New Propulsion Technologies

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By Boris Schmidt

“ELECTROMOBILITY IS A TASK OF THE CENTURY”, says Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn. “We must ensure we meet the fundamental need for mobility in a more resource-independent, more environmentally friendly and more sustainable way,” stresses Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the Federal Government’s electromobility summit in May 2011, business and politics practiced solidarity and paved the way for the e-future. “The electrification of propulsion systems is crucial to the future of mobility. It affords the opportunity to lessen dependence on oil, minimize emissions and facilitate the integration of vehicles into a multimodal transport system,” states the Federal Government’s National Electromobility Development Plan. In mid-May 2011 a Government Electromobility Plan was approved that includes one billion euros to promote research in this field. Politics is setting ambitious goals. There’s talk of one million electrically powered cars in 2020. But we’re still a long way off from the million car target. Experts doubt whether one million can be reached in just eight-and-a-half years. Powerful electric motors are not a great feat of technological ingenuity. On the contrary, they are relatively simple and cheap to produce. The conundrum still lies in the storage of energy.

The automobile industry is investigating solutions in a variety of different directions, because there is no single “patent” solution at present. In the short term the e-car can only sell as a city car, such as today’s Mitsubishi i-MIEV or the Nissan Leaf. At the moment the Leaf and the i-MIEV are the only e-cars produced by major manufacturers and sold in Europe – and at prices around 35,000 euros, they are not particularly attractive. The next producer to start trading will be Renault. The French manufacturer, which is 15% state owned, has launched the most ambitious e-car programme. The four different models will start with the nifty Twizy, which is a bit like a sophisticated scooter with four wheels plus enveloping body and will be on the market at the end of 2011. Renault believes firmly in the immediate triumph of pure electrical technology and is consciously omitting the hybrid car from its strategy. Toyota is the pioneer in this respect. The Prius, which combines an internal combustion engine with an e-drive and especially helps to save energy in the urban context, has been on the market for more than ten years. Thanks to Toyota’s perseverance, it has helped this technology to make a breakthrough.

BMW Mini ©E mariordo59

At first, because nobody really knew the way things would develop, German manufacturers held back for commercial reasons. But now Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, VW, and Opel are all closely involved. By 2012 at the latest, all of the German manufacturers will be offering hybrid cars, following BMW, Mercedes-Benz, VW and Porsche who have included them in their ranges for several years. For some time now, large-scale tests have been underway on e-cars at Mercedes-Benz (Smart) and BMW (Mini). In future there will be a pure e-version of the Smart, whilst for 2013 BMW is blazing a trail by combining an e-drive with lightweight carbon bodywork. The reduced weight has a positive effect on the range, because it reduces the load on the battery. VW will be selling the new city e-car Up by 2013 at the latest, and an e-Golf is now a definite possibility as well. Meanwhile, Audi is creating a sensation with its sporty e-cars which are emulating the Tesla, the 100,000-euro roadster from California that already offers a range of 300 kilometres but consists mainly of batteries. However, like the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-Cell (the one with the gull-wing doors), the Audi speedsters are still only prototypes. Since the restricted range is curbing customers’ appetite to buy, so-called plug-in hybrids may well be an interim solution. Whereas hybrids can only travel about two or three kilometres powered entirely by the battery power, because it’s too small to do more, the plug-ins can manage up to 50 kilometres on their batteries. When the electric power is exhausted, these cars revert to the conventional engine. All German manufacturers are working on this type of solution. In 2011, Opel, the American GM subsidiary, is launching a very special hybrid car: the Ampera. It is powered entirely by electricity which comes either directly from the batteries or from a generator driven by a 1.4-litre gasoline engine.

Finally, the fuel-cell car is powered entirely by an electric motor. Many people see this as the true technology of the future. Providing there is an adequate network of appropriate filling stations, motorists will be able to travel in the old accustomed way. Inside the fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with oxygen, and the energy that is generated is then used to drive an e-motor. Unlike the pure e-car, where the CO2 balance depends on how the electricity is produced to charge the battery, the fuel-cell car is absolutely “clean”, because it only produces emissions of steam. But apart from the necessary infrastructure, the question of hydrogen production still has to be solved. Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Toyota and Honda are among the carmakers that have made particular headway with this technology. Mercedes-Benz recently sent a fleet of fuel-cell cars on a journey around the world to demonstrate how far the technology has progressed. In two years the Mercedes Hydrogen B Class is due to go into production. However, the filling station network is still an unsolved issue. The e-car doesn’t face this problem because, in principle, the normal power grid provides the necessary infrastructure. So, it will be a while before these new propulsion technologies conquer the roads. In the near future there will be a mixture of many technologies. VW CEO Martin Winterkorn reckons that plug-in hybrid technology has the greatest medium-term potential: it combines the best of two worlds.


Photo © frankh

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