By on June 30, 2006

1962Seattle2.jpgI’ve seen the car of the future.  It's not a diesel.  It’s not a hybrid.  It doesn’t run on electricity or natural gas or elastometric energy storage units recharged by rodents operating exercise wheels, supervised by domesticated felines. The future is sitting in a corner of your local Ford dealer's showroom gathering dust: a Ford Focus with the optional 2.0 E engine. This little runner is what’s called a PZEV (Practically Zero Emissions Vehicle).  That's a cut better than a ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) but not quite as good as a ZEV (Zero Emissions Vehicle).  Ah, but the Focus E is still the best a tree hugger can get.

If you think about it (a rare activity for people who focus more on politics than scientific facts), a Focus PZEV has less environmental impact than an electric-powered ZEV.  The ZEV rating measures only tailpipe emissions– not a vehicle’s the total impact on the environment.  Consider the infrastructure that supplies the energy for the electric car. Plug in an EV-1 every night, and someone throws on more coal at the powerplant.  In many cities, a PZEV car like the Focus E emits exhaust that is cleaner than the air it consumes.  In fact, creating instruments to measure the miniscule amounts of pollution from a PZEV car is a growth industry, and a real technological challenge.

Ford's joined in this technological accomplishment by BMW (325ci), Honda (Civic GX), Hyundai (Elantra), KIA (Spectra), Mazda (Mazda3 2.0), Mercedes (E350), Mitsubishi (Galant), Nissan (Sentra), Subaru (Legacy 2.5), Toyota (Camry), Volkswagen (Golf) and Volvo (V70); to name but a few makes and models. 

[GM is notably absent from the list of automakers building PZEV vehicles.  For 20 years, GM offered the most fuel-efficient cars in America. Starting with the Vega through to the three cylinder GEOs of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and the EV-1 electric car, GM spent a great deal of money to top the EPA's mileage list.  All these cars had one thing in common: no one bought them.  Eventually GM gave up this unprofitable pursuit.  While GM cars usually have the highest mileage in their respective categories, The General only makes a token effort (e.g. the Saturn VUE hybrid) to compete with high-mileage “loss leaders” like the Civic or Prius.] 

Of course, the gasoline-powered, internal combustion engine hasn’t finished cleaning up its act.  Every year, the old dear gets a little better.  Evolving technology– direct injection, semi-stratified charge combustion, higher operating temperatures, more reductions in internal friction, etc. — promises even cleaner and more fuel efficient cars in the future.  None of this is "news" in the media's view.  A cumulative 2% improvement in efficiency year on year doesn't make nearly as good a story as fuel cells, hybrids or diesels.  But spread this incremental improvement over 20 years and tens of millions of vehicle and the cumulative effect– in terms of the engines' overall environmental impact– is astounding.

There is a single but significant fly in the near-organic ointment: Americans don't buy fuel-efficient cars.  No matter how much the general public complains about the price of gas or the planet’s ascending temperature, the cleanest and most fuel efficient cars are often the most unloved.  The media never misses an opportunity to chronicle the "skyrocketing" sales of hybrids, but fails to point out that they're a relatively obscure breed.  Last year, total hybrid sales captured around 3% of the new car market.  Toyota sells more SUVs than that.  Since Toyota and others lose anywhere from $2k to $4k per car on their low-end hybrids, there is little incentive to drastically increase production and sales.  No wonder Bill Ford has pulled back from his public commitment to produce 250k hybrid-powered vehicles by the end of [this] decade.

So why do carmakers offer money-losing high mileage cars?  They have no choice.  As we’ve discussed here before, every car manufacturer has to meet a CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) number.  If Ford wants to sell Lincoln Navigators at a $10,000 markup without incurring a substantial EPA fine and/or negative PR fallout, they need a produce a passel of PZEV Foci to boost their fleet average– whether they sell or not.  Every carmaker suffers this problem.  Toyota chooses to lose their money on hybrids, and reap some positive PR. BMW pays the fines.  Ford, GM, Chrysler and others suffer in silence.

Few things are certain. But the most likely scenario for the car of the future is that it will be a lot like today's Ford Focus (minus the strange taillights, we hope).  It’ll be relatively small and simple, with an extremely sophisticated internal combustion engine. And, no doubt, gathering dust in the corner of the showroom, while buyers flock to the latest gas-guzzler, and pundits bemoan the state of the nation's oil consumption.

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18 Comments on “The Car of the Future...”

