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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Green with Envy: Ford Takes Lead in In-Car Green Technology

Photos by Ulysses Ang
The tides certainly have turned—it’s this singular thought that raced in my mind after turning on the TV.  A few seconds of a generic daytime soap turned into a bombardment of ads; after all, what would you expect from the land of consumerism?  The ads for Cialis and Robitussin were easy to ignore, but the ones from Ford weren’t.  It’s the sort of car ad I wasn’t accustomed to: quoting gasoline mileage and maintenance cost over horsepower and torque.  The US financial meltdown was certainly a factor, but moreover, it’s the overall change in corporate social responsibility that’s fueling this newfound green initiative.  And car companies like Ford are taking the lead.

Flexibility is a Start

The technology behind flexible fuel vehicles or FFVs is nothing new.  Henry Ford advocated the use of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline early on; a fact being that the first commercially available flex fuel vehicle was the 1908 Ford Model T.  Basically, a flex fuel vehicle allows gasoline, a plant-derived alcohol (usually ethanol or methanol, but colloquially summed up as bio-fuel), or a combination of both to burn together in the combustion chamber.  The use of ethanol fuel lessens the dependence on non-renewable sources of fuel such as gasoline.  However, since oil was cheaper to produce, gasoline prevailed until the 1973 oil crisis when the world once again took notice of ethanol.

Nowadays, aside from lessening the world’s dependence on oil, the use of flex fuel also improves air quality.  In addition, on the manufacturing side, there’s little modification needed in a vehicle to make it a flex fuel capable.  In some cases, the cost per vehicle is fairly minimal—around US$100-US$200 (~P 5,000-P 10,000).  For car owners, the beauty with flex fuel vehicles is that there’s little to distinguish it from a non-flex fuel vehicle apart from the badges.  It has identical performance and maintenance save for flex fuel vehicles having slightly poorer fuel mileage.

Ford was the first company to answer the US government’s call to develop cars to run on bio-fuels way back in 1981 with the Escort.  Since then, they’ve led the way, producing 250,000 E85-capable (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) per year.  Currently, vehicles such as the Ford Expedition, Explorer and Club Wagon are E85 capable, while the Focus and Escape are E20-capable.

Boosting Power and Efficiency

Aside from developing flex fuel vehicles, Ford is accelerating its plan to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.  As such, they are investing heavily in new engine technology headlined by EcoBoost.  The brief behind EcoBoost is simple: develop a more fuel efficient drivetrain without compromising performance.  125 patents later, the results are nothing short of impressive: more power and torque with 20 percent better fuel economy and 15 percent lesser carbon dioxide emissions.
The EcoBoost engines start its life as a regular Duratec engine treated with a special thermal spray to handle the high fuel pressures; after which, two turbochargers are installed providing 12 PSI of boost.  And surprisingly, through the use of direct injection technology, the EcoBoost can run on just regular fuel (89 octanes)!

Testing a fleet of EcoBoost powered vehicles like the Taurus SHO and the Lincoln MKT at Ford’s Dearborn Development Center; I came out impressed with this piece of environmentally and enthusiast friendly technology.  The most noticeable thing with the EcoBoost is the lack of lag commonly associated with turbocharged engines.  At full throttle, there’s tremendous amount of torque which digs you into the seatbacks at almost every rpm up to its redline.  The snarling note is equally addictive too, especially as the speeds build up.  For kicks, I cruised on a second lap to test EcoBoost’s real-world performance.  It’s every bit as smooth and refined as a leading European drivetrain.

Ford believes that EcoBoost is a much more affordable and versatile solution compared to hybrids because of the technology’s simplicity.  For instance, there’s no need to carry additional weight because of the batteries or the electric motor.  Ford is hedging their bets on EcoBoost that they’re rolling out an entire line of engines that started with the 3.5-liter V6 (365 bhp, 495 Nm) in the Taurus SHO.  The 2012 Ford Focus will get a 1.6-liter inline-4 good for 180 bhp and 244 Nm and their new C/D-segment car will benefit from a 2.0-liter with 200 bhp and 300 Nm.  It’s even rumored that the Shelby GT500 will get an engine codenamed “Road Runner”—a 5.0-liter V8 EcoBoost engine with more than 500 bhp.

