Nov. 20, 2010 at 12:36 PM ET
Future cars may well mix and match alternative-fuel options … flexfuel and biofuel, diesel and hybrid, plug-in plus gas or all-battery. The exercise is aimed at changing America's energy economy to favor renewable resources and reduce the need for imported oil.
A prime example of the mix-and-match strategy comes in the form of Volkswagen's line of Touareg sport-utility vehicles. The German automaker is coming out with three flavors of the car: gas-powered, diesel-powered and gas-electric hybrid.
The Touareg hybrid's drivetrain is designed in such a way that the gasoline engine can be disengaged and turned off at speeds of up to 32 mph on a level road, or up to 75 mph rolling downhill. Regenerative braking recovers electric power during deceleration.
The price isn't cheap: a little more than $60,500 for the hybrid's base price, compared with about $44,450 for the gas-powered version, and $47,950 for the diesel. The highway-fuel economy figure for the hybrid is 25 miles per gallon, which is a tad lower than the diesel version's 28 mpg and just a little higher than the gas-powered version's 23 mpg.
Although the Touareg's fuel economy may not match that of a Toyota Prius, VW's triple choice shows that even in the luxury SUV class, there's a place for energy options.
Kai Philipp, a VW engineer who focuses on hybrid drive technology, explained that the hybrid version was being offered as an alternative for potential buyers who put a premium on fuel efficiency but just don't want a diesel, for whatever reason.
"For both groups of customers, we wanted to provide an option," Philipp said.
Philipp said VW "took a good look at diesel-hybrid" and its potential to maximize fuel savings, but ultimately decided combining the technologies would just be too expensive. "Hybrid technology doesn't come for free," he said.
The company's next goal is to come out with a Jetta hybrid. Down the line, there may be all-electric VWs as well, although Philipp acknowledges that the move toward electric driving may not be coming "as fast as some customers expect it to."
Electrification as a national goal
Philipp said customer preferences aren't the only reason behind the move toward hybrids and electric vehicles. "The national goal is going to regeneration, and going to electrification," he said.
President Barack Obama has set a goal of putting 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on America's roads by 2015, and Philipp noted that other countries have voiced similar aspirations. Last month, for example, Chinese officials were quoted as saying they want their nation's output of electric vehicles to reach 1 million cars by 2020.
Urban centers may well enact their own limitations on carbon emissions: London, for example, is already phasing in a "Low Emission Zone" that would charge drivers an extra fee of their cars exceed emission standards.
The move toward electrification will require dramatic upgrades in the infrastructure for electric vehicles: The $230 million public-private EV Project aims to put nearly 15,000 charging stations in six states (Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington) plus the District of Columbia over the coming year.
But that's just a start: A Pike Research report on EV infrastructure predicted that almost 1 million charging points would be set up in the United States by 2015. When you add in the energy requirements for at-home charging, automotive electrification may require a remake of the nation's electricity distribution network — with an increased emphasis on smart-grid technologies.
Cars to watch
There's a chicken-and-egg problem surrounding electric vehicles: Automakers are reluctant to go too far down the road to electrification due to concerns about the lack of infrastructure, and the companies that can provide that infrastructure — utilities, for example — are still trying to assess where the market is headed.
Will the coming crop of plug-in vehicles finally crack open the market? That's a multibillion-dollar question to be answered in the next two or three years. For Kurt Lutterman, a Seattle-area resident who put down a $99 reservation fee for an all-electric Nissan Leaf, the answer is definitely "yes."
Lutterman gave the Leaf a thumbs-up after his first test drive, which he took as part of Nissan's nationwide "Drive Electric Tour."
"We want to be very supportive of electric cars," he said. "We would have bought one years ago if it were available."
Over the past few weeks, we've driven through some real-world tests with the Nissan Leaf as well as the Chevy Volt, an electric car that's powered by batteries plus a gasoline-fueled engine. But there are other players in the hybrid/electric vehicle market, as a recent visit to the Seattle Auto Show demonstrated. Virtually every major automaker is offering (or promising) a hybrid vehicle.
Here are just a few of the cars to watch for:
To learn more about energy innovations that are transforming the automotive industry, check in regularly with Dan Carney's MotorHead columns and "The Driver's Seat" by Paul Eisenstein, as well as the rest of msnbc.com's automotive coverage and the "Green Machines" special report in the Environment section.
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This posting, which is part of Cosmic Log's "Electric Road Trip" series, originally appeared in msnbc.com's Future of Energy section on Nov. 19, 2010, under the headline "Automakers Mix and Match Energy Alternatives."