Eight Ideas That Transformed the Auto Industry in 2008Posted on November 25th, 2008
By Nina Russin
I like to think that difficult times bring out the best in people. Although 2008 was the toughest year the automotive industry experienced in decades, it was also an opportunity for engineers and designers to change the way we think about and drive cars. From alternative fuels to a car that stops itself, here are my top picks for the best new technologies of 2008.
1. The Car That Runs on Air
Although hydrogen fuel cells are nothing new, a fuel cell-powered production car is revolutionary. The Honda FCX Clarity runs on air, emits only water, and has three times the fuel efficiency of a modern, gas-powered hybrid car.
Power comes from an electric motor that runs on electricity generated in a hydrogen fuel cell.
The production model is the second-generation FCX: the original car was the first fuel cell-powered vehicle to meet all federal safety regulations, and to start and operate in sub-freezing temperatures.
Honda plans to lease about two hundred vehicles to customers in Southern California over the next three years. The biggest challenge to widespread distribution of fuel cell vehicles is infrastructure: the only FCX Clarity refueling stations and service facilities are in the Los Angeles area.
Honda is currently working on a home refueling station Plug Power Inc. The FCX Clarity has a range of 280 miles between fill-ups.
2. The Car That Stops Itself
The Volvo XC60 doesn’t roll out until 2009, but I had a chance to experience its innovative city safety technology at the manufacturer’s desert proving grounds in Phoenix, Arizona last summer.
The purpose of the technology is to prevent low-speed accidents. It will automatically apply the brakes at speeds up to nineteen miles-per-hour, if a collision is imminent and the driver fails to take action.
A laser sensor on the top of the windshield monitors objects and vehicles up front: it can detect objects within thirteen feet of the XC60’s front bumper. If the car’s on-board the computer determines that the driver is not responding, it automatically takes action.
The laser sensor works in both daylight and at night. Engineers expect that city safety will drastically reduce the number of low-speed collisions.
3. Wake-up Call
The driver monitor system on the Lexus 600h hybrid sedan prevents drivers from falling asleep at the wheel.
The system uses three cameras: two in front of the car that work with a radar sensor to monitor vehicles and objects ahead, and one in the steering wheel that monitors the driver’s face.
If the system detects that the driver has not looked ahead for a few seconds and there is a vehicle or object ahead, it alerts the driver with an audible alarm and flashing light. As the car gets closer to the object, the system can gently apply the brakes.
The on-board computer also reprograms the car’s power steering ratio, making it more aggressive, so the driver can steer around the obstacle.
4. Better Night Vision
Adaptive bi-xenon headlamps available on the Audi Q7 sport-utility vehicle help the driver see into unlit corners of the road at night. The system responds to steering wheel inputs: it sends a beam of light to the side of the road that the driver is turning towards.
Not only does adaptive lighting make it easier for drivers to navigate winding roads at night; they also protect pedestrians at intersections, who wouldn’t be seen with conventional headlamps.
5. No More Blind Spots
Both Audi and Volvo have introduced blind spot warning systems that help to prevent lane-change accidents. Audi’s side assist feature on the Q7 uses two radar sensors in the vehicle’s rear bumper: the sensors monitor vehicles within sixteen feet of blind spots to the sides and back of the vehicle.
If another car moves into this area, yellow LEDs in the sideview mirror illuminate. If despite this, the driver signals to change lanes, the LEDs become brighter and start to flash.
6. Clean diesel
Clean diesel isn’t a new concept in Europe, but it is in the United States, following federal legislation mandating its availability beginning in the fall of 2007. The reduced sulphur diesel produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions that gasoline, and offers a twenty-five to thirty percent increase in overall fuel economy.
Diesel cars got a bad rep in the States during the 1970s and 80s, due to products that performed poorly and had poor service records. New high-pressure diesel systems have similar throttle response to gasoline engines, and lack the annoying diesel tick that characterized the earlier models.
Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Audi all offer clean diesel versions of their popular gasoline models for sale in the states. The Mercedes-Benz ML 320CDI with its BlueTec diesel engine was a finalist in our 2009 Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year green car competition. The M-Class might have won, were it not for another clean diesel product that took the honor: the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen.
7. Evolved Hybrids
With the first generation of gasoline/electric cars behind them, automakers are introducing new models that are more affordable, have better batteries, and can run further on pure electric power.
When Honda introduces the second-generation Insight next spring, it will make hybrid technology affordable to the budget-conscious buyer. While Honda hasn’t yet announced pricing, spokespersons promise that the five-passenger Insight will be its least expensive hybrid.
An eco drive assist feature allows the driver to modify engine, transmission and air conditioning controls to improve gas mileage. It also schools the driver on fuel-saving habits. A colored background behind the speedometer turns green when the driver is saving fuel, and blue when he is driving too aggressively.
The two-mode hybrid technology developed by General Motors, Chrysler and BMW gives big trucks the same fuel economy as small sedans in city driving. The system, that debuted on the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, runs on pure electric power at very low speeds.
At speeds over 25 miles-per-hour, electric motors allow the truck’s V8 gas engine to run on four cylinders for extended periods of time. The Tahoe Hybrid has an EPA rating of 21 miles-per-gallon in city driving: a fifty percent increase over the gas-powered model.
The 2010 Chevrolet Volt that goes on sale next fall is an extended-range electric car that runs up to forty miles on pure electric power. After that, a gas-powered generator recharges the lithium-ion battery pack on the go, giving the Volt a range of up to four hundred miles between fill-ups.
8. Plug-in Mini
The Mini E that debuted at the 2008 LA Auto Show has a range of up to 156 miles, and relatively short recharge time: about two hours.
Power comes from a lightweight lithium-ion battery pack. The Mini E accelerates from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in 8.5 seconds.
Mini will deliver the first 500 Mini E cars to customers in New York and Los Angeles, beginning in December.
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