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October 22, 2009

The car of the future

Carol Goodwin

Carol GoodwinA car that’s clean, light, safe, efficient and affordable – is almost here.

Not a golf-cart, not a two-person mini runabout, but a substantial, mid-size car.

It’s what governments are requiring, through regulations to reduce reliance on oil and its environment destroying emissions. And it’s what consumers are demanding, says Ross McKenzie, managing director of the University of Waterloo’s (UW) Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR).

Despite the gloom and doom of a worldwide recession, despite huge industry partners like General Motors begging for bailouts – research and development at WatCAR is moving rapidly – accelerated, if you will, by the economic crisis, McKenzie said in an interview.

“The recession we’re in actually presents more of an opportunity for WatCAR. We are almost like a contract research and development department for hire,” McKenzie says.

A cleaner, lighter, safer, cheaper, electronically equipped vehicle is well within the sights of engineers, scientists and researchers across North America, Europe and Australia, including more than 100 working in the University of Waterloo’s math, computer science and engineering faculties.

Although automotive companies, from assemblers to parts manufacturers and suppliers, have been beset for at least a decade by global market challenges, they’ve kept their product engineers busy working on innovative projects.

However, the current economic crisis has forced significant layoffs at parts and assembly plants – and WatCAR is being flooded with inquiries, McKenzie says.

Cash-strapped automotive manufacturers and parts suppliers are now turning directly to university-based research centres like WatCAR, in a desperate race to meet the needs of environmentally aware, cost-conscious consumers and governments committed to cleaner air.

“Innovation is going to continue in the automotive industry, regardless of the state of the economy,” McKenzie says. “Companies still want to innovate, but can’t do it internally. They’ve had to cut back. So we are well positioned to fill that need.”

 “We don’t take trains like they do in Europe. At the end of the day, people will still buy vehicles.”

While the number of vehicles purchased in North America – already significantly down from about 16 million a year – is predicted to settle at around 10 million a year according to published reports, the type of vehicle people want is changing dramatically.

People, especially younger generations, want green cars – and carmakers are determined to meet the needs of this potentially lucrative market.

Supported by Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) -- companies like General Motors, for example, have poured money into student projects such as the EcoCar Challenge.

UW is one of only two Canadian schools involved – the other is the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa.

The three-year EcoCar Challenge began in the spring of 2008 using Saturn Vues donated by GM to each of 17 accredited engineering schools across North America.

UW’s Alternative Fuels Team (UWAFT) is developing the car with a hydrogen fuel-cell system to power the electricity required to drive it. Water is the vehicle’s only emission, which amounts to zero emissions. (EcocarVideo)

GM is set to launch the Chevy Volt in 2010, priced at around US $30,000, with Toyota following a couple of years later with an all-electric Prius, which is currently a hybrid using a combination of fossil fuel and electricity.

For someone who drives less than 64 kilometres a day, the Chevy Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions. A gasoline engine kicks in on trips beyond 64 kilometres.

Battery technology is an ongoing challenge, McKenzie admits. Engineering departments in schools in North America, Europe and Australia are working on perfecting a battery that will carry a car for a reasonable distance and provide the power needed to climb hills and pull loads.

In the Volt, for example, the battery will not be owned, but leased. The battery will literally be a work-in-progress, with improvements added with the least possible hassle to the driver.

Fast-charging posts will come to mall parking lots, but GM prefers the overnight swap system, where a car would pull into a designated service station, and have its battery automatically lifted out for overnight charging, replacing it with a fully-charged battery.

Automakers are constantly looking at innovative ways to cuts costs.

The innovation effort trickles down, touching all aspects of production, including improving fuel economy – whether the vehicle is a hybrid, an all-electric, or a fuel-cell hydrogen car.

And the lighter the car, the easier it is on fuel – whatever that fuel may be.

So WatCAR scientists like Dr. Mike Worswick, a mechanical and mechatronics engineering professor, are researching new advanced steel and aluminum alloys that will safely clad lighter vehicles.

UW, with its acclaimed Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering faculties working closely together, along with its industry partners, is also moving “at the speed of light” on the wireless technology with which every future car will be equipped, says McKenzie.

Projects using wireless technology at UW include “crash-proof” software that will back itself up; an ultra-secure communications system; sensors that will detect upcoming hazards like ice patches and automatically correct speed and steering.

Wireless technology could further reduce the weight of the car, result in fewer components, making it cheaper to assemble and quicker and cheaper to repair.

Take a car’s turn signal, for example. Instead of several hard wires causing the blink, an electronic control unit sends the signal wirelessly to a receptor in the taillight, consisting of many tiny light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are very low energy, using one tiny low-voltage wire. By cutting down on wires, the vehicle is lighter. As well, less energy is used.

“You won’t have to buy wiring, so the car costs less. An assembler won’t have to pay (workers) to install the wires. After it’s sold, repairs are easier (because) there’s only one little power wire,” McKenzie says.

It’s the way the world is going.

“There’s a regulatory demand for cleaner cars, and that will drive innovation in better mileage, weight and emission.

“Consumer demand will also drive innovation. The two go together,” says McKenzie.

Carol Goodwin is a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ont.

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