Why biofuels have to work if motoring is to stay interesting

This isn’t specifically Saab-related, though their placement as early adopters of advanced ethanol technology users does place them in the mix here. It’s a bunch of thoughts I’ve had this morning as I’ve been considering the lack of focused Saab news out there, the recent Tesla press and the ongoing issue of enviromotoring.

Feel free to ignore or comment at will

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The world’s in the early stages of a big fuel-fuelled maze at the moment.

One one side of the debate is the fact that a) the dinojuice supply is finite, and b) all the carbon based emissions from the dinojuice are doing the world some harm. On the other side of the debate is the fact that oil-based propulsion is still the most efficient and widely adopted method we have of getting around. Add to that the fact that in it’s purest form, driving is a bucketload of fun.

The future is heading in a number of different directions right now. Gasoline, hybrids, diesels, full electric, hydrogen and ethanol. All are pieces in the puzzle and the final picture will most likely combine a few, if not all of them.

It’s at this point that I give thanks for the investment my parents made in my education and my own investment in buying a Viggen – because aside from internal combustion, the future looks about as interesting as a potato sack. As a result, I’m quite likely going to spend my next 30 years driving things with pistons, regardless of the cost I’ll incur to do so.

The great slinky-shaped hype right now is the Tesla Roadster. Tesla have just announced a slight delay in production of vehicles for actual delivery to consumers, but they should start in early 2008.

The hype’s based on a number of things.

First, the Lotus-inspired body styling. You can get an electric car and look cool in it. Second, the 0-60 time of sub-4 seconds. You can get an electric car and go fast in it, quickly. Third, it’s an electric car, meaning that aside from the $100,000 purchase price and whatever it ends up costing you to service, it won’t cost you anything to run except the charge costs from your power outlets at home.

But consider whether being in the Tesla cult will actually be exciting from a driving point of view. How long can you enjoy that quick acceleration before the batteries have to be recharged? Can you take it for a spirited afternoon drive on the twisties without having to plan your destination first, or plan for an overnighter while the car recharges enough to get it home again?

Is there ever going to be a Tesla racing series? I foresee a Tesla LeMans where there’s maybe an hour of racing at a reasonable pace followed by a 4-hour pitstop and then another hour of racing…..

In reality, a Tesla is going to be useful for uninspiring daily driving that involves less than a 200 mile trip (it’s just been rated at 236 miles highway, but you’d want to be cautious), which should be most days. It’ll be used by those that want to look cool doing their daily rounds, and it’ll be carjacked by gang-bangers wanting to do stealth drive-bys.

Tesla plan to build 600 cars in 2008 and the world can definitely cope with just 600 Teslas on the power grid. It can easily cope with 10 times that amount and more. But widespread adoption of full electric cars in the next 20 years may spark a whole new set of problems, though. Pun intended.

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Biofuels, on the other hand, have the potential to be efficient enough to minimise emissions through the closed loop nature of the growth cycle for the fuel used to power them. Whether it be diesel, ethanol or butanol, there’s a chance that we can produce goods for use and recycle some of the waste from them to produce fuel for transportation.

That scenario seems to offer room for a business case to be made that is viable going forward. The downfall of the full-electric argument is the assumption that people will act purely out of a motivation to better the environment. Well, it rarely happens and people, in a lot of instances, can’t afford to.

Tesla aren’t selling their butterfly kissing cars for peanuts becuase they’ve got a business to run, too.

I’ve heard some argue that the diesel boom in Europe will slow down as gasoline catches up with diesel in efficiency terms through new technologies. Whether or not this is even possible, I have no idea. But even if it were, it doesn’t get around the fact that all this does is add a year or ten to the lifetime of the world’s oil reserves.

Diesel has overtaken gasoline in Europe and I think it’ll make a big impact in the US once it’s released there and the fuel sources get better. There needs to be an accepted world standard for biodiesel, for example, that’ll make it commercially responsible to produce without damaging people’s engines.

Ethanol raises a whole different set of issues. It has it’s detractors, for sure, but it has its advantages, too, in terms of power-per-litre and rightsizing potential. As the fuel production and engine technology gets better the the fuel becomes more and more viable as an alternative.

