May 05, 2008

Our Inefficient Cars & The Poulsen Hybrid Solution

You may be surprised to learn how inefficient that shiny new car is that you drive to work everyday. Thankfully, there's a solution in sight.

I think a lot about cars and urban transport. I honestly believe that cars are unsustainable for a large number of reasons and that we must give them up in favor of walking, using the bicycle, two wheelers and public transport. In my personal life, I've taken the first step towards that by placing a moratorium on single and dual passenger car travel - will only take out the car when there are three or more people traveling (more on that later).

One of the reasons cars are unsustainable is their horrible inefficiency. I've mentioned this before but here's what Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute has to say:
I've been thinking in background for 20 years about the physics of cars and why are they so inefficient that you know, your car's using a 100 times its weight in ancient plants everyday and yet only 0.3% of that energy ends up moving the driver. This didn't seem very good.

Of all the fuel energy you put into the car, 87% (seven eighths of it) never gets to the wheel. It's lost first in the engine, driveline, idling and accessories.

Of the 1/8th of fuel energy that does reach the wheels, half of that either heats the air that the car pushes aside or heats the tires and roads. Only the last 6% of the fuel energy actually accelerates the car and then heats the brakes when you stop.

- Amory Lovins in Car of the Future
Not everyone is as inspired to give up their cars -- most people actually love theirs -- so we must live with them for some time. The only alternative then is to produce more efficient cars. But the auto industry has refused to budge so far, you say. Soooo... you get the independent auto makers to produce efficient cars. But how do you do that? It's not as simple as producing water bottles, you know. Well, give them an incentive. Announce a $10 million prize for a car that is over 3 times as efficient and sells in large numbers.

This is precisely what Auto X-Prize is all about.

I've been following Auto X-Prize development for almost two years. I think it's a great initiative though I feel they should have aimed higher -- 300 MPG instead of 100 (today's cars average about 29 MPG in US). We need to make a big leap to make up for the inefficiencies of the past century. Nevertheless, it's an exciting venture and I can't wait to find out who among the 64 contenders wins the X-Prize and what it does to the industry.

Popular Mechanics magazine just announced a list of the top 10 contenders according to them. They're all good but the one that has the greatest likelihood, in my opinion, isn't on anyone's radar. It doesn't feature in the list and it's never been mentioned on AutoBlogGreen or TreeHugger, two popular blogs covering green cars and low-impact living. Both of them have dozens of posts on other X-prize contenders.

The Solution

I'm talking about Poulsen Hybrid. A product of a European US company* called Alpha-Core, it's essentially a couple of rear wheel hub motors which can be installed in any conventional car to convert it into a plug-in hybrid, increasing its mileage significantly. So you get 2 hub motors, two controllers along with batteries and a charger which go in the trunk -- all for $3300. Give it a couple of hours and you car's now a plug-in electric hybrid!

(* Founder, Ulrik Poulsen has an unmistakable Scandinavian accent so I assumed it's a European firm but Alpha-Core website says they're based in Connecticut, US.)

I think it's an absolutely brilliant concept. Totally inexpensive, efficient, simple and it doesn't even mean getting a new car. If it works as promised, it should sell in huge numbers - many times more than any of the fancy cars in Popular Mechanics list. Converting an existing internal combustion engine car into a plug-in electric to get mileage in the range of 100 MPG without any substantial mechanical changes to the car and at such low cost is an unbeatable proposition.

More reasons why I like the Alpha-Core/ Poulsen Hybrid solution:

  • Retrofitting existing cars to make them more efficient is the most effective and sustainable way of tackling auto emissions. There are well over 600 million cars in the world. Any new new alternative automotive solution will take several decades to become mainstream provided it is cost effective and is available worldwide. While we need new technologies, the greatest impact will come from a technology that can improve the existing one running inside each of those 600 million cars.

  • Alpha-core has been in the manufacturing business since 1982. So unlike most other X-Prize contenders, it's not a startup - it doesn't need any funding to get going.

  • The product is ready for launch. There's no long development cycle in between by the end of which most companies discover their technology isn't yet ready or that it has a fatal flaw. In an audio interview, founder Ulrik Poulsen says it's expected to be available by June 2008. That's next month!

