Hybrids: A Cleaner Way to Drive

Hybrids: A Cleaner Way to Drive

Imagine for a moment, that overnight, several oil tankers that were headed to the U.S. were sunk by terrorists. In response to this new, the gas stations have long lines and the price at the pump has gone up dollar from what it was yesterday. To make matters more unsettling, the weather service is notifying viewers that the tropical storm that was several hundred miles out to sea has shifted its direction, aimed for the east coast, and is turning into a hurricane. With the possibility of power outages, people are not only filling their vehicles, but gas cans for generators as well. The situation becomes increasingly tense as local governments ask that communities stick together and help their neighbors; as the impending fuel shortages will impede the National Guard’s ability to provide aid and security during and after the storm. While this scenario is fiction, it is not unrealistic and emphasizes the need for the U.S. to decrease its dependence on foreign oil and increase its forward motion toward more fuel efficient modes of transportation (Stein, 2013).

As of a 2012 report by the Department of Energy, the United States spends almost $1 billion a day to purchase oil, from other countries, that Americans use to power their cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships. An additional $55 billion is spent annually on the effects from the emissions from these transportation modes, i.e. health and environmental damages. In response to this information “advances in electric vehicles, engine efficiency, and clean domestic fuels open up cost-effective opportunities to reduce our oil dependence, avoid pollution, and create jobs designing and manufacturing better cars, trucks, and petroleum alternatives” (U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 2012a). In order to increase the U.S. consumers desire to consider purchasing a hybrid, manufacturers are addressing the issues of price, fuel economy, and overall sustainability.  Of course, as with anything that may affect consumer spending, the political aspect, both nationally and internationally, presents another aspect to be considered.

Building a Better Hybrid

Hybrid vehicles are more than just a car or that runs on battery power; hybrids embrace all the available technology that will ultimately reduce America’s consumer dependence on foreign oil to power our transportation industry. So what makes a car a hybrid? “There are three degrees of hybridization, such as mild, full, and depending on the hybrid, a different drivetrain” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013). To be considered a hybrid, the vehicle must meet the first three of five characteristics; idle-off capability, regenerative braking capacity, power assist and engine downsizing are considered “mild” hybrids; when electric-only drive mode is added, it is considered a “full” hybrid. The final characteristic, extended battery-electric range makes the vehicle a “plug-in” hybrid.  In order to meet the goal of reducing foreign oil dependence and reducing environmental impact, the manufacturing industry is addressing one of the significant issues of hybrid vehicles, price; the designers of hybrid vehicles are addressing the issues of battery cost, electric drivetrains, structural weight, engine efficiency, and fuel (DOE, 2012a).

Batteries and Drivetrains

Better Batteries. In the past, America has fallen behind in the development of a better vehicle; however, since 2009 the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and U.S. auto makers are making strides to change this. One way is the manufacture of advanced vehicle batteries, an industry that has jumped from two factories in 2009 to 30 in 2012, allowing for the U.S. to be able to produce the number of batteries and components large enough to fulfill and support the production of one million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles by 2015. Not only will this industry advancement put America in a good manufacturing stance, it also decreases unemployment by tens of thousands American workers (DOE, 2012a). While hybrid vehicles have been on the market for several years, their popularity was diminished because of the cost of the vehicle. EERE has worked to reduce that cost by reducing the cost of the battery system by more than 35% since 2008 and working to further reduce the cost by 70% by 2015 (DOE, 2012a).      

Electric Drivetrains. The reduction of the cost of the battery components is only one dimension of the hybrid that is being addressed, as the drivetrain is also going electric. The drivetrain is the mechanics of powering the drive wheels and with hybrids there are three different options, series, parallel, and series/parallel; with the type of drivetrain used depending on the overall use of the vehicle. The series drivetrain has an independent electric motor to start the vehicle’s motion and a computer that determines whether the power to run the motor comes from the battery or the gasoline engine. Because the engines in series drivetrain vehicles are generally smaller than conventional engines and the battery cell is larger, these vehicles are better suited for the stop and go traffic of large urban areas and being considered for use in buses and other urban vehicles, such as taxis and limo services. Through the use of a computer and transmission the parallel drivetrain is the choice of most hybrid vehicles being manufactured for consumer use. This drivetrain operates from the energy supplied by both the gasoline engine and the battery cell (smaller than that used with a series drivetrain), and also uses the regenerative braking to recharge the battery. With the engine directly connected to the drive wheels, the inefficiency of converting mechanical power to electricity and back is eliminated, making these hybrids better suited to highway driving; finally, while more expensive, series/parallel drivetrains combine the best of both systems with a larger battery cell and a generator as well (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013).