  • avatar

    I’d quibble a bit with the assertion that “Americans don’t buy fuel efficient cars.” I think it would be more accurate to say “Americans don’t buy cars where everything else is sacrificed for the goal of fuel efficiency” which I think is an accurate statement.

    I’ll admit I’m probably out of the mainstream since I was concerned about fuel economy even when gas was cheap (not because I’m a bunny hugger, but because I’m a tightwad. More MPG=more money in my pocket and less in my tank.)

    MPG was one concern when I got my current ride (Subaru Outback) but even it’s not close to being a real “economy” car in terms of MPG. To tell the truth, I’d love to have a truck again, but ever since the cheap-fuel-90’s, even “mini” trucks have been getting bigger and bigger (the 2006 Toyota Tacoma is bigger than the ’71 Chevy Blazer I drove when I was in my 20’s.) With the increase in size and HP, comes a corresponding decrease in MPG until you have a situation now where the “mini” trucks and SUVs get just about the same (crappy) mileage as their full-size competitors. If I’m going to get 18mpg anyway, why not get the full size vehicle?

    I lament the fact that the fuel-efficient diesels that are sold in every other part of the world aren’t available here, either because they can’t meet emissions standards or because the manufacturers are afraid that gas prices will drop again and leave them holding onto a bunch of slow accelerating cars that nobody wants (which is what happened the last time they tried to bring small diesels to the US in the early 80’s.)

    I’m not a sports car guy (if I want to go fast, I have a motorcycle) and I don’t really care about lightning acceleration. I would be happy to buy a more fuel efficient car, but I’m not willing to sacrifice the benefits that my Subaru provides (AWD, plenty of room for cargo, comfort, and the ability to traverse rough dirt roads without having to worry about leaving parts behind) to save a mere 10 mpg.

    If manufacturers would simply offer more fuel efficent power plants in the popular cars they already sell, more people would be willing to “go green.”

  • avatar

    Of course Americans do buy fuel efficient cars — millions of Americans buyers a year do. If you counted, the American market for fuel-efficient cars is probably bigger than the total car market in Japan. We just also have lots of people who also buy the gas hogs (but less all the time, that’s for sure) — and we have US car makers unable to make an appealing efficient car.

    But c’mon, people are going absolutely apesh*t over the new Yarises and Fits, not to mention Civics — I can’t find any of those on lots, and I keep looking. And the one American car selling like hotcakes is the reasonably-efficient Dodge Caliber. Heck, I even like that one, and I love to bash Detroit.

  • avatar

    The problem with diesel in North America is the very high sulphur content relative to the diesel in Europe. That is a substantial contributor to the lack of diesel options here — the engine management systems on the newer diesels require very low sulphur levels. Both the US and Canadian governments have mandated higher standards, so eventually we should see more options.

    Martinjmpr: are we twins? I too have a Subie (Forester — wife didn’t like the visibility out of the Outback) and a motorcycle for kicks. I’d also like a truck, but have the same issue you do with the lousy mileage of so-called small pickups. Spooky…

    On a marginally related subject: anyone seen the DaVinci Code movie? I got a kick out of the SMART car chase seen, wherein the car (a diesel) sounds decidedly like a gasoline-engined whip.

  • avatar

    Sure I’d like to have a more efficient car, but I dont really want to pay for it in terms of comfort, materials quality and reliability…. I’d have enough trouble giving up AWD and acceleration. Give me a 4cyl TDI A4 quattro with a manual gearbox and I’ll be happy. I’d much prefer the V6 TDI but since we’re pinching pennies on the face of the dollar I’ll settle for the four banger and some larger injectors & a turbocharger and a remap of the ECM… got torque?

    The focus is a tin of stale anchovies which I’m not in any sort of a hurry to consume…. perhaps I will change my tune when its the end of the world and I’m like mad max with my gangly dog sharing a can of yummy dinty dog food. Till then I’ll suffer with the 20mpg average I get in my A4.

  • avatar

    Dean: I’m surprised that more car guys aren’t into bikes. You can buy more performance-per-dollar for $10k with a motorcycle than you can with $50k in a car. My bike (Triumph Thunderbird) isn’t even particularly fast but it’s fast enough to out accellerate just about anything short of a Porsche or a blown Mustang and it still gets 40-50mpg depending on how I ride.

    As for the Subaru, here in Colorado they’re as common as weeds. I used to call it the “Poor man’s Volvo” but with the apparently diminishing reputation of Volvo, that may be doing a disservice to Subaru.

  • avatar

    There are two problems I have with this statement.

