrastructure for consumer convenience. It also has the strong backing of the powerful oil industry. Over the years, ethanol, bio-fuel, and natural gas have made some inroads to replace gasoline. Natural gas is increasingly being used for buses, trucks and special delivery vehicles because it can be carried in pressurized or liquefied form in steel containers. Although this helps solve the price problem of gasoline, it does not address the environmental challenge because the internal combustion engine must burn fuel to deliver power but releases greenhouse gases and soot into the atmosphere.
The third solution is to replace the gasoline engine. The electric motor is the logical choice due to its superior performance in power and speed as demonstrated by the bullet train. Furthermore, it is lighter, compact, and with fewer moving parts. The major handicap is the fuel source. Where does the electricity come from when the car is moving on the road? This leads to the critical factor – battery technology. For the electric car to reach its full potential, the battery it carries must be lighter, smaller, and has a bigger storage capacity. At present, the Nissan Leaf can only go 100 miles, and the high-price Tesla can make 200. We need something right now before new battery technology can deliver over 300 miles of range that is comparable to the gasoline car.
So enters the hybrid first introduced by Toyota and Honda several years ago. Its main function is to save fuel, using the electric motor to supplement a smaller gasoline engine. The popularity of the hybrid is confirmed by the “Me too!” response of numerous carmakers including Ford and Hyundai, even the high-end Mercedes and BMW.
One thing that still baffles me if not you: Why is there no such electric car equipped with a very small gasoline engine whose only function is to generate electricity to recharge its battery? In this configuration, the electric car can go as far as the gasoline car. It can take advantage of the existing retail gasoline infrastructure. The only difference is that it burns very little oil just to recharge the car battery.
There exists another great potential in the making – the plug-in electric car. This effectively links the automobile with houses, buildings and parking lots, which are stationary sources for generating electricity using green energy such as solar or wind. In addition, the plug-in concept frees the electric car from depending on utility companies for power supply. The reason is that any building structure including your home can be equipped with solar or wind to generate electricity independently on its own. This is the so-called distributive system that has been working so well with personal computers, tablets, and mobile phones.
So what does the future hold? Regardless of what we think about the environment or oil resources underground, the rising prices of oil is sufficient to drive the future of the automobile toward employing the electric motor for propulsion. We have already seen the hybrid car leading the way, followed by the electric, and then the plug-in electric taking advantage of the empowering distributive system. The advance in battery technology is providing the impetus. In case of a breakthrough resulting in an inexpensive “super” battery, the market for electric cars will explode around the world. Alternatively, in case of a breakthrough in solar technology (such as solar paint or adhesive), the electric car will be able to generate its own electricity anywhere under the sun. Lacking a breakthrough, the improving efficiency of solar panels is silently pushing oil out of the picture as solar is on its way to achieving cost parity with oil within the next few years. By that time, a plug-in electric car will cost less for fuel than a gasoline car.