The Wall Street Journal just published an excellent article highlighting the tussle in the automotive circles about what technologies need to be worked on to provide a clean transportation alternative for the next 20 years.
German Regulator Roils Auto-Emissions Debate
Friedrich Touts Low Tech Over Alternative Fuels; A ‘Tiff’ Over VW’s Golf
By STEPHEN POWER and MARCUS WALKER
August 23, 2007; Page A1
Last year, Axel Friedrich, one of Europe’s top environmental regulators, hired a group of university engineers to hunt for ways to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from Volkswagen AG’s best-selling model, the Golf, without undermining safety or performance.
At a hearing of European Union regulators last month, Mr. Friedrich, head of the transport department at Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency, reported that the team had cut emissions by 25% while keeping the Golf’s horsepower intact. Their trick was to reduce the car’s weight by substituting a variety of commonly available parts, including some from Volkswagen’s own parts bin. “We all know what to do,” he says. “It’s nothing magic.”
But Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest car maker, was far from pleased. The company’s top representative to the EU interrupted the hearing to complain that Mr. Friedrich hadn’t adequately consulted the company, which had cooperated with the researcher “There is a big difference between ‘laboratory cars’ and ‘mass-produced cars,’ ” Volkswagen said in a written statement. The company complains that some of the changes championed by Mr. Friedrich, such as installing lightweight front seats similar to those used in race cars, would make it harder to get into the car — and thus less appealing to consumers. Other alterations could make the car too expensive for some buyers, VW groused.
Mr. Friedrich, a longtime gadfly of the auto industry, has staked out a controversial position on a question that has risen in importance for nations around the world: What’s the best way to boost vehicle fuel efficiency? To the consternation of auto makers and some environmentalists, Mr. Friedrich argues that industry and government leaders are plowing too much time and money into potentially blockbuster alternative technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells. What they should be doing, he argues, is working harder to make vehicles with internal-combustion engines more efficient. [emphasis added editorially]
“We need solutions for the next 20 years, not just dreams,” Mr. Friedrich says.
In many nations, concerns about climate change and energy security are driving the debate. Spurred along by the Kyoto protocol, a global treaty intended to cap emissions, EU regulators are drafting new rules aimed at slashing automobile emissions of CO2, the gas widely blamed for global warming.
In the U.S., a similar debate is raging over how much time auto makers need to boost fuel economy, and whether setting stringent targets will compromise safety by encouraging the car makers to use lighter materials. In the U.S., which hasn’t ratified the Kyoto protocol, auto makers aren’t under as much pressure to reduce CO2 emissions as they are in Europe.
Boosting Fuel Economy
The question of how best to boost fuel economy is a particularly emotional one in Germany, home to both a powerful environmental movement and to an auto industry that makes some of the world’s sportiest cars. One out of seven German jobs depends on the auto industry. The country’s long love affair with horsepower is apparent in its autobahn highway system, which has no upper speed limit along many stretches.
Some German auto executives worry that carbon-dioxide regulations being drafted by EU officials could put their companies at a disadvantage to French and Italian car makers, whose product lines are skewed toward small vehicles. “This is a business war in Europe,” says Porsche AG Chief Executive Wendelin Wiedeking.
Recently, the auto industry has talked up the potential of battery-powered cars such as the Chevrolet Volt, a prototype from General Motors Corp., to reduce fossil-fuel consumption. The industry is also working on vehicles that run on hydrogen fuel cells and on crop-based fuels such as ethanol.
Hydrogen Filling Stations
But battery-powered cars are years away from mass production, and fuel-cell cars must surmount enormous practical hurdles, such as the establishment of a network of hydrogen filling stations. Producing more crop-based fuels often involves using farmland that might otherwise be used to grow food.
Many measures that Mr. Friedrich advocates to boost fuel economy aren’t exactly radical. One is to outfit cars with tires that offer less resistance when rolling. A study last year by the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. estimated that up to two billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel could be saved each year in the U.S. — equivalent to taking four million cars and light trucks off the road — by reducing the rolling resistance of automobile tires by 10%.