    Go Poulsen Hybrid!

    UPDATE 7-May-08: AutoblogGreen makes amend, writes about Poulsen Hybrid. Links to this post. Most people commenting are overwhelmingly positive about this.
  • 12 Comments so far      

    Anonymous Anonymous:

    Was wondering if this has been Slashdotted. For nerd news sights, i would say it gets one of the biggest audiences.

    8 May 2008 at 04:46:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Blogger Manu Sharma:

    Just made a submission. Thanks.

    8 May 2008 at 10:34:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Blogger chippwalters:

    Either this is a hoax, or a concept design by a marketing guy. No way this will work in reality. The torsion bar is connected to the fender with rivets? C'mon! Give us a bit more credit than that!

    9 May 2008 at 00:44:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Blogger Manu Sharma:

    Poulsen Hybrid have not invented in-wheel hub motors. They have existed for quite some time. In fact, a European company has a fleet of buses running on electric hub motors.

    Even Amory Lovins makes a reference to them in the 'Car of the Future' feature linked in my post above: "Another whole line of development is to move the wheels largely or wholly with electric motors which are much more efficient than mechanical engines and much more controllable. So, they give you fantastic acceleration... "

    9 May 2008 at 01:03:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Anonymous Anonymous:

    Check out the 600+ hp Mini Cooper from
    PML FlightLink (UK/China) here. Quite feasible, actually, but maybe not in a few hours of work. I think they demonstrated this over a year ago.

    30 June 2008 at 08:02:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Blogger Manu Sharma:

    Wow, that car seems like science fiction! But 600+ HP in a subcompact is a bit of an overkill, won't you say?

    30 June 2008 at 10:37:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Anonymous Anonymous:

    Hub electric motors were part of a design Porsche did early in his career, like 1920...
    IF personal transportation is a requirement [I think it is], I think plug in AS WELL AS "plug-out" [to coin a phrase] might be an alternative. It might make environmental and financial sense for extremely efficient and low emmission[sp] personal transportation power plants to supply power to the electric grid.
    Instead of a power company selling me power they bought in the in situ on peak market at a dollar a kilowatthour, how about my 15kW "plug-out" car selling it to him at 95 cents?
    There are uncountable complications to doing this, but...
    I just wanted to express and idea that takes into account more than just transporation is transportation. After all, the plug-in market desires to enter the electricity market, why not vica versa?

    1 July 2008 at 06:24:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Blogger Morten Lange (Reykjav√≠k):

    No way :
    "Retrofitting existing cars to make them more efficient is the most effective and sustainable way of tackling auto emissions."

    This is dangerous narrow-mindedness. Who says cars are the solution in the first place. Nope, to a large extent they are the problem, especially in tows and cities. A little less so with reduced emissions, but still vastly ineffective, sedentary-promoting, accident-creating and resource squandering, compared to cycling combined with public transport, and walking.

    12 October 2008 at 18:19:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Blogger Manu Sharma:

    Morten, I completely agree with you. That was narrow-minded indeed. As I said in the second sentence of this post:

    "I honestly believe that cars are unsustainable [...] and that we must give them up in favor of walking, using the bicycle, two wheelers and public transport."

    That said, the 600 million cars that are on the road aren't going away. So, to correct myself, let me restate that: Retrofitting existing cars with hub motors could be an effective short-term solution while we make the transition to public transport.

    Over the last few months, I've come to believe that it's indeed possible to make that transition and almost completely phase out private ownership of cars.

    12 October 2008 at 22:05:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Anonymous Anonymous:

    Heh... obviously none of you live in Canada. Where I live in Northern Canada, They issue warnings in the coldest January months that if your car breaks down, you are not to leave it because you could die of exposure. Good luck with your enthusiasm for bicycles tho.

    18 October 2008 at 04:29:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Blogger Sarath Guttikunda:

    a 300 mile per gallon car

    19 June 2010 at 13:28:00 GMT+5:30 link  
    Anonymous Anonymous:

    this is sooo cool.

    23 October 2010 at 11:52:00 GMT+5:30 link  

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