With the threat of climate change looming over the planet, almost every manufacturer is looking at greener ways forward. This is particularly prominent in the automobile industry, with major car makers introducing many new cutting-edge technologies in various vehicle functions that either consume less fuel, or require lesser energy to run. Some are even going all out electric! While this is all very good, there is the matter of the actual carbon footprint, and it begs the question – How green really are the “green” cars?

 

Being green means a lot more than just reducing fuel consumption a little, or having electricity take care of more car functions than earlier possible. On one hand, you have automobile manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes replacing their ten and twelve cylinder engines in their high-performance car ranges with smaller, turbocharged eight cylinder models that are equally powerful, if not more powerful, than the outgoing engines; while on the other hand, you have Chevrolet and Lexus putting start/stop systems and small batteries on massive 6.0L V8 engines to pass them off as hybrids. Where is the sense in doing something like that? To really make a difference, there are several technologies and methods that automobile manufacturers have created separately that can be employed in tandem to make their cars truly green and economical, however large they may be. Here are some that can truly contribute towards a better environment of tomorrow.

 

> Plug-in Hybrid System

The difference between an electric car and a plug-in hybrid is simple. The plug-in hybrid employs both, and electric motor paired to a battery pack, as well as a conventional internal combustion engine, be it petrol or diesel. This not only delivers better performance and great fuel economy, but it also eliminates the one problem electric cars are burdened with – range. While a plug-in hybrid will allow you to travel for more than a few miles solely on electricity, it won’t leave you stranded looking for a charging point if you do run out of juice. Just as the battery is almost depleted of its charge, the engine will kick in to begin the process of recharging, and if required, put some power down to the driveline as well. This endows the car with unbelievable fuel efficiency as well as a long travel range, enough even for cross country drives. Cars like Volvo’s V60 D6 Plug-in Hybrid and the Chevrolet Volt (Vauxhall Ampera in some markets) deliver a very car-like experience, while being superlative when in comes to efficiency.

 

> Cylinder Deactivation

This technology is particularly useful in V6, V8 or larger engine configurations. Here, while the car does have many cylinders and a lot of power on tap, the manufacturers realized that this isn’t always needed all of the time and there was a potential for a lot of fuel savings and reduction in exhaust emissions. The key was to completely shut down half the cylinders at cruising speeds, to effectively reduce fuel consumption by 50%. For instance, in the Honda Accord 3.5 V6 with Variable Cylinder Management, the onboard computer disables three of the six cylinders at highway speeds when it senses little or no input on the throttle. The Bentley Mulsanne, which runs a massive 6.75L V8 also makes use of cylinder deactivation to improve fuel economy. While it may seem absurd, the fact that fuel is actually being saved cannot be completely ignored.

 

> Brake Energy Regeneration

Every time we use the brakes on a vehicle, it forces the vehicle to shed its pace sooner than under normal conditions. What actually happens is that the kinetic energy of the vehicle is converted into heat, which plainly is lost. However, there are now means of harnessing the energy from this heat by employing devices that capture the energy lost during braking and use it to recharge the battery, or allow it to be stored in a battery pack for use when a boost in acceleration is needed. The latter is used in Formula 1 and is called KERS, or Kinetic Energy Recovery System. However, several automobile manufacturers now offer many of their newer models with this feature as standard.

 

> Start/Stop Engine Management

Although the simplest way to do this would be to simply turn off the engine when stationary, a lot of people neglect the fact that it can lead to considerable fuel savings, especially if the commute is long and has you going through more than a couple of red lights. The Start/Stop system is solely meant to power off the engine when it detects that the car is at a standstill, and in the span of a few milliseconds, restart the engine when it senses activity on the clutch pedal, or a release of the brake and pressure on the throttle pedal in case of automatics.

 

> Biofuel

With depleting natural resources becoming a cause of concern, there are several viable alternatives being considered that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels altogether. Biofuel, or E85 as it is also known, is a blend of regular gasoline with ethanol. A renewable fuel obtained from plants like sugarcane. E85 is basically 85% ethanol blended with 15% petrol. While this doesn’t really improve fuel economy, what it does is reduce the actual need for fossil fuel. The cost of creating the fuel is another story altogether, but once it does make it to the main stream with several fuel stations across reasonable distances, it does stand to become a preferred future fuel. While many performance cars like the Bentley Continental GT or Koenigsegg Agera uses E85 for even better results as compared to regular high-octane petrol, E85 is also being targeted by large SUV makers like General Motors. The Cadillac Escalade, and the more recent models of the now discontinued Hummer H2, both make use of GM’s Vortec 6.2L V8 engine with E85 biofuel compatibility.

 

 

Electric Cars – Yes or No?

While electric cars may be perceived as the future by many, the truth lays hidden deep within their creation. It is true that as a whole car, they have zero emissions. But, no one considers the process of actually making the car and, more importantly, the battery pack. Making the batteries requires a lot of complicated materials which can be only acquired by mining and processing. The mining process for obtaining the nickel and cadmium used in the manufacturing process is by far one of the most polluting of all processes. Hazardous waste material aside, it then requires further processing to enable it to actually be of any use. This also involves a lot of international transport, fuel consumption and a lot of emissions on its way to becoming a finished product. So in the end, the amount of pollution caused in actually making a battery, is far worse than what an average family saloon powered by conventional petrol or diesel motors would produce in its entire lifetime.

 

 

To sum up, it isn’t nearly enough to just go about looking for alternative means to provide a few immediate solutions to a problem far more complex than what it may seem. Of course, while looking for alternative fuels may be a viable way to prolong motoring in our foreseeable future, it would be ideal to completely eliminate our dependence on carbon-based fuels altogether. While several auto majors like Honda and GM have explored hydrogen fuel cells as sources of power, the technology to produce them on a larger scale requires considerable expenditure and research, while at the same time going through time crunches. Until a real solution is developed, we, as people, would do best to use what we have in the most efficient manner possible without having to depend on manufacturers to come up technologies that cost millions of dollars, like start/stop systems, to basically counter our ignorance. That money would be better spent developing more advanced technology that will genuinely benefit us in the coming years.

 

Apart from fuels, car makers are also employing several means of improving fuel economy like the use of low rolling resistance tires, or the use of lighter, more aerodynamic body work. Again, there is a limit to how much we would be willing to pay for newer technology, and automakers would best be spending their funds on devising means that would create an impact sooner rather than later, while people will have to learn to be more responsible in their actions. That is the only way out.