Mike Stevens | May 19, 2009

You know, I am mightily impressed by the Tata Nano. It’s a strange attraction because, as a gearhead, any soulless reduction of the car down to a minimalist representation of its function makes me wince.

However, while the Nano may look boring to the desensitised Western eye, to the Indian chap who can just about afford one, it is an aspiration realized. After all, he is trading in his 50cc Hero Honda moped (damn fun things, by the way) and buying a car.

He may still have a poster of the Honda Civic on the living room wall, but the Nano can stand proudly outside the front door adorned with strings of bright marigolds and tinsel, and looking just as flash as I imagine a GT2 would in my garage.

However, it is not this consumer-oriented aspect of the Nano that alone impresses me. It is the fact that Tata has such high hopes for it.

Possible Euro-spec and US-spec versions as well as electric versions have been discussed. And the kicker is that since Tata has co-developed a production-ready compressed-air based car with MDI of Luxembourg, there is every possibility that the Nano too may get that technology sometime in the future.

This brings me neatly to the topic of alternative powertrain technologies.

geely_gt_concept_2

Not too long ago I read a report floating around on the pages of Google by the research consulting firm McKinsey. It was evaluating the future of the Chinese automobile industry.

Fascinating stuff.

The Chinese market will be the biggest car market in the world within a couple of decades, and since the level of air pollution is already on par with that of my friend’s tar-lined lungs, the impact of this growth on China's environment is quite substantial.

So alternatives to the good old internal combustion engine (ICE) should be investigated.

bmw-hydrogen-engine However, when doing so, what should the benchmark be for the ICE? Should we be comparing the efficiency of the ICE to other technologies as the ICE stood five years ago? As it stands now? Or should we allow improvements in ICE technology?

The answer to this is critical before deciding on the types of powertrain technologies you want to place your bets on.

And it is not simple at all. The fact is this (and allow me to get a bit philosophical here): a fair comparison of alternatives for anything in life cannot be made without allowing for improvement by the incumbent.

For cars, the ICE is the 900-pound incumbent gorilla.

First, the ICE has several sources of inefficiencies and most can and are being addressed with increasing rapidity. This will improve the ratio of output of power to the input of fuel.

The largest inefficiency, about a third of all energy-loss in fact, comes from the engine components themselves, primarily as a result of the friction between the engine’s parts.

Enter the technologies of turbocharging, cylinder deactivation, variable valve timings and DFI.

variable-vane-turbo And it is incorrect to assume that these technologies have played their best hand already. Far from it. Variable vane turbochargers are not commonplace the last time I checked and neither is cylinder management. (Exceptions rather than the rule.)

The 60 percent loss of energy from within the ICE may not all be recoverable without indefensible costs, but that huge 'percentage gap' still leaves a lot of room for improvement. And likewise, dismissing all diesel engines for using a relatively inefficient energy source is incorrect for it does not accommodate the fact that the engine can be improved beyond the 'third-more-efficient' it already is in comparision to the average petrol engine.

Then there are other sources where the solutions will ring bells for you. Start/Stop technologies, more efficient gearboxes, brake-energy regeneration, wheels/tyres with lower rotational inertia and so on.

Second, alternative powertrain technologies such as LPG-based vehicles, or EV’s (whether hybrids or FEVs) may be shifting the GHG emission from the car’s tailpipes to elsewhere in the car's production and running life.

The entire fuel-source to exhaust-pipe calculation of emissions should really be compared to that of the ICE-based car across the life of the car. And, to be really fair, this should be done without prejudice to where the car is emitting its C02.

chevrolet-volt

That is why regulating emissions using standards such as g/km seems just so myopic. Just because running the Volt, Prius, Clarity, MIEV or whatever locally implies emitting across the earth somewhere does not automatically make it cleaner, only more politically palatable.

Sure you could be one of those types who says "who cares if it emits somewhere else", but then let’s also not get too self-righteous about driving them as embodiments for cleanliness. Shipping pollution out of town may make you feel better but it does not make the earth any cleaner.

Third, let us not make this an issue about the dire state of the climate we live in now and the role of the ICE in making it so, and then simply and expediantly leap to alternative technologies as the solution.

That is such bovine scatology! (And if fear mongering were an Olympic sport that logic would win you gold every time.)

How many of these alternative powertrain technologies are so tried, trusted and faultless that they can truly claim to save the world from transportation as a source of GHG emissions? Because that is what they would need to be able to achieve if they want to stand as legitimate opponents to the ICE.

As I have suggested above, not even if every one of us owned Karmas and Teslas would transportation suddenly become an environmental non-issue.

Now, if every one of us drove around in Nanos farting nothing but compressed air, perhaps things would be different. But we are (thankfully) a long way from that eventuality.

To me the most important impact of alternative powertrain technologies - the reason why current developments in the automobile industry are so interesting to me - is that it motivates better research, more innovation and quicker development of more powerful, more efficient and cleaner internal combustion engines.

Long live the ICE.

Prateek is a Lecturer at the Deakin Business School in Melbourne

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