A Reuters article highlighted the differences between the policies of U.S. automakers and Toyota as to their approach to making vehicles more efficient and reduce energy independence. Toyota has already invested in hybrid technology and while U.S. automakers also are starting to make hybrids their emphasis is on alternatively fueled vehicles and fuel cell vehicles.
I don't see either of these strategies as attacking the problem head on. Some hybrids, like the Prius, are significant energy savers, but most improve mileage marginally. Only the hybrids with large energy savings come close to saving the consumer any money due to the large incremental cost of the hybrid. Toyota currently makes 6 hybrid models with a 7th to be introduced next year. Toyota could produce 1 million hybrids a year in the next decade, which is still a small share of the auto market.
Flexible fuel vehicles do not save any energy, they just are able to burn ethanol which is not available in quantities that make much of a dent in the U.S. dependence on foreign fuels. This year we will have to import ethanol to meet our requirements for reformulated gasoline (which is only required in certain areas). If all of our gasoline were to contain 10 % ethanol (which all gasoline powered vehicles can burn) it will not be until 2011 that our domestic supplies of ethanol could meet that requirement. So why the emphasis on flexible fueled vehicles at this time? Ethanol will be a significant factor in reducing our dependence of foreign oil in 20 years, not in the near term.
Fuel celled vehicles are at least 15 if not 25 years away from widespread adoption and at a very high capital cost requirement, for which the government is picking up much of the cost of development. And there is no clear cut plan for the distribution of hydrogen--although I see producing syngas from coal, distributing the syngas through our existing natural gas distribution network and distributed hydrogen production from the natural gas/syngas as the most likely answer.
As many readers agree, the answer is more high efficiency hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, which requires little development and is much less capital investment than fuel celled vehicles. These all require better battery technology that is being developed primarily by private industry, led by A123Systems. It appears that the vehicles will not come from Ford or GM, but maybe Daimler Benz (which has a small fleet of plug-in vans) or Honda but most likely from Toyota and some small independent suppliers which hopefully will be successful enough to be bought out by some big company.
The light weight, highly aerodynamic vehicle deserves an important place in our line-up of vehicles. It offers one of the best ways to highly efficient vehicles independent of their means of power. A couple of small start-ups are pursuing this technology, but that is the only activity I have seen. This approach requires major retooling on a mass production basis in that both the bodies and frames require different manufacturing technologies than are now used. One of the three companies that have proposed this type of car has given out a little information about their manufacturing methods, Accelerated Technologies claims that their manufacturing technologies are much simpler than currently used, although completely different.
Resource: Toyota Looks to Hybrids, Detroit Pushes Ethanol, Reuters, May 25, 2006