Perspective: The Future’s Bright, but is the Future Green?

Perspective: The Future’s Bright, but is the Future Green?

A long time coming, this has been. A truly landmark day for my own little view of the automotive world. Not even in my wildest of dreams, could I have imagined these words about to pass from my own lips…..the future, inevitably without the internal combustion engine, is going to be one heck of a fun ride.

Wow, that feels good! After years of pent-up fear, apprehension and concern believing that when the fire of the internal combustion engine starts to dwindle, sporty motoring will become obsolete and life will never be the same again. But now I can see there is light at the end of the tunnel.

This really is the equivalent to the end of the world. Not for everyone, indeed some people would let it pass without even stopping to glance or wave goodbye. For us petrolheads however, the end of the world ranks right up there with the extinction of the internal combustion engine. Or that’s what I thought, until today.

Every discussion I have with friends, colleagues or pub-dwellers, will surely become irrelevant. How could we discuss 0-60 times, or the whirring sound of a twin-turbo BMW six compared with the hum of a Yankee V8 in a future populated by silent cars? Will we be sat in the corner of a pub discussing our favourite cacophony of engine notes in the same way World War 2 veterans sit discussing life in the trenches? Is the transformation of automotive power plants from combustion to stored-energy, our generations equivalent of something as life changing as a world war?

Certainly, at this key time in automotive history, life-changing transformations are at hand. Only this has lasted significantly longer than the six years of WW2. The process of development for usable electric energy in motorcars has been waged for nearly 170 years. And it seems we are just about to start seeing a positive outcome.

From the initial development and application of electric motors in Scottish inventor Robert Anderson’s first electrical carriage, way back in 1832, to Ferdinand Porsches’ original electric car, built 109 years ago in 1901, cheap fuel meant that electric motors were not required, and further development of electric cars slowed to a crawl. With fuel being so cheap, the internal combustion engine officially became the way to drive the auto industry forward (no pun intended).

This also started slowly, and not until after the war was development of the internal combustion engine directed towards producing powerful and tractable engines for commercial use. However, needs must, and 109 years after the development of Porsche’s first electric road car we have found ourselves in a ‘sweet spot’ for electric cars, hence my new found enthusiasm for a bright motoring future.

We are entering an age where we are mastering technology, and companies such as Toyota and Honda – traditional pioneers of engineering, innovation and quality assurance – have proven to the world that the concept, and technology, works. Unfortunately, since the release of the first production Toyota Prius hybrid in 1997, we’ve had to listen to ‘influential’ motoring figureheads such as Jeremy Clarkson condemn these cars, and their continued development.

Does this mean that the detractors are also against the new wave of electric cars? Those that are targeted at us petrolheads, and promise to deliver a completely new way of driving quickly? We’ve gone from the first Prius in 1997, to a throng of exciting cars to adopt electric and hybrid technology.

Someday soon we'll be dreaming of cars like this when we think of electric or hybrid power..

The Tesla Roadster, unveiled to the world in 2006, proved that there is definitely something to this ‘electric hybrid’ lark. Now from that $100,000 electric sports car we have the Lexus H-series of hybrid vehicles, the brand new, and rather fetching Honda CR-Z, and the forthcoming homage to Porsche’s pioneering efforts over a hundred years ago – the electric supercar defining Porsche 918 Spider.

Formula One even introduced an electric hybrid device for the 08/09 season, and while they decided to remove it for the 2010 season, the development by pioneering F1 teams of ‘KERS’ (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) has already resulted in impressive applications within road cars.

Even Ferrari are trying their hand at electric power, with a version of the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano featuring a development of their KERS System, which supports overall engine power by contributing stored kinetic energy generated by the braking system. This system in road car applications has seen Ferrari achieve gains of 50% in fuel economy, which in itself may help to prolong the life of their V12 petrol engines.

So there we are, in a time in our lives where both petrol and electric powered sports cars are considered equally viable, perhaps it’s time to wave goodbye to all our outdated, pre-conceived ideas about electric power only being suited to milk-floats and zero-emission buses.

With Porsche, Ferrari and BMW now joining the path started by those leading Japanese brands, I think we’ll find that just as the combustion engine has created a spectrum of choice depending on your preference for performance or utility, so will these future hybrid or electric power sources with manufacturers vying to make them sound and feel as emotive as possible.

Look to the future, I think you’ll find it’s bright, but performance hybrids might not necessarily ‘seem’ so green when compared with the more humdrum Prius-like models bought by mainstream buyers. Performance or economy? – you’ll still be able to decide.

Photo credit: Kevin Mc Glone