When the oil wells finally dry up

It must be painfully clear even to the least concerned that the world is running out of oil. Again. This time it is serious, and we have to think long and hard about how we will reduce our dependence on the black stuff.

One of the most common uses for this oil is to fuel the automobile. Considering the sheer number of vehicles on the road all over the world (California has more cars than people), fuelling these cars will soon become a major problem once the taps dry up.

Then comes the need for alternative power sources for all these cars, and with need comes innovation. Here, we will look at the motoring world’s efforts to minimise oil consumption and the search for alternative fuels.

When it became obvious that man’s thirst for oil was not likely to reduce, it was imperative that efficient use of the available oil be considered. Innovations in fuel economy were sought, and some of the results were spectacular.

Variable valve timing was one way of keeping fuel consumption usefully low under normal driving while still allowing for maniacal performance once in a while. Fuel injection was adopted for petrol engines, and then improved for both petrol and diesel engines until the current direct injection technologies were reached (D4, GDI).

Material science was plundered in a quest to reduce weight, not just that of the engine, but of the entire vehicle. Design cues were ignored, thrown out of the window, or completely rethought, as aerodynamics gained fresh importance in the search for reduced wastage.

Various permutations of these ideas have come together, and in this light, allow me to introduce the “three-litre car”.

The three-litre car is not a car with a three-litre engine. Examples of the three-litre car are Seat’s Arosa, Volkswagen’s Lupo and Audi’s A2.

These cars are the same size. What size is that, you might wonder. The Lupo is smaller than VW’s diminutive Polo, which means it is marginally punier than a Toyota Vitz.

The “three-litre” tag comes from the fact that the diesel engines in these pint-sized buzzboxes swill only three litres of the black stuff for every 100km covered.

Yes. You read that right: the Arosa, the Lupo and the A2 are capable of 33 kpl, and that is in normal city driving. These cars achieve this outstanding economy through a combination of lightweight material, itsy-bitsy diesel engines and clever engine management.

These tiny tots will burn less fuel, but a recent article in The Economist caught my eye. This was the gist: more efficient, energy-saving appliances (bulbs, specifically), while consuming less energy individually, encourage increased overall use of that energy due to the perceived lower cost.

Just as one will spend longer hours with the lights on if the costs are low, so will one drive more if the car consumes less fuel per mile. The result? An overall increase in net fuel consumption.

Also, more efficient vehicles encourage more people to drive, just as better roads lead to denser traffic. So it seems we will still run out of oil really soon. What now?

The most popular escape route has been to think electric.

There has been a two-pronged attack to this: battery power and self generated wattage. Battery powered cars have long been plagued with issues on stamina, and cars like the REVAi and REVA NXR (commonly called G-Wiz) have pathetic ranges for their batteries.

Another problem is the hours spent (wasted) charging these vehicles and their poor load capacities. The REVAi has a range of 80km per charge while the NXR covers 120km, and both seat two adults and two kids. A look at these cars says one adult is more than enough to fill the interior space.

Performance is also poor; poor acceleration and low top speeds, coupled with the above difficulties make the battery car appropriate for (brief) city use in between charging periods. So weedy are these REVA cars that one was put on display at a flower show at Hampton Court Palace.

A company called Tesla Motors thought it had figured a way around this, and their technique was to cram as many batteries as they possibly could into a single car. As such, they are the only company building highway-capable serial production electric vehicles.

Their brute force approach yielded the Tesla Roadster, which hits 100km/h form rest in four seconds, winds up to 201 km/h tops, and has a range of 380 km.

This is all fine and dandy, but another result of stuffing 7,000 laptop batteries in a car is you end up with something extremely heavy and painfully expensive, at $110,000 (Sh8.8 million).

Tesla might have solved performance issues, but there is still charging to be done, during which time the car lies comatose.

Battery power for automobile use might not be such a good idea after all.

So how about driving a car with its own on-board electricity-generating power plant? This is not a flight of fancy, but the motivation behind the hydrogen car.

Instead of seeking a wall socket every time you run out of juice, a hydrogen car is fuelled just like a conventional petrol or diesel: at a service station.

But instead of topping up with refined crude, hydrogen is what comes flowing out of the dispenser.
This hydrogen goes to a fuel cell, where it is chemically combined with oxygen to produce water, and this chemical reaction produces an electrical current, which is then used to power the car.

Just as a typical car uses more fuel under acceleration, so does the fuel-cell alternative consume more hydrogen: more hydrogen goes into the fuel cell, generating more electricity.

It is the closest an electric car comes to a fossil powered example. A good example of this is the Honda FCX Clarity.

Similar range
The FCX car makes 134 hp, typical of a sedan in this size bracket, and gives a range similar to that of a full tank of petrol in a similar vehicle. Filling up takes five minutes, just like a petrol car.

New KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) technology uses braking energy to generate more electricity.

It returns roughly 100km per kilogramme of hydrogen. Sounds like the answer to the world’s problems. Sounds like a plan. But it is not perfect.
Rumour has it that it cost Honda more than $1 million (Sh80 million) to build a single FCX back in 2005.

Gulp
Apparently, they trimmed the costs to about $140,000 (Sh11.2 million) a car, but that is still stratospheric. There are few FCXs on sale, if any, but lease cars are available to a select few.
So three-litre cars are a case of late-knight arrival, battery powered cars make little sense, while hydrogen cars are only for Bill Gates and his ilk.

The rest of the world cannot come to a stop save for a few moneyed individuals, so more thought needs to be put into the mobility of man.
I cannot say for sure what the next mainstream fuel source will be, but I have a suspicion some major auto makers can.

The question is, who? BMW and Honda tout hydrogen power, while some new players think batteries are the way to go. Toyota has placed itself on the fence with its hybrid, as has Porsche. Most mid-stream European marques experimented with LPG.

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