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Honda's crystal ball: The future of the automobile

September 22, 2010 |  9:57 am

HondaCRZ Honda hosted a Web conference Wednesday to discuss its view on the future of the automobile, encouraging consumers to "resist the temptation to pick winners and losers or to disparage competing ideas," said Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager of environment and energy strategy for American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance.

Addressing the twin challenges of reduced petroleum use and reduced greenhouse gas emissions requires the aggressive pursuit of all technologies, some of which have near-term benefits, others long-term, Bienenfeld said.

With nearly 100% of vehicles still powered by petroleum, improving the fuel efficiency of internal combustion engines is the first step, he said; the use of variable cylinder management (which shuts down engine cylinders when the load is light), more efficient transmissions, improved aerodynamics, decreased rolling resistance and reduced engine friction could improve gas fuel efficiency by as much as 15% to 20%.

"The challenge is finding the right combination of features and technologies while keeping costs under control."

Hybrids, he added, are both cost effective and fuel efficient, and they reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about a third over gasoline-only engines. Vehicles that run on natural gas can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25% and operate on a clean and domestically sourced fuel.

While plug-in hybrids (such as the Chevrolet Volt), pure electrics (such as the Nissan Leaf) and fuell-cell electric vehicles (including the Honda Clarity) "offer important advantages," Bienenfeld said, they also present "serious challenges" since 50% of U.S. electricity is from coal, and coal will continue to "remain a significant part of the U.S. energy mix for decades."

Bienenfeld added that plug-in electrics produce about the same well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emissions as a similarly sized hybrid, though they are good from an energy security viewpoint because they consume no gasoline.

"The important thing today is that we agree on the fundamental priorities: reduce our dependence on petroleum and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Bienenfeld said. "By establishing these social priorities rather than favoring specific technologies, companies like Honda will have the freedom and flexiblity to pursue all promising alternatives. No single technology will achieve all of our societal and environmental aims."

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: American Honda Motor Co.

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