Lightning speed

There's so much going on in the car and light- truck engineering world right now that it's almost impossible to keep tabs on it all. The ever-pressing need to develop vehicles that are more fuel-efficient, cleaner and are safer to boot is leading to an explosion of engineering efforts on many fronts. None of this comes without challenges, but perhaps the biggest hurdle is making every advance to technicians

There's so much going on in the car and light- truck engineering world right now that it's almost impossible to keep tabs on it all. The ever-pressing need to develop vehicles that are more fuel-efficient, cleaner and are safer to boot is leading to an explosion of engineering efforts on many fronts. None of this comes without challenges, but perhaps the biggest hurdle is making every advance “invisible” to technicians and drivers.

In a recent paper, Veerender Kaul, transportation research manager for Frost & Sullivan, said: “…vehicle manufacturers face tradeoffs in their choices of technology, as they have several contradictory factors to consider, such as the aim is to minimize costs and maximize reliability, as well as satisfy the customer's performance expectations.”

“For example, technologies that reduce emissions lead to increased fuel consumption and also add to the complexity and weight of engines, which could often harm performance,” he said. “Therefore, vehicle makers are trying to evaluate the most effective and market-attractive technologies in terms of their benefit/cost tradeoffs.”

In terms of engines, Kaul noted that “automakers must find ways to reduce fuel consumption; decrease manufacturing costs; control warranty and maintenance costs; maximize reliability and durability; increase horsepower and torque; and diminish noise, vibration and harshness, all at the same time.

How to do all of that? New turbochargers and superchargers, for example, are being designed to increase or maintain power output while decreasing fuel use through downsized engines, he said.

In the quest for better fuel economy and improved structural safety, aluminum is getting wider use. A study by the Aluminum Association's Auto & Light Truck Group and research firm Ducker Worldwide found that passenger vehicles in North America now contain an average of 319 pounds of aluminum, representing a 16% increase from 2002 data, putting aluminum second only to steel in automotive applications.

“Aluminum…can safely reduce weight, which means automakers can downsize components,” said Martha Brooks, COO for aluminum manufacturer Novelis. “It also saves money at the gas pump, as low weight vehicles using aluminum require less fuel.”

Of course, hybrids and other propulsion technologies remain a huge focus of future development in the light vehicle arena. DaimlerChrysler, for example, is working with GM and BMW on an advanced two-mode hybrid system that leapfrogs available hybrid technology by giving customers greater fuel economy at low and freeway speeds. DaimlerChrysler is also working on petroleum-free diesel fuel alternatives, such as SunDiesel — made, like ethanol, from organic wastes — and fuel cells powered by hydrogen.

Yet these new advances create new questions, too. “Will landfills accept the thousands of exhausted [hybrid] battery packs in five to eight years or will the industry's technology gurus find a way to recycle or recharge them? It's a safe bet landfills won't accept exhausted battery packs due to their toxicity and hazardous attributes,” Bob Stanton, fleet manager for Polk County Florida, wrote to me recently. “Also, how popular will a used hybrid with one to three years of battery life remaining be on the resale market?”

Bob's not a doubting Thomas, I might add: His 2,000-unit fleet already contains six hybrids. But he rightly worries about how this technology is going to be perceived as it ages.

Good questions, Bob. Let's hope all the automotive engineers out there listen to them and work on some answers.

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