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Pros and cons of green revolution

Published March 1, 2013

The last three major auto shows I attended (in Toronto, Detroit and Los Angeles) were well received by consumers and auto industry folks alike.

There is much to celebrate these days, from the near-record number of auto sales in 2012, flashy new entrants into the market (Tesla, Fisker), and the continuous advances in engineering and design in all segments.

One of the recurring themes at these shows was the expanding footprint of green vehicles in the marketplace. Some auto journalists and pundits have recently been dismissive of green vehicles, and this segment hasn’t achieved anything approaching a critical mass of acceptance among car buyers.

But the tide is changing and green vehicles are gaining momentum. Automakers are vigorously pursuing hybrid, electric and diesel technologies, and for two key reasons: the U.S. government has mandated that all new vehicles must average 23 kilometres per litre by 2012 (the current average is 12); and a younger generation (born after 1995) is expected to represent a growing market for green vehicles in the years ahead.

The green revolution in automobiles is progressing along three technology fronts, all of which have their pros and cons.

First there is hybrid technology, which essentially combines a small gasoline engine with an electric motor. With hybrid technology, the battery is charged while you drive, conserving energy for when it’s needed. The most popular types of hybrid are diesel, flex-fuel and plug-in.

Hybrids provide better gas mileage than conventional vehicles, but battery replacement costs are high ($1,000 to $6,000).

In the past few years, hybrids have emerged as the clear front runner in alternative technologies, as evidenced by the phenomenal critical and commercial success of the Toyota Prius.

The second most popular alternative technology is the electric car, powered entirely or partially by electricity. The benefits of electric vehicles include improved kilometres per litre when compared to traditional gas-engine vehicles, lower maintenance costs, battery packs that can be charged at home, and no tailpipe emissions.

The two big challenges for electric vehicles are the battery packs and the limited driving range on a single charge. Battery packs can run from $9,000 to $18,000, depending on the model. The other challenge is the limited driving range. According to Statistics Canada, “the range of electric cars varies from 50 km to over 200 km.”

At present, there is no nationwide charging infrastructure in place in Canada or the U.S., and until this issue is addressed, electric vehicles will continue to represent a small segment of the car market in both countries.

Any discussion of green vehicles today must also include fuel-efficient, gasoline and diesel-engine vehicles. Automakers have made tremendous advances in these areas, with direct-fuel injection and turbochargers, lighter materials, improved aerodynamics and low-rolling resistance tires.

The benefits of fuel efficient and diesel engine vehicles include improved kilometres per litre, compared to traditional gas engine vehicles. They produce fewer pollutants than traditional gas engines and they have more power than hybrids and electric vehicles.

Although green vehicles account for just two per cent of the overall car market in North America, this segment is growing. According to Global Times, “hybrid and electric cars now represent a key part of every car company’s 2013 lineup or plans.”

One of the biggest hurdles for hybrid, electric and diesel technologies, however, is their price tag. These vehicles are typically more expensive than their conventional gas-powered cousins, but that doesn’t mean buying one doesn’t make financial sense.

Every car buyer’s needs and desires are different. When evaluating the costs, performance and safety factors of a green vehicle versus a regular gas-powered vehicle, consumers must weigh the many pros and cons of each so that they can make an informed decision.

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