The combination of these technologies results in vehicles that are consuming less fuel and reducing environmental impact with the reduction of CO2 emissions. Since the passing of the “Clean Air Act” (1973) and its revision in 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is spearheading programs such as the “National Clean Fleets Partnership”; where corporate compliance is evident in major companies like UPS, FedEx, Pepsi, Schwan’s, and others, where they are upgrading their fleets to electric, hybrid, and alternate fuel vehicles and redesigning their routes to further reduce drive time and fuel consumption (DOE, 2012b).

Recyclability

As the concept, production, and utilization of hybrid vehicles becomes more mainstream, the flaws in production of these vehicles also become more apparent; especially in regards to the recycling of the battery. Every battery eventually comes to a point where it can no longer be recharged and must be replaced. In the case of batteries used in hybrid vehicles the issue has grown with the size of the battery. Because of the caustic nature of the materials used in building these batteries, they cannot be simply thrown away. Current regulatory policy has put the responsibility of recycling these batteries on the manufacturer. As seen with current hybrid models, such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic, the manufacturer, Panasonic, reclaims the batteries and reuses the materials in the production of new batteries. However, other companies, who do not reuse the batteries’ components in the manufacture of new batteries, burn them. This practice results in another complicated and environmentally disastrous situation; one that requires strict regulations and standards to be applied and enforced (Lewis, Park, & Paolini, 2012, pg. 5).

Sustainability

            In keeping with the need to reduce oil dependency, the power needed to operate the factories that are manufacturing the hybrid batteries, drivetrains and vehicles, needs to come from sustainable sources. After all, it’s counter-productive to manufacture a product, with an end goal of reducing negative environmental impact, in a facility that is creating more pollution than will be reduced by its product. The solution is building factories that use energy systems that are sustainable, i.e. solar, wind or biomass and converting current operations to systems that apply combined heat and power (CHP)(DOE, 2012c). The same principle could be applied to the recharging stations that will need to be built for electric vehicles (EVs) to plug into to recharge (Stein, 2013, p.11).

Lighter Weight Materials

Magnesium alloys, high-strength steel, titanium, and carbon-fiber composites are the next step in developing a lighter weight vehicle. Research is determining that for every 10% of reduced vehicle weight there is a 7% gain in fuel efficiency. DOE has a goal to reduce overall car weight by 50% by 2015; thereby reducing overall fuel costs by $4,300 over the life of the vehicle (EERE, 2012). Because of reduced fuel demands, the U.S. will ultimately also reduce its dependence on foreign oil imports by 25%. Another continuing advantage of using these lighter weight materials would be a dramatic reduction in the need to mine for iron ore and other steel related materials; further reducing production costs. These lighter weight materials would be used, not only on the body of the vehicles, but the engine and other internal components as well (Schutte, 2012).

Politics

On a national and international level, the politics of “going green” is not uncharted territory. The implementation of the Clean Air Act (1973) and the ongoing concern of foreign oil dependence have made the future of hybrid vehicles inevitable; however, achieving these goals requires policy change, a more focused pursuit of battery fuel energy, and concentrated efforts to reduce overall cost of ownership of hybrids.

Domestic Policy.  Due in part to the high cost of hybrid ownership, advancements in battery production is needed to reduce these costs; thereby making hybrids more affordable for a broader section of consumers. While the number of companies, in the U.S. that are manufacturing hybrid batteries has risen, tax incentives and monetary awards to companies that further the advancement of battery technology, would go a long way in realizing a larger volume of consumer hybrid vehicle purchases. Although there were tax credits given from 2006 through 2009, they were limited due to the number of hybrid vehicles that were being imported, instead of being manufactured domestically. Further complications and causes for a less than stellar forward mobility is, with decades to establish a firm foothold, the oil industry has no desire to reduce its current dominance or relevancy and continues to lobby against interests that are trying to make substantial gains in battery fuel development and implementation (Lewis, Park, & Paolini, 2012, pg. 6).

