Exploring Innovation from 'Green' Vehicles to Fuel Efficient Gas Powered Vehicles with GM and Honda

Nov. 18, 2011
GM and Honda have been forced by CAF legislation to provide consumers with better fuel economy and alternatives to gas-powered vehicles.

As automakers respond to CAF legislation requirements they are exploring alternative propulsion vehicles and improvements to internal combustion engines to better the environment and provide consumers with better fuel economy.

The market for "Green" vehicles, which include hybrids, plug-in hybrids, all electric and natural gas vehicles, is only two percent. However it is growing in part spurred on by the 2016 and 2025 CAF Legislation requirements as well as more environmentally-concerned consumers.

According to an IndustryWeek story, JD Power Automotive Forecasting projects Hybrids will increase to 9.5% of the market, with gasoline powered vehicles dropping to 71.5% from 86% in 2011, a 14.5% drop in less than 10 years.

"While market penetration has been relatively low, there's a long education process that needs to be implemented to educate consumers on what the differences are between electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and hybrids," said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Edmunds.com. "It's really the manufacturers responsibility to educate the consumers and theyre trying hard."

Jessica Fini, an environmental and safety public relations specialist for American Honda, said, "we try our best with advertising, marketing and public relations to get out there to educate the consumers on the benefits of owning such a vehicle."

"Part of the strategy we're using is putting a demo vehicle in each dealer signed up to sell the Volt" so trained dealers will be able to communicate the benefits to the consumer," explained Tom Wilkinson, Chevrolet communications manager. "It's going to take time; this spreads organically through word of mouth from current owners to their friends, neighbors and relatives, we think well see this grow."

These auto manufacturers are capitalizing on their experiences with early attempts with electric vehicles, such as General Motors EV1 and Honda's EV Plus. Despite their limited distances, need for frequent recharging, smaller vehicle size and high price tags those predecessors were the beginning of alternative propulsion vehicles.

Honda introduced their first hybrid for the mass market in 1999. "Hybrids tend to get better gas miles in the city. If you are more of a city commuter, the Honda Civic Hybrid gets 44 mpg in the city which is 11 gallons more than the Honda Civic CF," said Fini.

In addition, Honda has the Civic GX, which is an all natural gas model being used in U. S. as fleet vehicles by city governments and companies as well as in retail customer markets like California, New York, Oklahoma and Utah.

Currently Honda makes three different hybrids: 1) Insight, 5 door hatchback; 2) CR-Z, 2-seat and 3) Civic Hybrid, a small sedan. Next year they plan to introduce a plug-in hybrid on a larger midsize vehicle all in hopes of offering consumers a variety of choices.

GM is doing its part as well. The Chevrolet Volt, an extended range electric vehicle, was released in December 2010. "The Volt has an onboard generator or range extender. When the battery gets to a low enough point, the engine will kick in and you [consumers] dont have to worry about range anxiety," said Dan Flores, manager of communications for GM Advanced Technology.

Chevrolet has announced they are currently working on an all electric version of the Spark.

"The quality most people will like about plug-in cars is that they are better cars and give everyone the option of keeping our energy-money in the U. S.," said Chris Paine, writer and director of the documentaries, "Who Killed the Electric Car" and "Revenge of the Electric Car." Currently almost all our oil money (over $1 billion a day) gets exported. Electricity is domestic," he said.

But since 86% of the vehicles on the road are propelled by gas; GM, Honda and other auto makers are using more lightweight materials, aerodynamic technology, low rolling resistant tires and engine downsizing to improve fuel economy on their gas powered vehicles.

Turbo or engine downsizing allows cars and trucks to have smaller engines that act like bigger engines with turbo boost.

Under normal driving conditions you get the fuel efficiency of a traditional 4-cylinder [engine] and we sprinkle in all these other little technologies like deceleration fuel cut off. However with turbo boost when you need to jump on the highway to accelerate into traffic, you have the power of the bigger engine, said Flores.

As GM is coming out of the bailout many changes have been realized to make them run more efficiently. With regard to R&D the changes we see in GM over the last ten years has to do with how we have moved from a company that did everything ourselves to collaborative research labs. We partner with OEMs and universities around the world. said Flores. We are working with everyone because we realize we dont have all the answers.

GM didn't stop there. For example, in the engineering department individual groups working on body, chassis and suspension engineering share information learned from one vehicle type [like a Cruze] to another vehicle [like a full-size truck]. All entities (Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC) share knowledge.

"It's a very efficient way of running a global business," Flores said.

In much the same way, Honda is producing vehicles in an efficient manner. Since 1998, both the Civic Natural Gas and gas-powered Civic are made in their Indiana plant and all of Hondas hybrids are made in one factory in Japan which is at 100% production as of October.

"Honda always has very flexible manufacturing facilities so we can build depending on demand," said Fini.

GM's latest technology, eAssist, a light electrification technology, supplements the internal combustion engine to improve fuel economy. "eAssist basically combines the 15kW electric motor, 115 V lithium-ion battery, and 2.4 L Ecotec 4-cylinder engine to improve fuel economy by up to 25% on the highway and up to 20% in the city," said Flores.

Flores explained the battery is located in the trunk of the vehicle in combination with wheel motors in the front of the vehicle where the wheels are part of eAssist, a stop/start technology. When you come up to a light, the engine will basically shut off. When you hit the gas to go, the electric motors instantly will kick in to the vehicle rolling and the engine will kick back in.

eAssist limits fuel being burned when you stop and start the vehicle. It will be available later this year in the Buick Lacrosse and Regal and on the next generation Chevrolet Malibu Eco.

Another technology, active fuel management, is used on big trucks and shuts off the 8-cylinder engine. It uses 4-cylinders under lighter loads. When going up a hill or towing something, the 8-cyclinder engine kicks back in.

The auto industry realizes pricing for "Green" vehicles is high. "Making people aware of technology, the benefits of it, and how you use it is one of the marketing challenges. As technology gains are made the cost comes down," said Flores.

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