Ethanol needs support to continue to grow. It’s not going to survive without government policy like that introduced in Sweden and Ireland and being considered by several other governments. Business won’t necessarily take actions without the profit incentive being in place somewhere along the line. Government won’t ordinarily make decisions without majority approval in the electorate, but areas such as ethanol are ones where government policy really can make a difference.

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As I said at the top, the world’s in fuel-fuelled maze. Better heads than mine will work it out one way or another. In the meantime I’ll get the Viggen fixed and try and keep it as efficient as possible. Maybe I’ll even plant 17 trees a year in the hills above our house to offset it.

Perhaps I’ll get an Aero TTiD in years to come. Or even a BioPower Hybrid.

But I won’t be driving around in a Tesla, I can guarantee that.

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5 Comments

  1. Interesting opinion piece, Swade. I enjoyed it. I obviously disagree with most of it, but I did enjoy it.

    First, let me point out that I don’t think you meant to write, “…oil-based propulsion is still the most efficient…”. Internal combustion engines are terribly inefficient. The estimated efficiency of an ICE is something along the lines of 20% (15% if you ask the U.S. Department of Energy). And people mock photovoltaic cells because of their dismal 40% efficiency! 😉

    On the contrary, I am of the opinion that the current revolution in automobile propulsion is the most exciting thing going in the car industry. I can’t believe that over 300 years after their invention we’re still using internal combustion engines, taking fossil-based fuels exploding them to drive pistons up and down and mechanically transfer energy to the wheels. It seems so Victorian to me! The internal-combustion engine is so past its relevancy!

    Electrical motors are much more efficient, have fewer moving parts (and are therefore more reliable) and provide maximum torque immediately, enabling the sub-4-second 0 to 60 mph time the Tesla has been clocked at. Speaking of the Tesla, you hypothetically ask how long one can drive that car at those speeds? The U.S. EPA certified it as having a range of 236 miles per charge in “highway” driving (252 “city” and 245 combined). That’s a heck of a lot further than I drive even on a weekend leisurely drive. And if you’re thinking it’s not enough to take you on a long trip, you should stop right there. One of the last cars you’d ever want to drive on a long trip is a Lotus Elise. They’re very “bare bones” inside to reduce weight and the sport seats are designed to keep you in place in the corners, not be comfortable. As for a Tesla racing series, sure. I know you were being facetious, but I’m sure they could swap-out a battery pack for a fully-charged one in less time than it takes to change the battery on your cell phone or replace all four tires.

    The reason it looks like a Lotus? Its chassis is manufactured by Lotus in England. It’s an Elise without an engine when it’s delivered to Tesla. Therefore you get the fabled Lotus handling and suspension in this car with an engine dropped-in that out-performs the standard ICE engine Lotus puts in the Elise (which if I remember correctly is a turbocharged Toyota 2.0-liter 4-cylinder).

    The wealthy enthusiasts who can afford this car aren’t doing so so that they can not have to ever spend a cent on gasoline. They’re doing it to have a unique car and be “early adopters” of the technology of the future. If I could afford one I would! Looks like a heck of a lot of fun. I hear the Elise is an excellent fun track-capable car. Its hard-top cousin the Exige posted some near-record times on Top Gear‘s track with The Stig at the wheel.

    Electric cars have a reputation for being slow and not being able to go far. I think the technology still has a ways to go (Tesla is basically daisy-chaining Lithium laptop batteries together!), but this is a great start and shows where the technology is headed. If they can get it going I think the Whitestar sedan or Bluestar might be something to look forward to in a few years. I’m also excited about the idea of GM’s E-Flex platform to emerge in the Chevrolet Volt (gasoline/ethanol flex-fuel), Opel Flextreme (diesel), and hopefully an as-of-yet-unannounced SAAB variant.

    The future looks like so much FUN! These cars can be fun as well as more environmentally-responsible. Look, I don’t want to drive around in a glorified golf cart either, but I believe you can have your cake and eat it too. We put a friggin’ man on the moon. We have to be able to solve this anthropomorphic global climate change problem. It’s not just cars, but that’s a good start. The future doesn’t have to look bleak. We can’t keep putting our heads in the ground. We have to act now before it’s too late.

