With the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) a wrap and the North American International Auto Show underway now, there has been a flurry of automobile news so far this year. While there were few truly groundbreaking announcements for alternative-fuel vehicles, there is plenty of good news to report. Thanks to increased fuel economy regulations, carmakers are continuing to tweak their cars to deliver more fuel economy at all levels of the market. While many innovations are ready to hit the roads, others are still aspirational ideas for the future. Here are nine reasons we’re excited about 2014’s new crop of cars and trucks.
1. A Car That Runs on Sunlight
The announcement that we’re most excited about is Ford’s new solar-powered concept car that offers the same performance as a plug-in hybrid but without the need for a plug. The C-MAX Solar Energi Concept car uses a gasoline engine combined with a magnifying glass-type feature that concentrates the sun’s rays on the vehicle’s roof-mounted solar panels. A full day of sunshine is equivalent to a four-hour battery charge, or 8 kilowatts, Ford says. On a full charge, it should have a range of 620 miles, including 21 electric-only miles, the same as the existing C-MAX Energi. The concept car is also equipped with a plug-in port for standard electric charging. Ford says that 75 percent of all trips made by an average driver could be powered by the sun, and the vehicle’s estimated combined city-highway mileage is 100 mpg. By using solar power instead of an electric plug, a typical driver could reduce their annual greenhouse gas emissions by four metric tons, according to Ford. The automaker will test the vehicle with institute researchers to determine if it’s feasible for mass production. (Source: MSN Money)
2. Start-Stop Technology Is Finally Arriving
Ford also recently introduced an Edge Concept crossover equipped with start-stop technology and announced that 70 percent of its North American vehicle lineup will be available with stop-start by 2017. The 2014 Chevrolet Malibu also utilizes start-stop technology on a mainstream engine. At the lower price point, Kia is rolling it into the Soul and Rio. While popular in Europe and Japan, in the U.S., until now only hybrid cars have offered stop-start. In 2012, a few luxury automakers such as BMW and Porsche began offering it in conventional vehicles.
When a vehicle equipped with a start–stop system reaches a standstill, the engine automatically stops running and resumes again when a sensor detects the driver’s foot is lifting off the brake pedal. Start-stop can improve fuel economy by as much as 12 percent, according to AAA. According to a recent study, as many as 8 million vehicles sold in the United States will have stop-start technology by 2017.
3. Trucks Are Getting Into the Game
In November, the first compressed natural gas (CNG)-capable 2014 Ford F-150 rolled off the production line in Kansas City. Its 3.7-liter V6 engine can run on compressed natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas. When equipped with a bi-fuel CNG/LPG engine package, the 3.7-liter V6 F-150 is capable of achieving more than 750 miles on combined tanks of gasoline and CNG, depending on the tank sizes selected. In addition to saving money on fuel costs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certifies CNG usage can result in up to 30 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.
But the biggest news for the F-150—the best-selling vehicle in the country—is that it’s 700 pounds lighter thanks to a new aluminum body. The 2014 Ford F-150 with a 3.5-liter V6 engine also now has a new, more efficient 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine with standard Auto Start-Stop, according to a press release. Unlike start-stop solutions in other vehicles, this technology was specially tuned for truck customers and shuts off the engine to save fuel when the vehicle is stopped, except when towing or in four-wheel drive.
4. Fuel Cell Vehicles Are Stealing the Show
Toyota showed a number of electric vehicles at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES), including the Rav4 EV, released in 2013, but the company’s new Fuel Cell Vehicle Concept took center stage, according to Cnet.com. The car pumps pure hydrogen into the tank and combines with air to create water, a reaction that also produces electricity and emits only water vapor. The fuel cell channels the electricity to a drive motor, powering the car. The company said that the car can travel 300 miles on one tank of fuel, and that fill-up time would take about 3-5 minutes.
In addition, Toyota’s fuel-cell vehicle could be used as an emergency generator to power homes during electrical outages. The company explained the four-door sedan’s electric motor can produce more than 100 kilowatts of electricity and, with a full tank of hydrogen fuel, could generate enough energy to power a regular home for a week. Toyota’s engineers are now researching an external power supply device that could be used with the car to provide a domestic connection.
