New Gas Mileage Rules Will Reshape What Americans Drive: Hybrids, Electrics, Cost

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2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

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Hybrids and plug-in electric cars probably get more press than they deserve, given how small their numbers are in the vehicle fleet.

The U.S. has roughly 250 million vehicles on the roads, of which less than 2 percent are hybrids and plug-ins of all kinds.

Nonetheless, both technologies are important because they're at the leading edge of the electrification of the automobile.

Car as appliance

If you think about it, a car is one of the last major consumer appliances that doesn't run on electricity.

Not only are most home appliances electric--though not all, certainly--so are outdoor appliances like weed-whackers, lawn mowers, and the like.

We won't all be driving plug-in cars tomorrow. Or by 2020. Or even by 2050.

But the proportion of electrically-run accessories and powertrains in the fleet will increase significantly starting ... well, about now.

Electric power steering

If you buy a smaller car from pretty much any maker these days, you may (or may not) have noticed that its power steering is no longer hydraulic.

Instead, a majority of new cars are now fitted with electric power steering (EPS) that uses an electric motor to move the steering rack or arms, which saves weight and power.

Feedback then has to be simulated through some fairly sophisticated software that looks at what the front wheels are actually doing, and weights the steering wheel in the driver's hands accordingly.

Some makers are better at it than others--we like Mazda's EPS, we generally don't like Toyota's--but hydraulic power steering is conclusively on its way out.

Next, air conditioning

Hybrids and plug-in cars also now have electric air-conditioning compressors, so that the climate control remains on even when a hybrid's engine switches off.

2010 Toyota Prius 1.8-liter gasoline engine, with no accessory drive belts

2010 Toyota Prius 1.8-liter gasoline engine, with no accessory drive belts

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Those compressors are still more expensive than the old compressors driven by a belt running off the engine's crankshaft pulley, and many of them require a high-voltage battery pack found only in hybrids or electrics.

But that's another accessory that will move toward electrification.

In fact, many makers are working toward the "beltless" engine--using the internal-combustion powerplant solely to provide motive power for the vehicle, with everything else that might sap power being run electrically.

Ford even built a prototype car that plugs in at night just to recharge a battery that powers the accessories--but doesn't power the car.

Tougher 2025 efficiency rules

Again, it's all in service of meeting the much tougher 2025 fuel-economy rules, while automakers do their absolute best to keep changes to user perceptions of how cars actually function to a minimum--or invisible.

So what are the technologies that will let automakers comply with the gas-mileage rules--and how will they change your next car?

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Comments (7)
  1. An excellent series of articles, John. If you combine what you talked about in part 1 with EV's discussed here in part 3, you can get ranges of 100-150+ miles with the exact same batteries used in today's EV's. The EV1 is still the most efficient production EV, and at highway speeds it uses just ~160Wh/mile. If the Leaf was this good, it would have a range of almost 140 miles.

    I'm pretty sure it would sell better if it did.

    Companies like Edison2 with their Very Light Car are a perfect example of all the themes you cover in these articles. They are close to finishing the 4th gen VLC.


  2. john,

    15 years ago, before hybrids were on the market, i was seeing trends in increased electrification of cars. More electronics, more computers, switches were becoming digital signals and a CAN bus would control things. By even the 80's Digital throttle was replacing wire/carb combos. At that time the prediction was Electric steering and electric braking would come in as ways to reduce build cost and improve packaging, not as efficiency matters. By having a digital brake pedal or a digital steering system, you eliminate the packaging constraints of hydraulic lines and big steering columns. I wasn't aware that a electric steering motor had surpassed a hydraulic pump and servo in power density.

  3. What I like about Hybrids is when you can take a midsize to a full size car and add an electric motor and a small battery technology and get 35-40 mpg out of it. Toyota and Ford really done a lot on the hybrids but not BEV's. I feel that only Tesla is pushing the EV market towards sustainability because of their desire to build a great sports sedan that just happens to be an EV. Once Tesla releases it's 3rd Gen $30,000 to $35,000 with 200 miles of range the other EV maker better up their battery capacity or Tesla will be eating their lunch. I like that Tesla is putting Supercharging stations across the United States and Elon Musk has almost single handedly pushed the EV market towards were it is today. Tesla Motors is the king of the BEV's

  4. Electric car and vehicles have low emissions and can become integral parts of a smart grid, where they do not just consume power, but also provide mobile storage of energy acquired during periods of high electricity generation from renewable sources, high winds or sunshine. In times of high demand, they can feed electricity back into the grid.

  5. The whole "Meeting peak needs with EVs" thing is almost certainly a unicorn. Charging and discharging the (relatively) expensive batteries of an EV is what degrades them. It would make far more sense to store the extra power in permanent facilities using cheap, heavy, flow batteries.

  6. I would really love to see Chevy integrate an IMA like system into the upcoming Camaro or Vette. Seems like the system is light and compact enough to really make a considerable difference in the city mileage of that type of vehicle.

  7. I've been prodding media to read the EPA/NHTSA final rule and here's why: The EPA ran analysis on 47,000 technology packages for 19 separate vehicle types to determine which packages were most effective at reducing CO2 emissions. Copy/paste this link to see results.
    Wait for it to load the right page and then hover/scroll through the technology list. Legend for abbreviations is at the bottom of the chart.

    This GCC series covers some of these technologies, but completely removes the CO2 component of the story. Yet CO2 is a newer, larger and more powerful component of regulations that are transforming the cars we drive. It's big story that consumers need to know.

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