The Long Road to Fuel Efficiency

The U.S. Energy Dept.'s FreedomCAR program has seen mixed results trying to reduce oil dependence. But its manager sees a bright future

Can Uncle Sam help the auto industry design and build advanced, clean, fuel-sipping vehicles to reduce American dependence on oil? And in the process, can the government help Detroit compete with foreign auto makers? Those are the goals of an Energy Dept. program dubbed FreedomCAR.

Along with related efforts for advanced trucks and hydrogen fuel, the initiative boasts a budget of $340 million in taxpayer dollars for research into everything from lightweight materials to fuel cells. The roots of the program stretch back to 1994, when the Clinton Administration launched its "Partnership for New Generation Vehicles" (PNGV). Its goal was to create 80-mile-per-gallon mid-sized family cars by 2004. The best hope: a diesel-electric hybrid power train.

By 2000, each of the Big Three companies had built 70-80 mpg concept cars: DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) ESX3, Ford's (F) Prodigy, and GM's (GM) Precept. To some critics, however, the program looked like corporate welfare -- a subsidy to Detroit to help it catch up with European competitors in diesel technology.


"It is fair to say that PNGV did help Detroit improve its diesel technology," observes Jason Mark, vehicles program director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Both GM and Ford have competitive small diesel engines in the cars sold by their European subsidiaries (see BW Online, 2/9/06, "Clearing the Smoke on Diesel").

PNGV may have helped Detroit compete better in Europe, where nearly half of new cars now have diesel engines. But the high-mileage concept cars built by the Big Three as part of the program have proved, so far, to be a dead-end. They weren't clean-burning enough to meet U.S. pollution standards. And they would have been too expensive to build. "High cost is a serious problem in almost every area of the PNGV program," reported a committee of the National Academies of Science, which reviewed the effort in 2000.

The 70-80 mpg diesel-hybrid mid-sized cars built as part of the PNGV may have gotten close to the mileage target, but they fell far short when it came to cost and meeting future emissions standards. If those cars had been built for sale, they would have cost tens of thousands more than equivalent ordinary mid-sized cars. As the NAS report noted in 2000 (when the cars were unveiled), there were lots of technical successes in the PNGV program, but nothing that could work in the marketplace because of the high costs.


After George W. Bush became president in 2000, the new Administration shifted the program's focus away from prototype cars to longer-term, high-risk research, and renamed it FreedomCAR. Since diesels were already making big inroads in the market in Europe, and car companies were already working hard to develop more advanced versions, the government thought that taxpayer dollars would be better spent in other areas. "The good news is that they defunded diesel and promoted hydrogen," says Jason Mark.

So what is the program up to now? What has it accomplished? And what is the government's vision of the car of the future? Washington correspondent John Carey put these questions to Edward J. Wall, program manager of the Office of FreedomCAR and Vehicle Technologies at the Energy Dept. Wall, who holds a masters in geology from Johns Hopkins University, has also directed the Energy Dept.'s (DOE) policy analysis on exploration and production of oil and gas on the U.S. outer continental shelf. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Looking back at PNGV, where has the research paid off?

Certainly in the area of battery research there has been a significant contribution. Every hybrid battery sold, whether it is in a [Toyota] Prius or an [Ford] Escape contains intellectual property that was developed as part of the DOE advanced battery consortium partnership.

There were also technology advances now incorporated in vehicles, such as more use of lightweight materials like aluminum than you would have seen 10 to 15 years ago. Some of this results directly from work done by the materials tech team, first in PNGV and then FreedomCAR. The three concept cars unveiled in 2000 also demonstrated the technical feasibility of an 80-mpg car.

But the DOE chose not to continue working on such prototypes?

When the new Administration came in, it was decided in the transition to FreedomCAR to focus more on component technologies and advances in critical technologies that could be used in a variety of vehicles, not just the mid-sized car. The idea was to broaden the focus, and the companies would decide which technologies or combinations of technologies made the most sense to put into actual production.

PNGV was relatively short term, which meant that fairly early on, some of the longer-term, higher risk technologies were knocked out because we knew they wouldn't be ready in 2004. FreedomCAR was set up to be more longer-term, more open-ended. The government's role is to help support the long-range, high-risk work that industry on its own will not necessarily do.