Honda also unveiled a new fuel-cell concept car recently, but the barrier to this technology is a lack of fueling infrastructure. Toyota said its version will initially launch in California in 2015, and the company is working with the University of California, Irvine, to map locations for fuel station sites from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego. The state has approved $200 million in funding to build about 20 stations by 2015, and a total of 40 by 2016.
5. All-Electric Is Going Luxe
BMW unveiled and offered test-drives of the all-electric BMW i3 at CES. The car can go for about 100 miles before needing a charge and will be on sale in May for just over $40,000, according to USA Today. The Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric, which has a range of 124 miles (200 km) on a single charge, may also be coming to the U.S. later this year.
6. You Can Get It All in One Vehicle
In early 2015, the A3 Sportback e-tron® gasoline electric plug-in hybrid (PHEV) will join Audi’s line of A3 vehicles. According to AutoBlog, the car is a parallel hybrid, meaning its electric motor is sandwiched between a combustion engine and an automatic transmission—either, or both, is capable of powering the front wheels. Water is used to cool the gasoline engine, the electric motor, and the battery pack. Range in pure EV mode is about 31 miles. The five-door will hit 80 miles per hour on battery power alone, meaning it will run emission-free on even the fastest highways. Once the battery is depleted, the turbocharged four-cylinder is solely tasked with propulsion. The A3 also has the ability to completely recharge its battery in just over 30 minutes of highway driving.
7. You Can Get Great Fuel Economy Without Alternative Fuels
The 2014 Mazda3 series will offer close to the full suite of SKYACTIV technologies, which are a group of elements including improved engines and transmissions, sleeker external designs and lightweight structural components that bring substantial fuel-economy, safety, and other benefits to Mazda vehicles.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted in their most recent Light Duty Fuel Economy Trends report that even though Mazda doesn’t offer a hybrid or electric vehicle, it’s the most fuel-efficient auto manufacturer in the U.S. With the highest fleet-wide adjusted fuel economy performance of 27.1 miles per gallon (MPG), and the lowest CO2 emissions of 328, Mazda led the chart for model year (MY) 2012. (Source: Press Release)
8. Kinetic Energy Is Cool—and Affordable
At CES, Lit Motors showcased its self-balancing, two-wheeled electric car, currently code-named “C-1.” Combining the efficiency of a motorcycle with the comfort of a car, the C-1 uses high-torque in-hub electric motors, saving space and providing a responsive driving experience. These motors regenerate energy while braking, storing the energy kinetically in the gyro flywheels. The C-1 uses a small battery pack to travel as many as 200 miles per charge, and is freeway-ready, with a top speed of more than 100 mph and acceleration of 0-60 in six seconds. The company plans to begin production of the C-1 in late 2014, and it will cost about $19,000.
The company has also developed the Kubo, an all-electric cargo scooter, with a top speed of 45 mph, a range of 50 miles per charge, and 300 pound capacity. Kubo will feature an onboard charger and be able to charge from any standard wall outlet in three hours or less. Production is estimated to begin in summer 2014, and it will cost about $6,000. (Source: Lit Motors)
9. Every Car Is Greener Than It Used to Be
While the evolution from internal combustion engines to more energy-efficient alternatives is still getting started, GreenCarReports.com pointed out that that virtually every new model being released by automakers is an improvement on the last. This push, which is due to increasingly tight regulations on carbon emissions and fuel efficiency worldwide, is unlikely to go away. If anything, it will help spur more innovations and get us closer to our goal of reducing oil usage by 50% by 2035.
Shopping for a new car? Here are some helpful tools:
• See the range of electric vehicles now available at GoElectricDrive.com.
• See the range of CNG vehicles now available at CNGnow.com.
• Find more fuel-efficient car options at FuelEconomy.gov. The Advanced Vehicles & Fuel tab has links to Hybrids, Plug-In Hybrids, All-Electric Vehicles, Flex-Fuel Vehicles, Diesel, FuelCell Vehicles, and Alternative Fuels, including Hydrogen and Ethanol.