  2. I think electrical technology is at least a couple of nobel prizes away from challenging controlled-explosion vehicles. Electricity still isn’t a viable option for doing something simple like lawn work.

    People get a justified look of horror on their faces when you tell them something is battery powered. People equate the phrases low battery, half dead, dead, and won’t hold a charge with batteries. A fuel tank is half empty, never half dead. With serial killers stalking our roadways, electric cars have a big uphill battle.

  3. Do I dare chime in, or no? 😉 Don’t want to stir things up too much…

    Gripen, I understand where you’re coming from. I too think sometimes “surely there’s gotta be something better out there than the low-efficiency ICE we’ve had for so long.”

    But I also recognize that the ICE isn’t just going to go away- I enjoy driving them and so do many other people. Just look at those who love the classic muscle cars. Don’t they know they’re “sooo outdated” and inefficient? Of course. But they don’t care about the lack of technology or the inefficiency. They like them for other reasons, and even though I would prefer a newer car (Turbo-X, please!), I respect their own decisions. Likewise I don’t see the the ICE being “irrelevant” as long as people still want them. Didn’t someone else say the same thing about Saab being irrelevant? Hogwash!

    Also, I have a bone to pick with the whole electricity theme in general. My dad was an exec. for a power utilities company for over 25 years, and I’ve learned a thing or two about practicality, and working with the sometimes ludicrous enviros. I want to mention a couple things:

    Let’s suppose electric cars become popular. Where do we get all the power from? (Even without electrical cars we still have to deal with this issue.) Environmentalists will tell us there are two good sources to power our homes (and cars): wind power and solar power. Maybe wave power as a distant third. Coal’s too dirty…natural gas and oil the same and will run out…hydroelectric power just isn’t good for the fish and alters the landscape…and heaven forbid you ever utter the word “nuclear”. Get real. We haven’t had one built in the US since, what, at least the 70s? And yet the “environmentally conscious” Europeans power a large percentage of their homes with nuclear power. Seems to work for them…

    The ironic thing is that wind and solar power are among the most COSTLY power sources, and least efficient per megawatt-hour. Even in windiest of places the wind turbines run at about 30% efficiency. Which means you have to build a whole lot more windmills to get the same given unit of power. And even they have an impact upon our environment too- they’re not perfect by any means. Do you want 400 wind turbines out your back window? And who is giddy with excitement to shell out all the extra money to increase solar and wind power? Strange how the ones pushing these technologies don’t want them behind THEIR houses…and they don’t want to pay for it themselves. I’d love to see Al Gore take some of his own personal money and the profits he makes off global warming and put it into better technologies.

    I too want to protect and take care of our planet. But we need to be practical about what solutions are actually REALISTIC. For example, I would hope to eventually see some improved encouragement and incentives for people to install solar panels on their homes. I think it’s practical, useful, and is even to the point that it doesn’t look as hideous as it used to. Even this is, however, is very costly for the average family to buy and install. The technology simply needs to get better and the price needs to drop before it can really be ramped up on any sort of gigantic scale.

    And this is primarily why we still use the ICE- there still simply isn’t a better alternative out there yet. I hope one day we have a more efficient, realistic option to choose from…but I don’t think the Tesla Roadster is the solution. I’ll start considering an electric vehicle when it can take me as far as a petroleum-based car with the ease of one (I have to plug it in where? For how long?!), but even then I don’t know if I’ll give up a piston-based engine completely.

  4. When I can drive an electric car to my folks house in Wyoming (450 miles away) without stopping to recharge, then I’ll be interested. Until then, they are just a curiosity, something for tech geeks and greenies to fawn over.

  5. I’m not feeling the need to step up on my soapbox on this topic today 🙂 , but there was a good video where David Pogue interviewed the guys from Tesla Motors and Bob Lutz (re the Volt) – CBS News

    I think the Volt is the right approach with an electric motor and extended range when needed through fuel-burning generator. I hope that Saab gets in on that platform or some sort of Biopower E-Flex within the next five years (but please don’t copy the marsupi-Opel from Frankfurt). In the mean time I’ll still be driving an internal combustion vehicle.

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