The Fuel Race: Why the Automobile Needs Improvement

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Throughout history, there have been many important races between peoples. In ancient times, there was a race to see who could run the fastest, then a race to see who could develop the best weapons during wartime. There was even a race to send people to the moon, and now another great race is beginning to occur. This time though, it seems to be between automobile manufacturers. This race is for an alternative source of fuel. The internal combustion engine that powers most of the cars today and indeed throughout history has changed very little since its invention, and there is no denying that the gasoline used to power these cars is a very valuable and very nonrenewable resource. There is also no covering up the fact that as this precious resource continues to deplete, alternative sources of power for our personal locomotion must be developed. Many people of the motoring world place the hope of this quest in all-electric or hybrid cars. However, electric cars as well as hybrids, as they appear today, have a long way to go before they are an effective alternative to conventional gasoline powered vehicles.

One reason for the sudden mania in all-electric and hybrid cars is the claim that the cost of purchasing and maintenance are about the same. This, sadly, is not necessarily so. The price for a base-line model of the all-electric Toyota Prius, coming from the factory before it was canceled, costed just a bit more than $24 thousand ($24,200), while a base-line gas powered Corolla starts out at less than $17 thousand ($16, 950). While these two cars are about the same size, there is a mighty seven thousand dollars difference (2015 Corolla).

Another significant reason the all-electric cars of today are ineffective is they are not very practical for today’s roads. The opponents argue that all-electric vehicles are wonderfully useful because they remove the necessity of gas stations completely. While they do seem to succeed in this respect, it does not take long until a flaw in this line of reasoning is exposed. The fact is that the batteries powering the cars go flat quite quickly, and there are very, very few powering stations in America, which is statistically one of the most car-conscious nations in the world, and even fewer powering stations in under-developed countries. This will inevitably prove to be a problem because the battery range for most electric vehicles is considerably poor in comparison to average gasoline powered cars. The Scion IQ EV for example is all-electric, so there is no worry about the cost of gas, but long trips, or even shorter trips in crowded cities prove to be almost impossible for this car because according to the Toyota Advanced Technology Vehicles webpage, on a full charge the battery’s range is only fifty miles, which is not very far. Then once the battery is flat, and if there is a place nearby to recharge the battery, it will take about three hours at best to be fully charged again (2013 Scion IQ EV). The wait time might be even longer because according to the Toyota North American environmental reports, “Charging times when vehicle is in Normal Mode and ambient temperature is at 77 degrees F. Charging times will vary with ambient temperature” (Toyota Environmental: Vehicles). The infrastructure needed to support the increase of all-electric cars just simply is not there. A sudden change from gasoline to electricity would take time for the people to adjust not to mention the sheer amount of money required to add the fueling stations for the cars.

More proof that electric cars may not be all they have cracked up to be is the debate on whether or not they run as clean as people first assume. Many people seem to think that because there are no dangerous fumes coming from the exhaust pipe, the cars must be cleaner for the environment. This is also a fallacy. The factories that are needed to generate the electricity for these vehicles are massive coal-burning power plants. The harmful fumes are not coming out the back of the car, but are being generated from the factories. The electric and hybrid cars have not eliminated the emissions, they have just shifted the place where the emissions are made in the production process.

The batteries that power most hybrid cars might seem to solve this issue at first glance, but they too have their faults. The lithium used in the batteries is difficult to mine and there is a lot of electricity needed to refine the lithium and put it in the batteries. Batteries are also very heavy, and they wear out quickly, with some of them lasting only about 10 years. This is an inconvenience since they are quite expensive to replace. As many experts point out, “Very large rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are needed to power plug-in hybrids, and such batteries remain too expensive to mass produce… Only recently did the price for such a battery become low enough (around $3,000 to $4,000) to make plug-in hybrids feasible” (Issues & Controversies).