    The first problem is the definition of emissions and pollutant. The US and Europe seem to have almost the exact opposite as definition for that. The US defines emissions as NOx, hydrocarbons, and particulates. While Europe uses those in their definition too, the emphasis is on CO2. CO2 is not currently labeled as emission here (and watch those public service announcements denouncing the attempt to do so. The regulations therefore influenced what is popular and available on the market. In Europe that was diesels because they emit less CO2 and here it was hybrids and low emission vehicles because they emit less NOx. This leads me directly to the second problem.

    The second problem is that when designing a new engine there is and always will be a trade-off between the different types of gases that come out of the tail pipe. If you want to have low CO2, you will end up with more NOx and vice versa (higher temperature and compression means more efficient and less fuel used and lower CO2 output but more NOx). Now it so happens that the amount of fuel burnt is almost directly related to how much CO2 is produced. This means that a high mileage car will produce equally less CO2, but it will produce more NOx (mostly due to higher absolute pressure in the combustion chamber, like in diesels that have a very high pressure spike during ignition; reducing that spike will not only reduce the noise but also NOx to some extent). Looking at electric or fuel cell or even other vehicles and comparing their environmental impact to combustion vehicles is very difficult. There is a desire to move away from the internal combustion engine because findamental laws of thermodynamics show that even the best internal combustion engine will never be over 30% efficient (that is convert more than 30% of the energy in the fuel to energy moving the car). This engine would at the same time have a very high NOx output due to the very high temperatures and pressures required to achieve this efficiency.
    Other types of power sources a much more efficient and not limited by the laws of thermodynamics, like fuel cells. However, they come with a number of other drawbacks that currently make them less efficient or useable than a regular combustion engine (or how would you like a one hour required warmup for your fuel cell car?).
    So I guess my point is that there is no silver bullet and comparing different choices in car engines between here and Europe isn’t exactly easy.

  • avatar

    and just to add some quick additional note:
    Manufacturers will on purpose lower the compression and the fuel/air ratio in the engine for US models to meet the NOx standards compared to the European models where they will up them to be able to meet the CO2 standards. The wierd thing is that due to the shared platforms and engines they usually have to design an engine that can be tuned so that it will meet both standards with only minor modification and it therefore will be overall less efficient and put out more CO2 and NOx than an engine properly optimized for just one set of regulations could

  • avatar

    Also, lets face it, Honda doesn’t give a flying F about CAFE: their fleet is so far above the cutoff that its not even funny.

    Yet they sell a TON of Civics, and make money on it.

    GM has gone backwards, seriously backwards, in the small car game. The 95 saturn I have is every bit as good as a 95 civic, and gets equal mileage (30/40, and actually we DO see 40 on a regular basis).

    Now? The Ion gets 25/32 or so, compared with the 06 civic which STILL gets 30/40, and gets the same power…

    How can GM F up so badly?

  • avatar

    augury – one minor comment: everything has to obey the laws of thermodynamics, fuel cells don’t get a free pass :)


  • avatar

    true, but they don’t depend on a thermodynamic cycle like a car engine, which is limited mainly by the temperature difference between hot and cold side of the cycle
    fuel cells, however, are still bound by the limits of the reaction driving the electron exchange

  • avatar

    Hi, I see the (insult followed by a) claim:

    If you think about it (a rare activity for people who focus more on politics than scientific facts), a Focus PZEV has less environmental impact than an electric-powered ZEV.

    As an (insulted) chemist, I’d at least like a link to the numbers. What are the grams per mile for the Focus E, and what do you think the equivalents are for electrics, given the common upstream sources (natural gas, nuke, coal).

    For what it’s worth, natural gas is the biggest source here in California, though the total mix is quite varied. According to my Southern California Edison stub, I got 1% of my 2004 power from solar, 1% small hydro, 2% biomass, 3% wind, 9% large hydro, 11% geothermal, 18% coal, 22% nuke, 33% natural gas.

  • avatar

    I have a few comments:

    1) There is nothing inevitable about consumers buying gas guzzling large cars/trucks/SUVs. Prior to 1991, NO ONE bought a Hummer, or an Excursion, or a Cayenne. The SUV/truck craze is/was a fashion trend, enabled by $12/bbl. oil prices. I just visited Quebec and found a *very* different vehicle mix than in New England. Is there some genetic feature of Francophone Canadians that makes them able to deal with traffic, adverse weather, etc. with driving huge 4WD truck-based vehicles? I don’t think so.