Some have expressed concern that reducing a tire’s rolling resistance can weaken its traction, compromising safety. The National Academy of Sciences study, however, reported that the safety consequences of such changes “are probably undetectable.”
Other fuel-saving measures embraced by Mr. Friedrich have already proved to be a tough sell to consumers. “Stop-start” systems shut down a car’s motor when the vehicle stops and revive it when a driver pushes on the accelerator. Volkswagen and Toyota Motor Corp. dropped that feature from earlier European models. Some customers complained about the extra cost, while others found the feature disconcerting, industry officials say.
“Dr. Friedrich is right that there are many measures to reduce CO2 emissions and they aren’t really new,” says Markus Espig, who led the team hired by Mr. Friedrich’s agency to work on the Golf. “But VW has to build cars they can sell and they have to consider what the consumer wants: a high degree of safety and comfort.”
Mr. Friedrich, 60 years old, is a veteran of clashes between Germany’s environmentalists and car makers. A year after joining the Federal Environmental Agency in 1980, he so irritated car makers by championing lead-free gasoline that they lobbied the government to shift him to a job dealing with asylum seekers. His employment contract protected him from such a move.
In 1997, when current German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the environment minister, one of her deputies drew up a list of environmental officials considered too outspoken, who were to be prohibited from speaking in public. Mr. Friedrich, who had irritated both car makers and politicians, was the first name on the list. “I would have felt insulted if my name had been left out,” he says. After the list leaked to the media, Ms. Merkel abolished the plan. A spokesman for the chancellor declined to comment.
Germany’s environmental agency is the biggest in Europe, and its extensive research capability has extended its influence beyond the continent. When California regulators wanted guidance years ago on how to slash soot particles from commercial diesel engines, they consulted Mr. Friedrich. “He’s been a constant source of advice and knowledge,” says Alan Lloyd, former chairman of California’s Air Resources Board.
Last year, Mr. Friedrich’s agency completed a study of an idea that has long fascinated car makers: using hydrogen to propel vehicles, either by turning it into liquid engine fuel or by combining it with oxygen in tiny electromechanical devices known as fuel cells. The fuel cells generate electricity, causing vehicles to emit only water vapor.
Because hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and using it to power cars would be so clean, proponents often describe it as the Holy Grail of alternative fuels. In Germany, its backers have lobbied the government to boost funding for fuel-cell technology. They argue that public support is needed to help German car makers compete with Japanese rivals such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., which are further along in developing and marketing hybrid vehicles that run on both gasoline and electricity.
“It would be a shame if Germany were to sleep through a trend in hydrogen technology the way we slept through hybrids,” says Wolfgang Reitzle, a former BMW executive who is now CEO of Linde AG, the world’s largest producer of industrial gases.
Mr. Friedrich used to be a fan of fuel cells. He wrote a paper about the principle when he was a university student. But a research project by his agency two decades ago made him a skeptic and turned him in the direction of tweaking the design of cars powered by traditional engines.
The problem, he says, is that pure hydrogen is rare. The gas has to be isolated, compressed, transported and stored — which requires lots of energy from other sources, such as fossil fuels. The result, Mr. Friedrich contends, is that shifting to hydrogen fuel cells would wind up reducing net CO2 emissions by less than if auto makers simply redesigned cars so that they use gasoline and diesel more efficiently.
In a study completed last year, Mr. Friedrich’s agency found that hydrogen fuel cells would be an effective way for Germany to cut fossil-fuel use only if the country had an enormous amount of solar power on tap to make the hydrogen. Building such solar-power capacity, he argues, would take decades.
“Fuel cells are just a gimmick to avoid regulation,” Mr. Friedrich says, arguing that the auto industry is promising high-tech answers over the long term to reduce pressure to improve fuel efficiency now.
Honda’s New Model
Hydrogen supporters acknowledge it will take years to build a renewable-electricity supply sufficient to produce the hydrogen needed to power Germany’s vehicle fleet. But they note that efforts are under way on that front. And car makers, they say, are making progress on fuel-cell cars. Honda says it expects to market a new model in limited numbers next year.
