Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Volvo, Saab team up on "green" hybrids

Two Swedish carmakers, Volvo Car Corporation and Saab Automobile, have joined forces in a unique co-operation to develop hybrid-electric cars. The initiative, announced this week, aims to build a new family car that combines the power of an advanced lithium-ion battery with a conventional diesel-fuel engine. The prototype vehicle – introduction date unknown – has four electric motors, one for each wheel. The novel design aims to improve energy efficiency.

“We have a unique opportunity to take the lead when it comes to innovations for advanced green-car technology,” said Fredrik Arp, President and CEO of Volvo, in a prepared statement.

It is noteworthy and important when two fierce automobile competitors team up to design future cars. Besides both being Swedish, the two companies share another common trait: both are owned by American companies. Volvo is owned by Ford, and Saab is owned by General Motors. The collaboration in research between Volvo and Saab still permits each company to sell different hybrid models under their own names.

“There are a lot of technologies to explore and by co-operating we can afford to try different alternatives,” Niklas Gustavsson, environmental spokesperson for Volvo, said in an interview. “And through General Motors, Saab has valuable knowledge about hybrid cars."

All over the world, auto-companies are accelerating the development of electric alternatives. The appealing idea is to reduce the use of carbon-emitting combustion engines and, at the same time, reap profits from a new generation of popular cars. Volvo-Saab also reflects another important trend in innovation: rivals cooperating in order to gain a competitive advantage – a tactic borrowed from major players in Silicon Valley. And finally, the partnership represents the newest attempt by American car-makers to catch up with Toyota and Honda, who together dominate the hybrid market in the U.S.

Volvo and Saab say that hybrid vehicles make the most sense over the next eight years. Unlike the all-electric concept car from Tesla Motors that went into production earlier this week, the planned Swedish concept car is only partly electric – and proud of it.

“An all-electric car still faces too many limitations of range, acceleration and top speed,” says Mr. Gustavsson.

The Swedish hybrid, which has green wheels and a white body color, has a battery-only range of 60 miles. But when the battery is depleted, a four-cylinder diesel engine kicks in. The diesel engine also recharges the battery for another electric drive, by transmitting energy back to the battery pack during braking.

“Today’s hybrids use the battery only for short periods to assist the combustion engine,” said Ichiro Sugioka, a Volvo project manager, in a prepared statement from the company. “Our solution is designed for most people to run on electric power all the time, while providing the extra security that comes with having a combustion engine as a secondary source of electrical power."

A person driving less than 60 miles a day with the Swedish hybrid will produce zero emissions. According to Volvo, almost 80 per cent of the drivers in the U.S. do not travel more than 60 miles a day. For a 100-mile drive with full batteries, the first 60 miles will be with no fuel consumption and the remaining 40 miles will be at 60 mpg. No more than 0.67 gallons of fuel is needed to go 100 miles, which is equivalent to 150 mpg.

Silicon Valley-based Tesla Motors has just started production of its $100,000 all-electric sports car, with first shippings targeted at a wealthy crowd of actors like George Clooney and corporate celebrities like Google's Larry Page. Volvo does not believe that an all-electric solution is yet realistic for the mass market, but appreciates the wide variety of projects around electric car development.

“The more electric car-manufacturers on the road, the better,” said Mr. Gustavsson. “It provides incentive to battery producers to improve power efficiency, price and quality."

The Swedish hybrid has a lithium ion battery, which is lighter and more energy efficient than traditional led-acid batteries. Batteries can be recharged via a regular electrical outlet, which takes about four hours and could be done over-night in a garage or a parking lot. The electric socket is placed between the two front wheels, to make it easy to plug into the mains wall socket. This differs from Tesla’s design, where the socket is placed on the left side where normally gasoline goes into a car.

“Re-charging an electric car is not a matter of re-fuelling,” said Mr. Gustavsson. “Tesla’s design could actually give the wrong impression that charging is faster than it really is. Even if we bring charging-time down to an hour it is still way longer than a stop at the gas-station."

The Swedish hybrid does not have a transmission – another attempt to reduce energy waste. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph takes 9 seconds and top speed is 100 mph. However, several questions remain to be answered before Saab and Volvo are ready to bring the plug-in concept-car into full production.

The cost and durability of the battery is a main area for improvement. In addition, Volvo and Saab want feedback from test drivers before they select the final design. A test-fleet of ten hybrids will be produced and used by test drivers all across Sweden, keeping close track of how they drive, charge and approach the car.

“Inventing environmentally friendly technology is not enough,” Mr. Gustavsson said. “You also have to convince the customers to buy it, and preferably pay more than the price of a traditional car.”

The prototype vehicles will cost between $150,000 and $300,000 each to produce, Volvo says. The high cost is due mainly to the expensive battery technology (Volvo wants to bring down the cost substantially before marketing the car). The actual selling price is not set, but is expected to be higher than traditional gas-driven cars. Nevertheless, from a fuel consumption angle, an electric car is friendlier to the car owner’s wallet since electricity costs less than gas.
“With today’s prices, powering your car by electricity costs about one fifth of powering it by gas,” said Mr. Gustavsson.

The hybrid will make a substantial break-through in the global automobile market in about four years’ time, Mr. Gustavsson predicted. He said that a breakthrough for an all-electric car may not occur until after 2015.

“Most customers will not accept an all-electric car as a substitute for a traditional car," he said, "even if there is only one trip per year when they need the car to go far."