Electric is In (Again)

Little introduction is needed about gasoline-electric hybrid technology.  It was and still is a stunning piece of automotive technology popularized by the Toyota Prius.  Ford, seeing the potential of this fuel saving technology got into the act as soon as possible and entered with a patent sharing agreement with Toyota in 2004.  The first fruit of this agreement was also the first hybrid sport utility vehicle—the Escape Hybrid.  However, Ford went a step further by making the Escape Hybrid a flexible fuel vehicle, capable of running on E85.  Since then, Ford has introduced other hybrid vehicles including the Motor Trend and North American Car of the Year, the Ford Fusion Hybrid.

Though Ford sees EcoBoost as an excellent short term solution to improve efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions, Ford also sees how hybrid cars with plug-in capability can drastically reduce emissions even further.  Ford is now examining how plug-in hybrids can interact with the entire electrical grid.  They hope that one day, plug-in hybrids will not only draw power from the electrical grid, but will be able to pass on excess power back to the grid.  Currently, Ford is experimenting on this concept by converting a fleet of its Ford Escape Hybrid into plug-in hybrids.  This revised Escape can now drive up to 48 kilometers purely on battery power alone, while its effects on the power grid is being studied by Southern California Edison Corporation.

Ford also experimented on pure electric vehicles with the Think City car first and then a fleet of Ranger EVs for the US postal service. The Ford Focus RV will have a range of about 160 kilometers and can be charged on a standard 110-volt house outlet.

The Cleanest of Them All

Sharp-eyed James Bond fans will immediately spot a fleet of hydrogen-powered Edge in the movie, Quantum of Solace.  At the time, most thought of them as simply stickered versions of the regular Edge, but that’s far from the truth.  In reality, these Ford Edge are powered by Ford’s HySeries Drive which is a hydrogen fuel cell-electric vehicle hybrid.  It’s the latest in a line of experimental vehicles developed by Ford to run on hydrogen.

The same Edge HySeries albeit with a different paintjob was made available for the media to drive.  Starting on hydrogen power, this experimental Edge immediately sounded something straight out of a science fiction movie.  It’s completely quiet at idle and once the speeds build up, it’s replaced by the unmistakable purr of an electric power and nothing more.  It’s mighty fast too, reaching up to 100 km/h in no time.  And with a touch of a button, the Edge HySeries can switch to stored electrical energy in its lithium-ion batteries.  The switch sequence required a couple of seconds, but was unobtrusive save for some dash indicators.

Hydrogen is said to be the fuel of the future because of its natural abundance as well as its cleanliness.  The term ‘fuel cell’ comes from the electrochemical cell in the fuel tank that produces the electricity.  Power is generated through a reaction triggered in the presence of an electrolyte between the fuel (hydrogen) and an oxidant (oxygen from the air).  The reactants flow into the cell and the by-products (water vapor) flows out of it.

Unlike conventional batteries that use stored electrical energy, hydrogen fuel cells consume reactants from an external source.  This presents a huge challenge for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles because of the need of new refueling infrastructure.  In fact, the Obama Administration cut off funds for the development of fuel cell vehicles because they don’t see hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be practical in the next 10-20 years.

However, this hasn’t stopped Ford from demonstrating hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.  They see the benefits of fuel cell vehicles in reducing air pollution as well as sound pollution, with favorable impacts upon respiratory health as well.  As early as 2006, Ford demonstrated its fuel cell technology with a 174 horsepower Explorer with a hydrogen fuel cell capable of traveling 563 kilometers—the farthest for a fuel cell vehicle so far.

Clean and Green

Ford Motor Company, once a poster child for conspicuous fuel consumption has turned 180 degrees and is now at the forefront of the fuel efficiency game.  It’s the most fuel-efficient American car company with 13 vehicles having a fuel mileage of 12.75 km/L or better.  And this is just the start.

They have just announced that it will accelerate plans to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles, converting three truck and SUV plants for small car production.  For example, the Ford Fiesta—once a European only subcompact car is now available for the North American and Asia-Pacific markets.  At the most extreme end is the Fiesta ECOnetic which achieves 27.03 km/L in European tests.  But even the more regular versions of the Fiesta can achieve excellent mileage thanks to the use of technology such as PowerShift—the 6-speed dual clutch automatic.  Ford is also using advanced aerodynamic aids such as active engine shutters on future models like the 2012 Focus which will improve its fuel mileage even further.  Ford is also challenging the next generation of car designers from several universities to come out with their car of the future: a simple, durable, lightweight and fuel-efficient vehicle with a target price of just US$ 7,000 (~P 350,000).  The resulting car is certainly a hat tip to the one that started it all over a century ago: the 2015 Model T Concept.

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