Auto companies are not developing fuel cells “as a gimmick,” says Mr. Lloyd, the former California regulator. “We’re not going to change things overnight. But we have to go to electric drive, including [cars powered by] batteries or fuel cells or a combination thereof. To foreclose on these options when our needs are so dire would be a mistake.”
Mr. Friedrich advocates using some of the money currently allocated to revolutionary ideas like fuel cells on improving conventional vehicles. To bolster his case, he hired engineers at the Institute for Automotive Engineering at RWTH University in Aachen, Germany, the alma mater of Porsche’s Mr. Wiedeking and other German auto executives. He directed them to experiment on a gasoline-fueled VW Golf.
The engineers’ goal was to reduce weight and wind drag without compromising safety or performance. They replaced the side mirrors, an aerodynamic hindrance, with tiny cameras that show on a dashboard screen what’s happening behind the car. They changed to more efficient gear ratios, and added a weight-saving carbon engine hood, a stop-start engine mechanism, and speedometer lights that tell the driver the most efficient time to shift gear.
So far, the team has cut the test vehicle’s CO2 emissions from 172 grams per kilometer — the average for German cars sold in 2006 — to 131 grams. The engineers aim to eventually reduce the Golf’s emissions to 120 grams, the EU’s tentative target for new cars sold in the region by 2012.
At a hearing in Brussels in July, the EU’s policy-making arm, the European Commission, sought advice on reaching its emission target. European car makers argued for extending the EU timetable, saying it would be too costly to meet. They urged the commission to put more emphasis on better traffic management.
Testifying in response, Mr. Friedrich showed slides of his modified Golf. “There is no need to develop new vehicles,” he insisted. “The adjustment can be made on existing cars.”
Hermann Meyer, head of Volkswagen’s Brussels office and its chief representative at the EU, stood up to respond. “This was not a presentation which has the backing of Volkswagen,” he said. Mr. Friedrich hadn’t consulted VW enough, he complained, adding that prototypes needed prolonged testing before firm conclusions could be drawn.
The lightweight seats and hood of the modified Golf might not be as neutral to the car’s safety as Mr. Friedrich claimed, Mr. Meyer said. “Has he done a crash test to verify this? If he has not made a crash test, he cannot say this.”
Mr. Friedrich wasn’t allowed to respond. The commission official running the hearing told the two men to resolve their “tiff” outside.
Engineers who have worked on Mr. Friedrich’s Golf contend that most of the changes wouldn’t compromise safety.
VW officials point to other problems with the prototype. The lightweight front passenger seat doesn’t fold forward, forcing rear passengers to enter on the driver’s side. Its carbon hood, normally seen in high-end sports cars, is expensive. Replacing side mirrors with cameras would require amending EU safety regulations, a potentially time-consuming process. The university engineers have offered no estimate for the cost of mass-producing such a vehicle.
Since the hearing, Volkswagen has announced it will introduce a diesel version of the Golf that emits less carbon-dioxide than Mr. Friedrich’s car. Like Mr. Friedrich’s prototype, the new diesel version has low-rolling-resistance tires and more efficient gear ratios. It uses a lower chassis, which improves its aerodynamics but could make for a bumpier ride. With a base price of €20,615, or $27,788, it will be only €315 more than a standard diesel Golf.
Mr. Friedrich says that with better marketing and reasonable prices, car makers could persuade more customers to choose “green” cars. His critics say he tends to overlook the fact that many Europeans want horsepower as well as comfort and safety features that add weight.
But with emissions regulations looming, German car makers have begun employing some of the same measures advocated by Mr. Friedrich. A new diesel version of BMW’s 1-Series, launched earlier this year with lower-resistance tires and a gearshift indicator, emits 16% less CO2 than its predecessor, and costs nearly the same.
At the Frankfurt auto show next month, the Mercedes-Benz unit of DaimlerChrysler AG is expected to announce it will outfit more of its cars with stop-start systems similar to the one in Mr. Friedrich’s Golf.