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The EV From Down Under

We were all very sad when we got the news that those iconic Australian cars – Ford and Holden – were no longer going to be manufactured here and that the factories were closing their doors. However, we can all smile again for the sake of the Australian automotive industry: a new company in Queensland is going to manufacture a car from scratch.  Great!

There’s a slight difference with this newcomer, though. Unlike the gas-guzzling Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores (OK, they were a bit better when driven on the open road but that’s another story altogether), this new company, ACE EV, is turning its eyes to the hot new sector of the automotive industry: electric cars.

Well, to be more specific, it’s going in for electric vans and commercial vehicles as well as cars.  And, to be fair, the factory is going to be using some parts that were manufactured overseas as well as a few made here.  The idea is to keep the costs down.  They’re not out to produce Tesla clones at Tesla prices.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Tesla per se and it’s neat to see electric vehicles that have bust out of the boring, crunchy-granola, wimpy image and become supercool.  However, a brand new Tesla probably costs more than what I paid for my house.  ACE EV, however, wants to make EVs more affordable for the typical tradie or suburban family.

ACE EV stands for “Australian Clean Energy Electric Vehicles”.  Proudly Australian, their logo features a kangaroo on the move.  This year (2019), they are launching three vehicles, targeting tradies as well as your typical urban motorist, although they’re only selling them to companies as fleet vehicles at this stage.  These are the ACE Cargo, the ACE Yewt and the ACE Urban.

ACE Cargo

The Cargo is designed to, um, carry cargo.  It’s a van that’s capable of carrying a payload of 500 kg and has a range of 200 kg if it’s not carrying the full load. The Cargo is designed to be suitable for couriers and anybody who has to carry gear or people from one side of town to the other: florists, caterers, cleaners, nurses and the people who carry blood samples from the medical centre to the lab for analysis. Looks-wise, it’s broken out of the square box mould of traditional vans, probably for aerodynamic reasons, and resembles a single-cab ute with a hefty canopy.

Ace Yewt

Which brings us neatly to the Yewt.  The Yewt is what it sounds like (say Yewt out loud if you haven’t got it yet). It’s a flat-deck single-cab ute and as it’s got more or less the same specs as the Cargo regarding load, charge time and acceleration. You’d be forgiven for thinking that t it’s the same thing as the Cargo but with the cover on the cargo area taken off.  It’s something of a cute ute – and the contrasting colour roof is a nice touch.

Last but not least, there’s the Urban, which is no relation to the Mitsubishi with the notoriously weird name (Active Urban Sandal).  This one’s still in the pipeline and they haven’t given us the full specs brochure yet (it’s due for release later this year), but this is a classic four-seater compact three-door hatch that looks a bit like a classic Mini but edgier.

It’s certainly nice to see some new vehicles made in Australia for Australians, especially given that in a recent poll, about half of all Australians in an official survey by the Australia Institute would support a law that all new cars sold after 2025 should be EVs.  However, let’s not rush things too much yet.  For one thing, EVs are only one of the Big Three when it comes sustainable motoring (biofuels and hydrogen are the others).  The other thing is that all energy has to come from somewhere, even electricity, as stated by the First Law of Thermodynamics.  This means that in order to charge your EV, you’re going to have to generate the electricity somehow and get it to the charging points.  Before we go over lock, stock and barrel to EVs, we will need better infrastructure, and I don’t just mean more EV charging points around town and in our homes.  We’ll need some more generators.  Otherwise, it would be like setting up a bowser but having no petrol to put in it.  If everybody were to try charging their EVs at home overnight, there would be a massive drain on the national grid and we’d be getting brownouts and blackouts all over the show –which means that watching TV, catching up on your emails, having a hot shower and cooking dinner would get rather difficult – and you wouldn’t be able to charge your EV either.  Guess where the power companies will have to get the money from in order to build new power plants – that’s right: your power bill.

May I humbly suggest that before you invest in an EV for your commute that you also consider installing a solar panel or three on your home?  Or a wind generator?  Not one of those petrol or diesel-powered generators – swapping an internal combustion engine in your car for one in the back yard isn’t better for the environment now, is it?  Unless you run it on biofuel or hydrogen.

Has Steam Gone Walkabout?

What about a steam powered car?  In recent times people’s consciences and attention has turned to more environmentally friendly ways of commuting.  So with electric, hydrogen, hybrid and bio-fuel vehicles all available on the current automotive market, why not give steam another go?