Foreign Policy. The advantages of reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil are numerous; most notably the tenuous relationship between the U.S. and China, concerning their combined dependence on oil produced in the Persian Gulf, specifically, Saudi Arabia. By reducing oil dependency, the U.S. could reasonably decrease its military presence; thereby cutting the cost of maintaining that presence and also removing the need to continue the provision of weapons, as has been done to keep the U.S. in favor with the Saudi Oil suppliers. Of course it is unreasonable to think that reducing foreign oil dependence means that U.S. military presence can be reduced to zero, the circumstances are not so simplistic; although, just as there remains a military presence in Germany, South Korea, and Japan, at least the volume of military personnel can be drastically reduced. By eliminating the need to protect sea trade routes, like the Strait of Malacca, 70-100 billion dollars could then be available to further the advancement of hybrid battery production and other areas of hybrid sustainability, i.e. the charging station infrastructure (Lewis, Park, & Paolini, 2012, pg. 6).

Economics

            “If the United States stopped using gasoline to power its automobiles, it would essentially become energy independent overnight” (Stein, 2013, pg. 6). Although the statement may have some truth to it, it is hardly plausible and more likely that complete energy independence will take several years to occur; with the biggest issue being the affordability of hybrids and EVs for the general public.  While the U.S. is making steady progress in economic recovery, the high number of Americans that are still unemployed and struggling to make ends meet also means there is a considerably high number of consumers who are not even thinking about hybrid or electronic vehicles, let alone considering a purchase. “For example, in 2009, there were 8.8 million families living below the poverty line. For an idea of what that measures, for a family of four made up of two adults and two children, the poverty line was $21,756.93” (Stein, 2013, pg. 16). That level of income is less than the outright purchase price of most hybrid vehicles available in today’s market.

Personal Choice

            While conducting my research on hybrid vehicles available today, making a purchasing decision is far from easy. I chose 5 hybrid models to research and while I am in no position to purchase a vehicle, I did my research under the assumption of a better financial picture. It is also important to understand that what may be important to one consumer when considering a vehicle purchase, it may be of no concern to another. When considering a hybrid purchase, I looked at what’s important to me and quite frankly I am not impressed with my options. First and foremost is the vehicle must be made in the USA. I really liked the Subaru hybrid model; however, after discovering it was neither designed nor manufactured in the U.S., I removed it from my list. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the Ford Fusion is assembled in Mexico and even more disturbing, of the models I chose to research, not one was both designed and manufactured in the America. So setting my disappointment aside I continued my comparisons based on other personal criteria. (See page 12) Because I like to travel, when finances permit, I spend several hours in my car and comfort and ergonomics are essential. I am long-legged so legroom is important as well as cargo space for luggage and camera gear. So after basing my decision on best overall fuel economy and the amenities that I wanted, I chose the 2014 Toyota Avalon XLE (Kelley Blue Book, 2014). While it’s fun to dream, it will be some time before a vehicle like that finds its way into my driveway; although, maybe by then, Subaru will be built in the U.S.

 

References

Kelley Blue Book. (2014). Cars for sale. Retrieved from http://www.kbb.com/cars-for-sale/?tab=mkmd

Lewis, H., Park, H., & Paolini, M. (2012). Frontier battery development for hybrid vehicles. Chemistry Central Journal, 6(1). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.edmc.edu/10.1186/1752-153X-6-S1-S2

Schutte, C. (2012). Lightweighting Materials. Vehicle Technologies Program. Retrieved from http://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/pdfs/merit_review_2012/plenary/vtpn04_lm_schutte_2012_o.pdf

Stein, F. (2013). Ending America’s energy insecurity: Why electric vehicles should drive the United States to energy independence. Homeland Security Affairs, 9(1). Retrieved from https://login.libproxy.edmc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.edmc.edu/docview/1368766010

Union of Concerned Scientists. (2013). How hybrid cars and trucks work. Center for Science and Democracy. Retrieved from http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_vehicles/smart-transportation-solutions/advanced-vehicle-technologies/hybrid-cars/how-hybrids-work.html

U.S. Department of Energy. (2012a). Sustainable Transportation. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Retrieved from http://www1.eere.energy.gov/office_eere/pdfs/55295.pdf

U.S. Department of Energy. (2012b). America’s clean, efficient fleets: An infographic. Retrieved from http://energy.gov/articles/americas-clean-efficient-fleets-infographic

U.S. Department of Energy. (2012c). Top 10 things you didn’t know about combined heat and power. Retrieved from http://energy.gov/articles/top-10-things-you-didn-t-know-about-combined-heat-and-power

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