CAR MANUFACTURERS around the world are under growing pressure from consumers to prove their green credentials. How they respond - not just what they say they are going to do, but what they actually do - could make or break corporate images and reputations in the years and decades ahead.
Petrol (and diesel) internal combustion engines are largely based on 19th century thinking. But that hasn't stopped manufacturers achieving impressive advances in performance and fuel efficiency, and in reducing carbon dioxide and other polluting emissions, in recent years.
However, sometimes it's not the 'eureka' moment that leads to the biggest or most immediate gains, although such moments certainly do not hurt the cause. Rather, more immediate advances often can be achieved by applying creative thinking to bringing together a range of different ideas and philosophies and moulding them into a coherent and co-ordinated package.
Manufacturers therefore typically work on several fronts simultaneously, developing shortterm measures (maximising the performance and efficiency of existing technologies), medium-term measures (such as developing alternative fuel sources, like hydrogen fuel cells), and long-term measures (which may result in technologies that look like nothing we're familiar with today).
For a company like Ford, the task is made trickier by a misplaced but often widespread perception that some of its vehicles - particularly the Falcon and Territory models - are large, inefficient gas-guzzlers.
The irony is that Ford's Australian-built vehicles are gas guzzlers - that is if by gas you mean LPG or liquid petroleum gas: a quarter of all Falcons sold every year are powered by LPG, not petrol.
But LPG is only the thin end of a green wedge. Along with LPG, Ford already produces vehicles that will run on petrol with 10 per cent ethanol, and diesel.
David Katic, general marketing manager for Ford Australia, says the company is poised to make a concerted effort to prove its green credentials to the Australian public.
The simple fact is that Australians like big cars, but they're also demanding better fuel efficiency and lower emissions - and there's a common perception that you can't have that in a big car. Katic says Ford's strategy - product development as well as marketing - is to convince the buying public they can have their cake and eat it.
The company's global vice president of product development has been quite vocal about Ford's fuel economy goal: to have a fuel economy leader in every segment in which the company competes. That means that Ford is aiming to have the most fuel-efficient small car in its class but also to have the most fuel efficient large car, SUV or truck. Customers might still need or want a larger vehicle, but they also want to know they've made the smartest choice when it comes to fuel economy.
However, Katic says Ford is not hanging its hat on any one particular technology. He says the strategy is based on using proven, robust, available and affordable technologies.
Later this year, Ford will introduce a new Fiesta model, the first released in Australia to feature the company's so-called ECOnetic technology. Katic says the ECOnetic technology is designed to maximise fuel efficiency and produce very low carbon dioxide emissions by harnessing a range of technologies and ideas, and integrating them into a single package.
At its heart is a highly-efficient diesel engine, which Ford says produces just 98 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled, and uses 3.7 litres of fuel to cover 100 kilometres.
(The petrol 1.6-litre five-speed manual Fiesta produces 143 grams of CO2 per kilometres, and uses 6.1 litres of fuel for every 100 kilometres covered, which is still extremely competitive in its class.)
But an efficient engine on its own is only half the picture. The ECOnetic package includes: • Specially-developed tyres: low rolling resistance means less energy is required to keep the car moving; • Reduced weight: less mass means less energy is required to accelerate; • Improved aerodynamics - less drag means less energy is needed to keep the car moving; • Low viscosity engine oils: developed in conjunction with BP, which reduce friction within the engine, meaning less energy is lost as heat; • Electronic driver aids: help the driver find the optimum gear change point, so the engine is working at its optimum power and torque outputs for as long as possible; • Specially selected gear ratios: making sure the engine is working at its optimum level while the car is cruising in top gear.
"We're going through a process of reinventing our technological approach and philosophy" Katic says.
Henry Ford's goal was to achieve "motoring for the masses", and Katic says the company today adheres to the same philosophy. "Affordable" and "available" are the keywords in the green revolution.
"The problem with some of the upcoming 'green' technology is that no one would buy it, or it would be very limited, partly because of the very high cost," he says.
"We are pursuing a 'green' strategy that uses multiple technologies and one of the important parts of that strategy is to enhance [the technologies] and combine them to get a good result."
Katic says there was "a lot of detailed work" that went into getting the elements of the ECOnetic package just right. And he says it's not the case that the company is using existing technologies because it has not developed new ones. For example, it considered a hybrid option as part of the ECOnetic package, but rejected it. Katic says that the fuel efficiency will be better for the upcoming Fiesta than for the hybrid Toyota Prius.
"Our strategy is multi-pronged," Katic says. It involves existing technology; it involves "major engine advancements, like EcoBoost"; and it involves emerging technologies. "[Such as] Electric - we're exploring a range of options globally to get a maximum result."
The thinking behind the company's recently developed EcoBoost technology is that directinjection turbocharging produces more power from a given amount of fuel, so smaller engines can be fitted to vehicles without a loss of power or drivability.
In the US, Ford promotes EcoBoost as offering the power of a V8 engine with the fuel efficiency of a V6; in Australia it will promote the benefits as being the power of a V6 engine with the fuel economy of a four-cylinder engine. In 2011 Ford will release a four-cylinder EcoBoost Falcon.
Katic says a lot of attention is understandably paid to engine developments in the quest for better fuel efficiency and improved CO2 emissions. But other issues are equally important - making vehicles as aerodynamically efficient as possible is imperative; likewise, introducing materials that reduce weight.
"It's introducing new materials, but it's also reviewing every single part and saying, 'How can we do this lighter and better?'," he says.
"Everything for us starts with product. We want to have substance when we do it. When we're communicating to customers about our green credentials, demonstratable technological progress and innovation coupled with sound statistics is what counts, not merely statements.
"Customers are demanding green solutions - and so the race is on to deliver them." Ford's multi-year engineering plan places it well to run the race.
Source - Fast Thinking