    2) There are extra costs associated with PZEVs. Not as high as hybrid vehicles, but there are still some. I am particularly familiar with the PZEV BMW 325i (E46). On that car, if *anything* goes wrong with the fuel tank,fuel filler neck, fuel filter, fuel pump, or fuel level sender(s), the entire fuel tank has to be replaced (everything is sealed inside). Part cost is $2,800 retail. Similarly, the radiator is coated with catalyst material that breaks down smog compounds in the air passing over the fins. It is a violation of federal law to replace the radiator with an uncoated one. BMW radiators are already very expensive, I’m sure the coated one is even more so. The air injection system has a mass air flow meter on it. Yet another expensive part that can (and does) fail. I don’t know which of these technologies are on other PZEV cars, but it may make more sense to pay $40/mo. extra on a car payment to get hybrid technology, than to pay for these expensive parts when they come off warranty.

    3) NOx vs. CO2 — There may be changes coming in this trade-off. With advanced air/fuel ratio sensors, fast light-off catalysts, NOx-specific controls (e.g. urea injection) and the like, keeping NOx controlled is becoming more practical. Also, there may be changes in smog laws coming. Recent evidence indicates that NOx is *less* important in ground level ozone (smog) formation than previously believed and hydrocarbons (unburned fuel) more important. This may enable automakers to tune engines for better performance/lower CO2 emissions.

  • avatar

    I’m not saying the manufacturers are stuck on the same trade-off line between NOx/CO2. Any new technology can and will shift the overall line. But for any given technology level engine there is such a trade-off line.

    And the funny thing with the urea injection is that yes it reduces NOx, but you are now emitting Ammonia. I have no clue what amount, but I’m pretty sure it’s not good for health or environment. The reason to go to urea injection is simply that Ammonia is currently not regulated.

  • avatar
    David Holzman

    The consequences of CO2 emissions for the planet are potentially far worse than those of NOx. If “business as usual” continues for the rest of the century, the planet will be about 20 degrees warmer, according to John Holdren of Harvard’s Kennedy School, one of the smartest and most unbiased people who works on this issue. Even an additional 3 degrees C. will do terrible things to agriculture. So the Europeans are right to emphasize reducing CO2.

    The whole CO2 thing pains me deeply, because I love the internal combustion engine. It is probably the most refined machine on the planet, and it is loaded with character (have you listened to a Porsche lately?) unlike hybrids, fuel cells, etc. The GM skateboard has about as much character is a PC. Alas.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Electric automobiles would, if used simply for commuting, be recharged at off-peak hours. They wouldn’t impact the so-called “grid.” But not to worry. they make too much sense for most Americans to buy. Most people don’t commute more than 35 miles a day. Nonetheless, because there are no portable chargers to speak of – just those “battery boxes” that save many a collector car seller, trying to hobble his or her old crock to the docket at auction – most Americans will always prefer petrol-driven vehicles (until a hydrogen-based infrastructure is in place, thanks to BP. etc. etc.)
    It is true enough that even electric autos pollute, due to the coal fueld power stations. However – and this is a big “however” – even if the sales of electric autos doubled, the impact if fueled at off-peak hours, would still mean cleaner skies than an America with every other yahoo driving an SUV. But as said earlier, not to worry. The electric car is, essentially “dead.” With hybrids, it seems to be another story.
    As far as choices for the “tree huggers,” Honda has been making the EX Civic which gets mileage in the mid-40 mpg range and has qualified for years as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle. Still, it is good to know that Ford Motor Company has joined into the race for high-mileage, low emissions automobiles. Your editorial Robert will steer those who want to help Ford survive, while wondering what to drive, after reading the piece by Johny Leiberman on the ridiculous Explorer Extra-Trac.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Correction: meant to write, “Your editorial, Bob….” Sorry to confuse Mr. Eaton with editor-in-chief Farago. By the way Bob, really liked your piece (archived now) comparing the demise of Packard with Lincoln’s (seemingly) eminent demise. It’s great that there is someone writing for TTAC whose sense of history – automotive and otherwise – stretches back more than five years.

  • avatar
    Bob Elton

    Almost all of the comments miss the point of this article. It’s not about CO2, NOx, etc. It’s about the fact that there is no new or exotic technology required to drastically reduce the impact of the automobile on the environment. Just a change in attitudes. And, judging from the response to the article, there is little chance of that.


  • avatar

    Just checking back in … I think we're on different wavelengths in these comments Bob.  I already own a Prius, and I leave it in the garage a lot, as I walk and ride my bicycle. Don't tell me about missing the point, when I've got thousands of miles on my bicycles. Now, my comment above was to call out that comment about EVs and pollution (of any type) per mile.  Is that defended somewhere?  Or just gleaned from some oil/car company's PR material?

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