National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Cars, Trucks & Buses

It is time to take a break from the gloom and doom in Washington and the Middle East and look at for some better news about the future of energy. Every day I look at a web site run by the folks over at Green Car Congress. Now the Congress’ primary interest is following developments in “sustainable mobility” which means motor vehicles which burn less fuel and have lower emissions. To this end, they collect and post dozens of stories each week concerning advances in automotive and motor fuel technology. Their archives contain more that 100 categories of developments ranging from Batteries and Energy Storage to Synthetic Biology.

From a peak oil perspective the information collected by the Green Car Congress is of considerable interest for it records the progress that the world’s automotive and vehicle fuel industries are making towards reduced consumption of fossil fuels.

It should be obvious to all that somewhere in the next 10-20 years, fossil fuels for motor vehicles are going to become too expensive or scarce to be used as they have in the last 50 years. The path we have been on is simply not sustainable and anyone who believes their grandchildren are going to be pumping 20 or 30 gallons into an SUV’s gas tank 20 years from now is mistake,.

The most obvious way to keeping highly motorized societies such as the U.S. functioning is to reduce consumption of fossil motor fuels many fold by either switching to vehicles that do not consume fossil fuels or use them in much, much smaller quantities than we are doing today.

Prototypes of cars which get in excess of 200 miles per gallon have already been demonstrated, and great progress is being made in the development of electric cars, trucks, and buses.

In perusing the thousands of stories that have been posted by the Green Car Congress in the last year or so, it would seem that the first step towards sustainable motor vehicles is “lightweighting” – a term that seems to be of common use in the industry these days. There are many ways to reduce a vehicle’s weight most commonly by the substitution of aluminum, carbon composites, magnesium, exotic steels, and plastics for the traditional materials. The trick of course is to keep costs under control and to be sure that one does not emit more carbon in building a light weight vehicle than is saved during its operational lifetime.

In a recent speech, the CEO of General Motors noted that his firm will reduce the average weight of its vehicles by about 15 percent in the next few years through aggressively using advanced materials wherever practicable.

Efforts to produce more efficient gasoline and diesel engines are going on everywhere. Hardly a week goes by without some major manufacturer announcing a new line of engines or transmissions or some other part of the drive train that are more efficient than those in use today. Again GM notes that its newest line of V8s can produce so much torque when running on four cylinders that they have better fuel economy than smaller engines. Yet, the torque of a large V8 is still available for acceleration, hauling and towing.

LNG power for large trucks is rapidly coming into greater use. Large trucks in the US currently consume 25 billion gallons of diesel annually which requires some 2 billion barrels of crude to produce. Gasification of the large truck fleet could lead to a major reduction in the need for diesel for as long as the natural gas supply holds out.

All indications are that electric vehicles will rapidly come into common use. The major problems have been the cost, cruising ranges that are less than what we are used to, the time it takes to recharge batteries, and for many, a place to do the recharging. During the last six months there have been dozens of announcements by companies and laboratories around the world concerning the improvement in battery and occasionally ultra-capacitor technology. Many of these speak of 4-5 fold increases in potential energy density of their new electricity storage devices. While most of these are still at the laboratory-bench stage, a few appear ready for commercial application in the next few years or at least before the end of the decade.

In August, the Department of Energy announced that it will award $36 million to spend on 22 projects aimed at accelerating the development of better energy storage systems that will speed the adoption of electric vehicles.

The era of the electric vehicle is much closer with a dozen or so models from different manufacturers likely to be on the market within the next year. These are coming from manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and the Far East. BMW, Mercedes and VW will have high quality vehicles with ranges in excess of 100 miles on the market next year. Rapid charging that will boost a battery to 80 percent of capacity or less in 20 minutes is being tested as are methods of charging a vehicle simply by stopping over a device on the ground.

Similar progress is being made for light trucks and buses. The Koreans are testing a bus that recharges its electric batteries from wires buried beneath its route as it is moving. This allows for smaller and cheaper battery packs and the ability to move the bus off its designated route.

Forecasters are starting to take notice of these developments and making what they consider bold predictions that sales of electric-powered cars might reach 400,000 vehicles ten years from now. What these forecasters universally overlook, however, is where gasoline prices will be by the end of this decade. If current trends continue, we could be looking at $10 or more gasoline by 2020. In this case the switch to electric cars might come faster than most currently think.