Smart and Sustainable Cars: Racing into the Future

Cars are getting smarter, is an understatement. Cars are getting über-smart, is the truth. All aspects of the modern car, from the powertrain to infotainment, are wedded to electronics, communications technology and a good deal of IT too, in the journey towards making driving—even on Indian roads—a really safe, pleasurable and sustainable experience. Here, in this article, we look at some of the multi-faceted roles a modern car plays -- Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram

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My vehicle, my conscience
The number of vehicles in the world is growing far too fast, leading not just to a depletion of oil reserves but scary levels of pollution as well. Car makers, with a due share of eco-responsibility, are introducing several energy management technologies in all new cars, as well as launching electric or hybrid models for a cleaner and sustainable future.

“In the last few years, there has been a significant focus towards advanced engine control systems to offer higher fuel efficiency (including hybrid technology) and near-zero emissions. The start-stop technology, which is still in a nascent stage, is one step in this direction,” says Gupta. “Another interesting thing that needs to be done to ensure we get greater mileage and lower emissions than we are capable of today, is to make the cars lighter in weight. Experts suggest that one solution is to make body components of lighter materials such as carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) or polymer. CFRP works much like fibreglass; the carbon fibre is spun into long strands and then arranged in a cloth-like weave for strength. The Z06 version of the Chevrolet Corvette already makes limited use of carbon fibre right from the factory.”

Electric and hybrid vehicles are becoming quite popular, with Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Mahindra Reva and Renault being significant players in the market here. “Availability of higher capacity, 48-volt batteries, adoption of fuel cell vehicles and natural gas cutting into the electric truck market are some notable trends in this space,” says Gupta.

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Maini of Mahindra Reva points out that apart from the light-weighting efforts explained by Gupta earlier, another key development in the electric car space is related to battery technology. “A suitable way of storing energy with the space constraints in mind was the biggest challenge. If the weight of the battery is really high, most of the power generated will be used to carry the car’s battery alone, hence considerably affecting the car’s performance. However, the growth in the smartphone industry has caused battery technology to hit its peak on the learning curve. A lithium-ion battery pack can store energy for moving the car and at the same time be carried around on the car, tipping the balance at only 830kg for the entire car (Mahindra e2o); now this is a feat achieved,” he explains delightfully.

Apart from ongoing research on battery chemistries and battery management systems, Mahindra Reva is also working with CECRI, Karaikudi (a CSIR lab) to research on lithium-ion batteries that will help maximise battery life, optimise battery systems design, predict failures, etc.

Gupta, however, feels that despite EVs emerging as a major trend in the smart vehicles space, these are yet to be widely accepted due to dependence on infrastructure and policies around the same.

“Infrastructure has always been a chicken and egg problem for us. But, as we progressed along the learning curve, we have been able to solve the complicated equation by coming up with our own charging points at strategic locations. We are now at a point that we are working on a network of fast-charging stations so you can charge over a cup of coffee and move on,” answers Maini. He also explains that EVs are for people with fixed and predictable travel patterns, so they can comfortably charge at home or office and sail through their needs.

“To reduce the anxiety in the EV users, we are already partnering with malls and retailers to build EV charging ports into their parking lots, but government support is important to build a critical mass of users and suppliers and smooth out current regulatory roadblocks in this space,” he adds. For instance, we already have over 300 charge ports all over the country and are planning to extend it to other cities. We are hopeful that the new National Mission for Electric Mobility will help drive this. We can envision a not-so-distant future (it already exists in other parts of the world) where you can take your EV to a fast-charging station, get an 80 per cent charge in 15 minutes, and be off to your next destination.”

More updates.

    • A start-stop system is one that can automatically shut down and restart the internal combustion engine to reduce engine idling time and thereby fuel consumption too. Whilst this was initially popular only in cars with a hybrid electric powertrain, now it is being adopted in non-electric cars too.
    • Recently, Toyota launched its FCV hydrogen electric vehicle, expected to come to market next year. In this innovative car, hydrogen and oxygen combine to create electricity and water so that a zero emission target can be achieved.
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