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for a steam powered comeback is the grip that the oil companies have on automotive power.  However the winds seem to be changing, with more-and-more people reflecting on how their lifestyle and decisions impact on the environment.  Internal combustion engines produce a lot of pollution and tend to be rather noisy.  Without a doubt cleaner burning engines are resonating with buyers who have cash to spend.  EVs and hybrids are expensive but there are people very happy to buy them.

Difficulties that drove steam powered cars to become museum pieces were:

  • The external combustion steam engines could not be manufactured as cheaply as Henry Ford’s internal combustion engines.
  • Steam engines were also much heavier engines.
  • It took several minutes before the boiler was hot enough for the steam motor to generate power for take-off.

These difficulties created the “Warehouse and Kmart” phenomenon of today, where people flock to where the cheap buys are regardless of the impact.  But with today’s modern materials, steam cars could be as light as their internal combustion engine alternatives.  With a new advanced condenser and a fast heating boiler, the possibility of a modern-day steam car with decent efficiency and a warm-up time that’s measured in seconds rather than minutes could provide the comeback punch that steam needs to become an attractive and viable option for new-car buyers.

Just ponder on this for a moment – a new modern motorcar running on steam that has powerful seamless acceleration instantly, is clean burning, very quiet and, unlike combustion engines, can run on almost any fuel that produces heat.

Steam engines don’t need any gears or transmissions.  They are much more in the same vein as EV cars that have all their torque available at any rpm.  Due to the fact that steam provides constant pressure, unlike the piston strokes of an internal combustion engine, steam-powered cars require no clutch and no gearbox – making them extremely easy to drive.  By virtue of their design, steam engines provide maximum torque and acceleration instantly like electric motors, and particularly for urban driving where there’s lots of stopping and starting, clean-burning steam would be great!

What developments in steam have occurred since it rudely got forgotten and laid aside?  Some good news is that in 2009, a British team set a new steam-powered land speed record of 148 mph (237 km/h), finally breaking the Stanley Rocket’s record which had stood for more than 100 years.  In the 1990s, a Volkswagen Enginion (a model for research and development) boasted a steam engine that had comparable efficiency to internal combustion engines, but with lower emissions.  And, in recent years, Cyclone Technologies claims it has developed a steam engine that’s twice as efficient.

It might have preceded the internal combustion engine by around 200 years, but as the world is finally starting to take a serious look at the future viability of personal transport, perhaps the wonder of gliding by steam power will once again be seen on our modern roads.  In an age of touchscreen infotainment systems, EV cars that can do 400 km on a charge and driverless cars, surely there is room for new, clean-and-efficient steam cars.

Currently the increased focus on environmental responsibility could be weakening the link between the oil industry and modern motorcars.  Wouldn’t you just love to be able to fill your car up with rainwater and head off on your work commute!

Thoughts?

Home-Grown Zero-Carbon Hydrogen Technology

CSIRO’s Toyota Mirai HFC vehicle (image from CSIRO)

There are three possibilities when it comes to finding an alternative to the standard fossil fuels used in the majority of vehicles on the road.  The first is a switch to biofuels (biodiesel, ethanol, etc.), the second is to go electric (the sexy new technology that’s mushrooming) and the third is hydrogen fuel cells or HFCs.

I discussed the basics of HFCs in my previous post.  If you can’t remember or if you can’t be bothered hopping over to have a look, one of the points I raised was that most of the hydrogen gas used to power HFCs comes from natural gas, with methane (from sewage and effluent) coming in as the more sustainable second possibility.  However, there’s another possible source of the hydrogen fuel that’s being worked on by our very own CSIRO researchers right here in Australia: ammonia.

Most of us are familiar with ammonia as the thing that makes floor cleaners (a) really cut through grease and (b) smell horrible.  However, ammonia is also produced as a waste product by living cells and in humans, it quickly turns into urea and is excreted as urine.  In fact, some of the pong associated with old-school long-drop dunnies comes from the urea in urine breaking back down into ammonia again (the rest of the smell comes from methane and some sulphur-based compounds, depending on what you’ve been eating).

Ammonia is chemically rendered as NH3, which should tell you straight away that there are three nice little hydrogen atoms just waiting to be turned into hydrogen gas; the leftover nitrogen is also a gas –and that’s one of the most common elements in the atmosphere (it makes up three-quarters of the earth’s atmosphere, in fact).  Yes, ammonia in its pure form is a gas (the liquid stuff in household products is in the form of ammonium hydroxide or ammonia mixed with water).  The fun here from the perspective of HFC technology consists of splitting the ammonia gas up into nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, and then separating the two.