What are good examples of that kind of research?

We are focused on a suite of technologies. Ultimately the vision of FreedomCAR is to get off petroleum. That is the hydrogen vision, and there are many technical challenges. We think the [hydrogen car] will be a hybrid vehicle. So we need batteries, electric motors, and power electronic controls to handle the flow of energy.

Then there are the lightweight technologies, things like carbon fiber, magnesium, and titanium. For instance, we are doing research at the national laboratories in how to make carbon fiber more cheaply. Now, raw carbon fiber costs around $12 per pound. We are asking if the raw material can be made for $3 to $4 per pound.

Are we getting there?

We are seeing good progress. A lot of that work being done at Oak Ridge National Laboratory using lignin [as raw material for carbon fiber], from sources like wood pulp, that means no petroleum. There are still some challenges. With lignin precursors, there are more irregularities -- voids that have to be dealt with. But we definitely look like we are in the price range.

Another example of progress is in the handling of magnesium. The new Corvette has a magnesium engine cradle that is the direct result of our research. With magnesium, one of the issues is how to make large castings. That requires modeling simulations to find out how to avoid the formation of voids and stress points in the cast. The national labs have considerable computing power that can be applied.

What about advances in old-fashioned internal combustion engines? Are you funding work in that area?

Yes, and there have been advances in terms of understanding combustion. We have multiple contracts to look at homogenous compression charge ignition -- i.e. what's beyond diesel.

How does that work?

It's probably oversimplifying, but the way I think of it, the [fuel-air] mixture is sufficiently homogenous, so that rather than ignition taking place at a point source and spreading in a flame front, essentially the ignition is simultaneous throughout the mixture.

Why is that good?

You get greater efficiency and lower overall emissions. It operates in the zone between the formation of NOx, which tends to be at the higher temperatures at the edge of the flame front, and the cooler zones where the soot forms. In efficiency, large diesel engines currently are operating in the 42% thermal efficiency range. The theorists at the national labs say we could go possibly as high as 60%. We are thinking that if we can get over 50% efficiency, we've won -- particularly if we also reduce emissions and reduce the complexity and cost of treatment controls.

You're also working on technologies for hybrid cars.

What's the most important area of research now?

Most of our hybrid work is aimed at reducing the additional cost for hybrids, which is about $3,500 to $4,000 for a conventional hybrid, and $8,000 to $10,000 for a plug-in hybrid. Today, all hybrids have nickel-metal-hydride batteries. We stopped work on that in the year 2000, because we moved it as far as we could through research. Now we are focused on lithium ion batteries. The challenges there are getting a 15-year life and improving cold weather performance. We've already made tremendous advances in lithium ion.

How relevant is all this research? After all, Toyota (TM) leapt into the lead in hybrids without being part of this U.S. government effort, while U.S. carmakers have lagged behind. So is the FreedomCAR program even worthwhile?

One of the myths is that the Japanese did hybrids without any government support. In fact, they had government support at the same magnitude as ours.

I would argue that one of the successes of PNGV was that by putting the U.S. government money out and getting the commitment to auto makers, there were responses by other governments. As a result, our government effort in this area helped foster worldwide competition. The Japanese committed a significant amount of money to do some things with their domestic industry.

In addition, we are also looking at addressing some of the challenges that still face the Toyota system. If you look at how the power electronics module is cooled in the Prius system, they use thermal grease. We are examining other approaches to work over a broader temperature range.

What is your vision of the future automobile?

I think car of the future would be a hydrogen-powered vehicle that contains significant amounts of lightweight materials, such as carbon fiber, magnesium, aluminum and some titanium in the suspension, and advanced batteries. In the interim, the approach is to wring more efficiency out of the internal combustion engine.

Some environmentalists and energy efficiency experts praise the FreedomCAR program for advancing key areas of research but fault the Bush Administration for not doing more to stimulate demand for the fruits of that research. Measures like higher fuel economy standards, for instance, would give auto makers more incentive to actually build and sell high-mileage cars. What's your response to that?

We are really a research office. But certainly the tax incentives in the Energy Policy Act [giving tax credits for hybrids and other more efficient cars] are the sorts of things that could be considered. There are also discussions in the [DOE] about loan guarantees and whether they could be used to help move some elements of the industry forward.

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