Crystal balls are being vigorously rubbed as the motor industry’s finest brains ponder over the future direction of motoring. So what can we expect to see on our roads in the years ahead? General Motors has been revealing its thinking. Get ready for an ‘ecovision’. Sue Baker reports…
It was all very hush-hush. Our cars had to be parked outside the gates. Unauthorised cameras were banned. Minibuses ferried us to a discreet white building sited in a clearing surrounded by dense woodland. We had been invited to this semi-secret facility at the Millbrook Proving Ground, the motor industry test centre in Bedfordshire, to hear about GM’s Ecovision – its thinking about where the future of motoring will take us and its plans for developing alternative fuel vehicles.
This forward vision of a brave new world of mobility comes as the future of Vauxhall, playing host at Millbrook, remains unsettled while negotiations continue for GM to offload its European subsidiaries, Vauxhall and Opel. So although this was a Vauxhall event, showcasing technology for a British audience, everybody was acutely aware that the prototype vehicles we were being shown may well have different badges on them by the time they reach production a few years hence.
Everyone knows that fossil fuels are finite. Nobody knows quite when they will eventually run dry. But alternative fuels – bio-fuels, electricity and hydrogen – are accepted as the way ahead, with hybrid vehicles leading the way. GM’s five-seater prototype hybrid, the Ampera, is scheduled for launch by around 2012. It has a petrol-electric propulsion system and is what motor industry knows as an EREV, acronym for an extended range electric vehicle. The Ampera is designed to run most of the time on stored battery output, with the big advantage of zero emissions at the point of use in urban areas. Yes, of course that’s only part of the story, but let’s not get into the polluting power stations argument here. Clean air in cities is still a worthwhile target, even if it ultimately pushes pollution elsewhere.
WHAT TELLS YOU THERE IS SOMETHING DIFFERENT ABOUT THE CAR IS A MISSING CENTRE REAR SEAT AND A BULGE IN THE BOOT. THESE ARE CLUES TO THE HYDROGEN TANKS SITED UNDER THE BOOT FLOOR
The Ampera also has a 1.4-litre petrol engine employed to generate power to replenish the battery pack. The car’s electric range is limited, to only about 40 to 60 miles, but its hybrid design means that it need never run out of energy. Its combined fuel sources give it a total range of around 300 miles. It can either have its petrol tank refuelled at a filling station, or its battery pack recharged via a mains electricity supply – or both. Based on its total combined 300 miles range, the Ampera’s theoretical fuel consumption works out at around 176mpg, with CO2 emissions estimated at an extremely lowly 40g/km. Such figures of course compare hugely well with any conventional cars currently on the market.
GM’s Ecovision thinking envisages a range of solutions to differing future motoring needs. Its planners are looking at five categories of vehicles to address a spectrum of transport requirements. The eventual target is a 50 per cent reduction in motor transport CO2 emissions by 2050. Cars needed mainly for city driving, commuting and short-distance trips will be plug-in electric, with a range of about 40 miles. They will be recharged overnight, or could be topped up during daytime stops by being plugged into the mains while their owner works, shops, or returns home between trips. EREV cars like the Ampera will offer more of a flexible mid-range solution for drivers who need to drive further than a pure electric car allows, but not long-distance between cities. The greatest range will be hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars, like the HydroGen4 that we were invited to sample on a brief drive at Millbrook, under the watchful eye of a guardian engineer. This is the expected solution for long distance motoring. Within the fuel cells, compressed hydrogen is combined with oxygen to produce electricity with no emissions other than harmless water vapour. Most manufacturers have fuel cell cars under development.
GM already has a fleet of ten Chevrolet Equinox SUV-based fuel cells prototypes undergoing trials in Berlin, to evaluate their efficiency and reliability. They seem to have viable performance comparable with a good conventional car: a 100mph top speed and a 200-mile range. Refuelling it said to take under five minutes. Buses of the future are also predicted to be hydrogen-fuelled fuel cell designs. The fifth category of vehicle, heavy trucks, are mooted to have conventional engines run on cleaner biofuels. I have now driven several prototype fuel cell cars, and they seem to be getting better all the time. The HydroGen4 accelerates normally – zero to 62mph in 12 seconds – feels unremarkably ordinary to drive and is blissfully quiet in operation. What tells you there is something different about the car is a missing centre rear seat and a bulge in the boot. These are clues to the hydrogen tanks sited under the boot floor. Hybrid cars are becoming ever more mainstream. Hydrogen fuel cell models, once the stuff of science fiction, are becoming ever closer to daily motoring reality.
Ecovision? It is a view of motoring’s future that no longer seems very far away