Green vehicles must be fun and affordable, not just efficient

  • 21-Apr-2009 04:30 EDT
Ford Hi-Pa Drive F150.jpg

Ford’s fully electric Hi-Pa Drive F-150, on display at the SAE World Congress, features four in-wheel motors that deliver more power and torque than the 5.4-L V8 engine they replace, yet reduce cost by eliminating the engine, transmission, driveshaft, differentials, axles, exhaust system, and supporting subsystems. (Ryan Gehm)

“Horsepower and green power can coexist,” stressed John Waraniak, Vice President of Vehicle Technology at SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association), in his opening remarks of the Making Green Cool While Staying in the Black panel session Tuesday at the SAE 2009 World Congress in Detroit.

“You don’t have to give up the cool factor. You can have 500 lb·ft, or 500 equivalent hp,” and still be green, he said, referencing musician Neil Young’s ’59 Lincoln that was converted to an electric vehicle by Jonathan Goodwin of H-Line Conversions.

On display outside the FEV Powertrain Innovation Forum was another example: the fully electric Hi-Pa Drive Ford F-150 that was first shown at last fall’s SEMA Show in Las Vegas. The truck’s four in-wheel motors deliver more power and torque than the 320-hp (240-kW) 5.4-L V8 engine they replace, claims Ford. At the same time, costs are reportedly reduced since the propulsion system replaces the engine, transmission, driveshaft, differentials, axles, exhaust system, and supporting subsystems.

During Q&A, Waraniak posed the question, “What’s going to make green cool?” In response, Charlie Schultz, Vice President of Marketing and Sales for Kicker, relayed some advice his daughter once gave him: “Things are either fun or they’re boring.”

“Oftentimes we get so caught in the day-to-day activities of the product, the demands that are upon us, budgets, that we tend to forget that people really like to have fun, and they will pay to have fun,” Schultz said. “So if you’re going to make green something that’s cool, you’ve got to figure out [a way] to get people to say ‘I want that.’”

“I think the cool part of green is what gets an OEM in the black and be able to sell vehicles,” features such as configurable human-machine interfaces and connections for portable electronics, said Sherif Marakby, Chief Engineer of Global Hybrid Core Engineering at Ford Motor Co. “That’s really key because green alone isn’t going to do it; it’s all this other stuff.”

A major trend when introducing new vehicle models is to add more and more content. The thinking on the OEM side is that they are satisfying consumers’ wishes, as Marakby suggested. But Myles Kovacs, President and Co-Founder of DUB, challenged that notion, saying automakers need to offer more stripped-down base versions that are affordable and, importantly, easily customizable.

“To take it back to the basics and really come out with something that’s affordable, I think there’s a large marketplace for that,” said Kovacs. “If you can get a fuel-efficient car for under $6000 that anyone can work on, that’s the key to the future; not everyone is a computer technician.”

Kovacs shared an ideal scenario in which the vehicle could be upgraded in a manner similar to an Apple iPhone. “Customers [would] go in and say they want to upgrade their car. They can touch the screen and add a $50 air-conditioning upgrade or a music-system upgrade or whatever it is that’s modular, but it’s all done through software,” he said, predicting that Microsoft will soon become a major player in the auto industry “because in the future, car’s are going to be computers with wheels.”

While green characteristics of a vehicle—i.e., good fuel economy and low emissions—are certainly important, consumers’ desire for performance has not disappeared, panelists agreed.

“The key is the balance. We’re not developing a hybrid racecar; what we are doing is making sure that the performance is not an issue from the customer perspective,” said Marakby, adding that with hybrids it generally is not so much about a 0 to 60-mph number: “It’s really the smoothness and the acceleration at the right time and pedal response, and going through the calibration you can actually push that feel of performance without actually having to compromise any fuel.”

Another example of the intersection between performance and green is in the Shelby Mustang’s audio system by Kicker, to debut this month, which takes up half the space and is 60% lighter—while pumping out twice the bass. Another green component, Schultz noted, is higher efficiency and lower current draw for amplifiers, doing their part to help reduce fuel consumption.

The necessity of collaboration—among OEMs, aftermarket suppliers, and even retail partners—to be successful was another theme of the discussions.

“Closed architectures are condemned,” said Waraniak. “There are a lot of things you can do collaboratively, with [Ford] EcoBoost, for example, or in terms of electronic architecture. If you have an open architecture, you drive innovation and integration; you don’t lock yourself out of the inventions and some of the other things that other industries may be doing.”

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