SAE - Alternative Cars in the 21st Century A New Personal Transportation Paradigm

Organization: SAE
Publication Date: 17 October 2003
Page Count: 544


Robert Riley's original 1994 edition of Alternative Cars in the 21st Century: A New Personal Transportation Paradigm arrived at a critical time and served a vital need. A new priority on electric cars was then stimulating public interest, regulatory attention, and many technological developments. Information to the public was characterized by an overload of conjecture, complexity, and alternatives. Riley brought some clarity to the field. He put things in perspective, backed up by quantitative exploration. Now it is nine years later. Many more forces and technologies have entered the ring. The stakes are higher. This new, considerably revised edition appears at an even more critical time. There are now many more complexities, alternatives, and overload from information and misinformation. Clarifying realities and providing perspective become more vital. Riley handles the task well.

Throughout the 20th century, cars have been infiltrating into the very soul of the United States. In a symbiotic relationship, cars and highways created us as we created them. Cars came to define us: where we live relative to where we work, our recreations, our mating patterns, and our self-esteem. A galactic observer, upon first looking down on the United States, might assume cars to be the dominant lifeform: they travel widely, avoid jostling each other, but congregate closely and rest regularly in giant meeting lots. Little twolegged subunits might be their slaves. Are the galactic observer's insights mistaken? In any case, use of cars grew huge because of the many benefits they provided us. When automotive technology changed, it was mostly by small steps, with an occasional kick from regulations about exhaust emissions, fuel economy (corporate average fuel economy [CAFE] requirements), and safety. The 1990s initiated a decade of faster change. Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickups, insulated from CAFE rules, became increasingly popular with customers whose interest in being in the heavier vehicle when collisions occurred outweighed concerns about poor fuel efficiency (or the fate of the occupants of the lighter vehicle). Manufacturers who had continually lost money trying to market small, fuel-efficient cars now found profits in the heavier, low-mpg vehicles. In a broad sense, the people who design cars are the customers (aided of course by auto company engineers), and they have designed well, although more for individual than societal benefit.

An underlying theme of alternative cars is the combination of continuing to meet our needs for safe and convenient personal mobility while decreasing local and global pollution and our dependence on nonrenewable energy sources. An obvious and practical strategy is adopting vehicles that do their job with much less energy. This cuts consumption (and preserves reserves) of conventional fuels and opens opportunities for alternative energies (mostly renewable, with low pollutant emissions) that may initially be more expensive and less convenient. Riley's entrance into the mobility field came through small, very efficient vehicles-a better starting point for his ideas than if he had been embedded in the midst of the standard car field. I am perhaps biased in his favor because of having personally entered the serious mobility field from the standpoint of very efficient specialty vehicles that had to rely on the puny power of human muscles or photovoltaic cells.

The alternative car field has evolved from a century featuring many car developments, both technological and societal. A significant modern change element emerged on January 3, 1990. The battery-powered GM Impact was first presented to the public at a press conference with Roger Smith, GM's chairman, presiding. I will never forget one of his prophetic remarks. He noted that auto companies had some hesitancy about introducing a new technology because of their experience that regulation of the technology usually followed quickly. On Earth Day 1990, he announced that GM would actually commit to producing the car commercially. Within several months the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate was established by the California Air Resources Board. This required that in a few years every manufacturer sell some ZEVs (presumably battery-powered) along with their regular products. In a sense it was a flawed concept, requiring manufacturers to develop, manufacture, sell, and warrant the revolutionary vehicles, but not requiring anyone to buy them.

Nevertheless, as the next generation looks back at what initiated healthy fundamental change in mobility technologies and applications for the United States and even the rest of the world, the importance of the ZEV mandate as a catalyst, a wake-up call, will be appreciated. The mandate's details evolved, adapting to a combination of changing technological reality and the vested interest of political and economic entities. For GM, the pioneering task of turning the Impact demonstrator into the commercial EV-1 was formidable. The total vehicle systems design, with high priority on vehicle efficiency dictated by the low energy capability of batteries, represented dramatic change. For the first time, virtually every part needed to be made of unconventional material, fashioned by new production techniques. It was a daring step into the future by GM. The EV-1's commercial viability is unimportant compared to the value of its initiation of significant dedication to change throughout the industry.

Globally the major car companies began serious exploration of alternative power technologies. Small entrepreneurial groups sensed the emergence of what looked like big new opportunities. Government funding, governmentindustry partnerships, and government laboratory support appeared. This period proved to be an education for all, as the small entrepreneurs slowly began to appreciate the magnitude of resources required for meeting reliability standards and production economies of the auto industry, while the large entities began exploring the uncomfortable introduction of revolutionary technologies into an industry (and to customers) more accustomed to advancing by small steps. The inexorable rise of U.S. dependence on foreign oil sources (including from countries with political agendas far different from ours), and the contribution of fossil fuel emissions to global climate change, emerged as serious challenges to the status quo. A new ballgame had arrived, with the rules undefined, and with new players.