And this is precisely what the ammonia-to-hydrogen team at CSIRO have been working on.  In August year, they made the big breakthrough by developing a membrane-based technology that will convert ammonia into hydrogen gas.  The hydrogen gas can then be used by vehicles powered by HFC technology.  The bit they’re all rubbing their hands with glee about is because up until now, one of the obstacles with getting HFC-powered motoring off the ground is that it’s hard to transport hydrogen gas from wherever it’s produced to the hydrogen equivalent of a bowser.  However, ammonia is a lot easier to get from A to B.  This means that with this home-grown technology, Australia will be able to export hydrogen (in the form of ammonia during transport) to the markets that want it.

Asia seems to be the hot spot for vehicles using HFC technology, with Toyota and Hyundai really getting behind the tech; European marques, on the other hand, seem to be concentrating on electric vehicles.  In fact, Japan is eyeing up hydrogen as a source of energy for generating power for homes as well.

The question has to be asked where they’re going to get all this ammonia from.  However, it’s possible to take nitrogen gas and water, then zap it with electrical current and turn it into ammonia – and it was an Australian researcher who came up with the tech to do this. It’s kind of like a fuel cell – which breaks down gas to produce electricity – but in reverse: using electricity to produce ammonia.  The new Australian technology is considered to be an improvement over the traditional method of producing ammonia (which is needed for making the fertilizer that grows the food you eat), which takes hydrogen gas from fossil fuels and reacts it, spitting out a good deal of CO2 in the process.  The new Aussie tech skips the bits involving carbon in any form, as it takes nitrogen from the atmosphere (N2) and water (H2O) and puts out NH3 and O2.  O2 is oxygen – what we breathe.

The idea is that in the future, they’ll set up a plant or two in the middle of the outback where there’s lots of solar and wind energy available for generating electricity, pump in some H2O and get ammonia for export AND use in hydrogen cars thanks to the new membrane tech out the other end with zero carbon emissions.  It could be asked where they’re going to get the water from in the middle of the Outback but I suppose that it’s not essential to use clean, fresh drinking water for the process, as it’s pretty easy to distil pure water out of wastewater.  In fact, one has the very happy vision of a process that takes sewage from cities, whips out the ammonia, urea and methane already in there (bonus!), distils out the water for making more ammonia and exporting the lot; any solids can probably also be used for fertilizer.

It’s going to take a little while for all the systems to get into place.  It’s still very early days for HFC vehicles but a start has been made and some of the hurdles have been overcome.  A few HFC vehicles have made it onto these shores.  The analysts say that it will probably take another decade or so until HFC cars become common on our roads but it’s likely to happen.  Look what happened with electric vehicles, after all.  Once they were really rare but now there’s charging points just about everywhere you look.

You can find more information here , here  and here .

 

Hydrogen Fuel Cells – The Basic Facts

One of the more exciting vehicles that’s scheduled to come to Australia at some unspecified date in 2019 is the Hyundai Nexo – one of the vehicles recently awarded the Best in Class for all-round safety by Euro NCAP.  This vehicle combines regular batteries with hydrogen fuel cell technology. Three vehicles made by major marques have been designed to run on HFCs: the aforementioned Hyundai Nexo, the Toyota  Mirai and the Honda  Clarity.

Toyota Mirai concept car

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is another option for overcoming our addiction to fossil fuels (the other two are biofuels and electricity).  But what is hydrogen fuel cell technology and how does it work?  Is it really that sustainable and/or environmentally friendly?  Isn’t hydrogen explosive, so will a car running on hydrogen fuel cell technology really be safe?

OK, let’s start with the basics: how does it work?

Diagram of a hydrogen fuel cell

A hydrogen fuel cell (let’s call it an HFC for short) is designed to generate electricity, so a vehicle that’s powered by HFC technology is technically an EV.  A chemical reaction takes place in the cell and this gets a current going, thanks to the delicate balance between positive and negative ions (all chemistry is, ultimately, to do with electricity). How is this different from a battery?  Well, a battery uses what’s stored inside it but an HFC needs a continual supply of fuel.  Think of a battery as being like a lake, whereas the HFC is a stream or a river.  The other thing that an HFC needs is something for the hydrogen fuel to react with as it passes through the cell itself, which consists of an anode, cathode and an electrolyte solution – and I don’t mean a fancy sports drink.  One of the things that hydrogen reacts best with and is readily found in the atmosphere is good old oxygen.

