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Green Technology Simplified

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author photo by Autotrader May 2011

The world is arguably a better place because of early adopters. They are the ones prepared to try out new technology at their own expense – bugs and all – and see if it fits into everyday life. Take the buyers of the original Honda Insight, for example. This was the first gasoline/electric production hybrid to go on sale in the United States (in 1999). It was a two-seater, because the battery pack took up all the rear space. There was no option for an automatic transmission, so that convenience was another sacrifice in order to achieve 61 mpg on the highway.

Car companies have also paid for being at the cutting edge. The first generation of Toyota Prius, which went on sale in the States in 2001, cost more money to build than its $19,995 retail price. And anyone making fuel cell vehicles – Honda and Mercedes-Benz, for example – is still sinking a lot of cash into research and development. Toyota reportedly spent about $1 million dollars a day developing the plug-in version of the Prius and the charging technology surrounding it.

However, early adopters have shown where the potential is for cars like the Prius and Insight. They give companies the impetus to continue such projects, to revise and refine them. And ultimately, it’s us, the general public, who benefit. We can now buy hybrid and eco-friendly cars with space, style, convenience and luxury features, along with a comprehensive array of safety equipment and still enjoy 50 mpg in the city.

Other cars, such as the 2012 Buick LaCrosse, are also going down the road of light electrification (its system is called eAssist), offering things like stop/start technology and regenerative braking for better fuel economy and fewer emissions. If you have ever wondered what stop/start technology, regenerative braking and other futuristic features of contemporary eco-motoring really are, here is a word or two of explanation.

Stop/start

In a regular car, when we come to a set of traffic lights and stop on the red, the engine is ticking over and using gas all that time. But it’s too time-consuming and bothersome to put the transmission into Park, turn off the engine, then turn it back on again and put the transmission into Drive at every stoplight.

Stop/start automatically kills the engine, saves the gas that would otherwise be burned, and fires up the engine as soon as the throttle pedal is pressed. It’s that straightforward. But even though the idea has been around for a while, modern computing power and lightweight components are able to make the system work almost imperceptibly.

Regenerative braking

Think of a car as a large weight on wheels. When that mass is in motion, it has momentum. Trying to slow it down involves friction and the dissipation of kinetic energy. It creates heat. The whole process is inefficient. In a car with regenerative braking – like a hybrid or all-electric vehicle – something else happens when the anchors are stomped on.

It sends the electric motor into reverse, which not only helps to slow the car through drivetrain retardation, it sends electrical energy going in the other direction as well. During acceleration or cruising, power goes from the battery to the electric motor and then the wheels. While braking, the motor (driven by the moving wheels) replenishes the battery. And the more electrical energy a hybrid can use, the more its reliance on gasoline is kept to a minimum. Many EVs and hybrids use this technology including the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid. In the Prius, you can actually select a more aggressive setting that sends more power back to the batteries each time you brake.

Nickel metal hydride versus lithium-ion

Propelling cars with batteries didn’t really make sense until nickel metal hydride (NiMH) power came along. This chemical composition has acceptable levels of storage, delivery and cost. Such batteries are found in the Toyota Prius, although many manufacturers are moving over to lithium-ion (Li-ion).

Lithium-ion is commonly used in laptop batteries as well as cell phones and digital cameras. The Tesla Roadster’s power pack is basically a bunch of laptop batteries wired together. The advantages Li-ion has over NiMH include weight, a lower rate of self-discharge and a greater number of charge/discharge cycles.

Porsche is sticking with NiMH in hybrid versions of its Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan, though, at least for the time being. The company feels that Li-ion cannot deliver power in a way that is appropriate for a vehicle bearing a Porsche badge. However, most car makers producing hybrids or electric vehicles are now employing Li-ion, most notably in the 2011 Chevrolet Volt plug-in vehicle, 2011 Nissan Leaf EV and the upcoming plug-in Toyota Prius hybrid.

Crash course

Speaking of the Leaf and Volt, they have recently been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) and emerged as “Top Safety Picks” – the institute’s highest accolade. As well as keeping their occupants well protected, each has an automatic cut-off function, so neither those in the car or any first responders are at risk of an electric shock.

Also, Toyota is implementing a safety feature, called a Pre-Collision System (PCS), into the Prius and many of its Lexus models. It uses radar to sense if an object is looming and takes into account factors like vehicle speed and direction. “In such a situation,” said Brian Lyons, quality and safety communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA, “PCS pre-emptively retracts the front seat belts and pre-initializes Brake Assist. Increased braking will be applied the instant the driver depresses the pedal. An active braking feature will automatically apply the brakes if the driver fails to react to system warnings.”

The upshot of all this complex tech is refreshingly simple: we no longer have to choose between economy, ecology, convenience or safety. All we have to work out is our own budget. With green technology becoming so painless, many people might even become emboldened to become early adopters themselves the next time some game-changing technology comes out.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Green Technology Simplified - Autotrader