Not all electric vehicles are powered by only batteries, some are powered by teaming them with hydrogen fuel cells. The cells are wonderfully complicated but put as simply as possible, there are five main components to the powering of these cars. The hydrogen fuel tank stores hydrogen at very high pressures of about 10,000 psi, and the tanks have an automated shutoff switch to prevent hydrogen from leaking just in case something goes wrong. Then the radiator grill on the car sends the required oxygen to the fuel cell. There, a power control unit sends electricity from the fuel cell to a motor powered by a complex battery, that uses the electricity to create a magnetic field where magnets located inside the car align with the field causing them to rotate and push the car forward (Ransom, Cliff). This is all very clever but this long process also features two major flaws. Like with the electricity problem, there are even fewer hydrogen refueling stations, but the biggest issue is that the storing of hydrogen is one of the most difficult things that can be done to the element and has proved to be almost next to impossible. It is very tricky as well as extremely inefficient. Jeremy Clarkson, who is one of the most respected automotive journalists in the world and a former presenter on the world’s most popular motoring show Top Gear, summed this up perfectly by saying, “Children, if your science teacher says that you are studying the storage of hydrogen today, listen up because whoever cracks that will be the richest man the world has ever seen” (Top Gear).

The argument being made here would prove quite incomplete if counter arguments are ignored. Perhaps two of the most ingenious examples of this technology being utilized are not in small, sluggish, ugly monstrosities, but are in fact some of the most powerful road and track cars the world has ever seen: The McLaren P1 and the Porsche 918. They are amazingly beautiful, unbelievably fast, and most importantly, mind-bogglingly hybrids. They both contain electric motors that help power a gasoline engine, and even the experts at Motor Trend magazine can only say things such as, “They both benchmark the car industry and show its future (34-35).

If the manufacturing techniques used to create these engineering masterpieces could be made mainstream, that is much less expensive and a bit more effective, then the motoring industry certainly would change for the better. These cars prove that the battery and hydrogen fuel cell technologies should not be abandoned, however flawed they might be. Until those technologies have been improved upon to the point that they are effective as an alternative source of fuel, perhaps the global population should stop focusing on preservation, which is not possible at this point in time, and start focusing on conservation; that is, not stopping the use of gas completely, but rather making the gas that is needed go further. There are many ways to make cars more fuel efficient. The first and perhaps one of the most profound way of doing this is to simply make them lighter. It is only common sense that if a car does not have as much weight to lug around, then it will not need as much fuel to move. A great way to accomplish this is by building the cars out of lighter materials. Most of the cars running the roads today are made out of steel or plastic. These are very heavy compared to other materials such as the carbon fiber or aluminum already being used in the construction of high performance vehicles. Another way of increasing gas millage of cars especially ones with a manual transmission is by shifting up a gear on highways. A car has to keep up certain amount of revs or rotations per minute (rpm) to maintain a certain speed. By shifting up a gear the car does not have to work as hard to maintain the amount of rotations per minute.

There is no denying that the world is going to be in big trouble if alternate sources of fuel are not found. As Joe Shuster points out in her book Beyond Fossil Fools, “world reserves will last 55 years and U.S. reserves will last only 10 years if we were to rely only on our own reserves” (13). This issue does not just affect the United States of America, it affects the whole planet and everything living on it. Although there have been significant improvements made, and although this is certainly an issue that needs to be raised, there is still a long way to go. The batteries for all-electric cars are too expensive, heavy, and short-lived, and hydrogen fuel cells are much too tricky and complicated to be mass produced right now. As it stands today, electric and hybrid cars have not been developed enough to be an effective alternative to conventional gasoline powered vehicles.

 

Works Sited

“2013 Scion IQ EV.” 2013 Scion IQ EV. Toyota, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

“2015 Corolla.” 2015 Toyota Corolla. N.P., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Clarkson, Jeremy C., James D. May, and Richard M. Hammond. “Top Gear/ Best of 13-14.” Top Gear. London, England, 2014. Television.

“Hybrid Vehicles.” Issues & Controversies. InfoBase Learning, 21 Mar. 2008. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

Loh, Edward, ed. “Monolithic Meetup.” Motor Trend May 2015: 34+. Print.

“North American Environmental Reports.” Toyota Environmental: Vehicles. Toyota, 2 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Ransom, Cliff, ed. “Hydrogen Vehicle.” Popular Science Apr. 2015: 40-41. Print.

Shuster, Joseph M. “Fossil Fuels: Natures Disappearing Act.” Beyond Fossil Fools: The Roadmap to Energy Independence by 2040. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond, 2008. N. page. Print.

 

 

 

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