Prompted by several emails from our resident treehugger, 1985 Gripen….
I really do think that ethanol has a part to play in the energy question facing the world today. Opponents of ethanol often treat the argument as if it’s being proposed as the only solution, which it most certainly isn’t. It’s a piece of a larger puzzle, but it’s a piece that’s available now using technology that’s still developing and getting better.
There’s a number of grass roots campaigners in the US getting quite vocal in their opposition to ethanol. There’s the food vs fuel people, who don’t agree that using corn is OK at all, and there’s the people who think that the use of corn is making kids in Mexico go hungry due to high corn prices. There’s the people that either don’t see or choose to ignore the emerging cellulosic ethanol technologies. And there’s Autoblog Green, who I have to say seem to be embracing anything that’s anti-ethanol lately. If it ain’t electric or diesel then it’s negative over there right now.
I get where they’re coming from, especially in the context of the US market. I just fear for what it might mean for Saab as a company that are leaders in the application of E85 technology.
Here’s one of the reasons why there’s a lot of cynicism about ethanol in the US market. Take a look at the range of E85 compatible vehicles available in the US in 2008. (Source, ABG and the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition)
4.7L Chrysler Aspen
2.7L Chrysler Sebring Convertible & Sedan
3.3L Chrysler Town & Country
2.7L Dodge Avenger
4.7L Dodge Dakota
4.7L Dodge Durango
3.3L Dodge Grand Caravan
4.7L Dodge Ram
4.7L Jeep Commander & Grand Cherokee
4.6L Ford Crown Victoria (including taxi & police units)
5.4L Ford F-150
4.6L Mercury Grand Marquis
3.5L & 3.9L Chevrolet Impala (including police units)
5.3L Chevrolet Avalanche & Silverado, GMC Sierra
5.3L Chevrolet Express & GMC Savana
5.3L Chevrolet Suburban & GMC Yukon XL
5.3L Chevrolet Tahoe & Police Package Tahoe, GMC Yukon
3.9L Chevrolet Uplander
3.9L Pontiac Montana (only available in Canada & Mexico)
5.6L Nissan Armada
5.6L Nissan Titan
3.0L Mercedes Benz C300 Luxury & Sport
The smallest engine on that list is a 2.7 litre Chrysler unit. As you can see, most of these vehicles are SUVs and with the reduced mileage that you get on E85, they’re not going to be hardcore E85 users.
What we have here, quite simply, is a CAFE dodge. I don’t have a full understanding of the CAFE system, but it goes a little something like this: The US fuel economy regulations give some exemptions for a car company’s average fuel economy ratings (as measured accross their range of vehicles) if some of those vehicles are flex fuel. Naturally, the carmakers rort this loophole and make some of their biggest gas guzzlers E85 compatible so that they’re not caught in the calculations.
This isn’t intelligent use of E85 technology, nor is it an altruistic environmental gesture on the carmaker’s behalf. It’s intelligent use of the law to stay in business at a profit. GM’s not the only one, as you can see. For example, Ford has a very popular E85 vehicle in Europe, the Ford Focus Flexfuel. You can buy a Focus in the US (sedan only – bah!) but you can’t buy a Flexfuel version according to the list. Ford only offer it in their rather huge engines.
So what does all this mean for Saab?
Well, Saab’s BioPower technology is heading in a more sensible direction with regard to the use of E85. Saab’s philosophy of applying turbocharging to make better use of the high octane rating in the fuel means that you can use smaller engines to get more power. You still take a hit in fuel economy but even so, your doing much better than you would be in a big SUV. More power also equals more fun when you want it.
Saab hopes to use this technology to ‘right size’ engines in future models. Where they currently have 2 litre engines as the smallest size available (the 1.8 Biopower is actually a 2 litre engine) they hope to bring in smaller engines, around 1.4 litres for a future smaller Saab, for example. One would envision that this engine would be developed with BioPower in mind (rather than just having ethanol-resistant hardware added to a regular gasoline engine) and incorporate further efficiency gaining technology.
This is a more realistic view of ethanol as a fuel. Given the cycle of its production, it really does have the potential to slow the emissions from carbon-based sources. And given the emergence of cellulosic technology it really is becoming more viable as a realistic fuel option. The other major knock on ethanol in the US is that it’s produced from corn. It’s inefficient and adds gusto to the food vs fuel debate.
So what happens when Saab introduce BioPower to the US market. Will their ‘right’ attitude to the fuel show up the ‘wrong’ attitude exhibited by US carmakers so far? How are they going to market this technology an overcome the hurdles that to an extent, are of the parent company’s own making?
Time will tell, I guess.