Kevin Hackett visits the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi to see what motoring innovations are in store.
The Green Issue: Powertrain is just starting point for more efficient motoring
Since man started drilling for black gold, we have come to have a reliance on oil for even the most mundane things. The mobile phone in your pocket, the bag your groceries arrived home in, the tyres on your lawnmower, the DVD you watched last night - none of these things would exist were it not for oil.
It's what makes the world go round and, some would argue, it's what will stop it turning altogether at some stage.
A world without oil is unthinkable but it's also one we have to start contemplating as in just a few decades we've put a serious dent in the planet's reserves of crude. And nobody realises this more than the world's car manufacturers, who have been racing to launch models that are desirable on an emotional level yet aren't so reliant on the planet's resources nor as damaging to the environment.
Yet car manufacturers, eco-minded or otherwise, were noticeable at this week's World Future Energy Summit (WFES) in Abu Dhabi by their almost total absence, which begs the question: just what developments have been made in the 12 months since the last one?
Electric cars still haven't made any real global impact, hybrid sales in the region are still pitiful and as for awareness of environmental issues with motorists, well, let's just say there's a high mountain yet to be climbed. Yet all is not lost, because if this year's WFES showed one thing, it's that small, seemingly inconsequential changes to the way vehicles and their consumable parts are made can, on a global scale, make a tremendous difference to this precious planet of ours.
Take ExxonMobil as a prime example. On the company's stand was a mock-up of a car, as pictured on the cover of this issue, and it succinctly illustrated how the smallest of details can benefit us in many ways.
Akram Reda, ExxonMobil's industrial marketing adviser for the region, talked me through some of them. "Take the new tyre inner liner we have developed," he said, pointing to two cut-away car tyres. "We have developed this one, and it's being used by [Japanese tyre manufacturer] Yokohama. It's as light and as thin as a plastic bag and, when you add everything up, this one innovation can reduce a car's overall weight by 3.5kg."
Big deal, I hear you say, but there's much more to it than a few measly kilograms of unsprung weight. "The new compound we have developed [using oil, remember], requires 80 per cent less material during the manufacturing process than traditional methods. It improves tyre durability by up to 50 per cent, which is obviously good news but it also offers vastly superior air retention qualities. How many of us regularly check our tyre pressures? This new liner enables the tyre to be 1,000 per cent better at keeping its air pressure." As most of us are aware, incorrectly inflated tyres can massively affect the fuel consumption of our cars, so keeping them at the right pressures 10 times longer than they normally would remain could, on a planetary scale, make a colossal difference.
It isn't just our tyres that companies like ExxonMobil are working on, either. Unsurprisingly, they're making changes to the way our engines are lubricated with constantly evolving synthetic oils and additives that enable longer service schedule gaps and greater engine efficiency. "We already supply an oil that, if it was being shipped in bulk by sea and there was an accident, would simply dissolve in the water without the usual environmental disaster scenario," adds Reda.
Two of the car companies represented this week at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company were Mitsubishi and Hyundai. Mitsubishi had one of its i-MiEV electric city cars on the stand, plugged into a charger, but as Kentaro Kawaguchi, whose job title is too long and complex for these pages, admits, they're still not really viable for general daily use. "We're still struggling in many countries to address the issue of recharging infrastructures. If you only cover a short distance in your daily travels then it isn't really a problem as you can charge the vehicle at home using your normal electricity supply. It's when a longer range is required that it becomes a problem and people are being put off by that."
Hyundai, on the other hand, is continuing to develop what it sees as the only real alternative to fossil fuel propulsion: hydrogen fuel cells. We've heard much about this method in recent years and, like electric cars, the problem of refuelling infrastructures continues to raise its ugly head. On the company's stand was its ix35 FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) which looks, to all intents and purposes, like any other medium-size SUV. But under its skin is an incredibly advanced hydrogen fuel cell system. Storage has been addressed with an incredibly safe tank at the rear, which has been fire and crash tested to ensure risk-free containment.
According to Hyundai's representatives, things are moving forward in other parts of the world, with the city of Copenhagen, in Denmark, marked out as an example. A memorandum of understanding was signed between Hyundai and the city's authorities last year and it is expected that 2,000 hydrogen cars will soon be in use by city officials. With an available range between fill-ups of 580km, a top speed of 160kph and, crucially, only water vapour as exhaust emissions, it's heartening to know that hydrogen still has a very real shout at being a fuel for the masses.
Returning to the issue of charging electric vehicles, Siemens once again wheeled out the battery-powered Ruf Porsche 911, which at least shows that zero-emission cars can still look utterly gorgeous. But the real focus of its display was its CP500A charging point, which Siemens says offers greater safety and convenience by being able to charge two cars at the same time. The recharging station looks like a cool parking ticket machine, in stark black and white with a digital display panel and green LED lighting around its upper edges, but will city planners take note and start installing these things in their car parks?
Siemens is hopeful, and it's easy to see how this system could work for daily commuters. The idea is that users have their own personal identity card provided by their electricity company or service provider, which is read by the charging station. Once it's recognised the user, the machine releases one of its available flaps so a charge cable can be plugged in. Once machine and vehicle have communicated with each other and everything's recognised as being nice and compatible, fast charging will commence. Once the cycle is complete, the user simply waves the ID card at the machine, gets a consumption reading and everything can be unplugged. Simple. And if this gets off the ground on a worldwide scale then electric mobility might just have a future with millions of motorists. Fossil fuel, you are so last century.