Naturally, there’s always a waste product produced from the reaction that generates the charge. This waste product is dihydrogen monoxide.  For those of you who haven’t heard of this, dihydrogen monoxide is a colourless, odourless compound that’s liquid at room temperature.  In gas form, dihydrogen monoxide is a well-known and very common greenhouse gas, and it’s quite corrosive to a number of metals (it’s a major component of acid rain).  It’s vital to the operation of nuclear-powered submarines and is widely used in industry as a solvent and coolant.  Although it has been used as a form of torture, it’s highly addictive to humans and is responsible for hundreds of human deaths globally every year.  Prolonged contact with dihydrogen monoxide in solid form causes severe tissue damage.  You can find more information about this potentially dangerous substance here*: http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html

For the less alarmist of us, dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, H2O or good old water, like the stuff I’m sipping on right now on a hot summer day.  Yes – that’s the main waste product produced by HFCs, which is why these are a bit of a hot topic in the world of environmental motoring.

OK, so air goes in one bit of the HFC, hydrogen gas goes in the other, and water and electrical power come out of it.  The next question that one has to ask is where the hydrogen fuel comes from (this question always needs to be asked: what’s the source of the fossil fuel substitute?).  The cheapest source of hydrogen gas as used on HFCs is natural gas, which is, unfortunately, a fossil fuel.  So are some of the other sources of hydrogen gas.  However, you can get it out of methane, which is the simplest type of hydrocarbon.  Methane can be produced naturally by bacteria that live in the guts of certain animals, especially cows.  Not sure how you can catch the methane from burping and farting cows for use in making hydrogen gas for HFCs.  And, just in case you’re wondering, some humans (not all!) do produce methane when they fart.  It’s down to the particular breed of bacteria in the gut (archaea if you want to be picky – they’re known as methanogens).  They’re as common as muck – literally.  So yes, there’s potential for hydrogen gas to be produced from natural sources – including from sewage.  The other thing is that producing hydrogen gas from methane leaves carbon dioxide behind.  But this has way less effect as a greenhouse gas than methane, so that’s a plus.

If you’re currently feeling that HFCs might not be quite as environmentally friendly after all and we all ought to drive straight EVs, then I encourage you to do a thorough investigation of how the electricity used to charge EVs comes from. It’s not always that carbon-neutral either.  Heck, even a bicycle isn’t carbon-neutral because when you puff and pant more to push those pedals, you are breathing out more carbon dioxide than normal.  All in all, HFCs are pretty darn good.  The worst thing they chuck out as exhaust is water, and the hydrogen gas needed to power them can come from sustainable sources – very sustainable if you get it from animal manure and/or sewage, which also means that poop becomes a resource instead of a problem to get rid of.  They’re doing this in Japan – and they’ve also managed to get the carbon bits of the methane to become calcium carbonate, which sequesters carbon and has all sorts of fun uses from a dietary supplement through to agricultural lime.

Another plus about HFCs is that they are a lot more efficient than combustion engines.  A large chunk of the potential energy going in turns into the electrical energy that you want, which is then turned into kinetic (motion) energy by the motor so your car gets moving (or it turns into some other form, such as light energy for the headlights or sound energy for the stereo system).  Some comes out in the form of heat.  Combustion engines waste a lot of the potential energy in the form of heat (lots of it!) and noise (ditto).

The amount of electrical energy produced by a single HFC isn’t going to be very large, so inside any vehicle powered by hydrogen technology, there will be a stack of HFCs, which work together to produce the full amount of oomph you need. The fun part in designing a vehicle that runs on HFC technology involves ensuring that the stack has the oomph needed without being too heavy and working out where to put the tanks of hydrogen gas.  However, this isn’t too hard.

The other problem with manufacturing HFC vehicles is that the catalyst inside the cells is expensive – platinum is common.  This is probably one of the biggest barriers to the spread of the technology, along with the usual issue of nobody buying HFC vehicles because nobody’s got an easy place to get the gas from and nobody’s selling the gas because nobody’s buying HFC cars.  They had the same issue with plug-in EVs too, remember, and we all know how that’s changed.  However, last year, our very own CSIRO came up with some technology to get hydrogen fuel for HFC vehicles out of ammonia and they want to go crazy with this and use it all over the show.  This is exciting stuff and probably deserves a post of its very own, so I’ll tell you more about that another day.

I feel in the need for some 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine theine combined with dihydrogen monoxide in solution with β-D-galactopyranosyl-(1→4)-D-glucose and calcium phosphate, also known as a cup of coffee, so it’s time for me to stop and to wish you safe and happy driving – hopefully without too much methane inside the cabin of your car on long journeys!

*Some people in the world have far, far too much time on their hands.

Fossil Fuel, EVs or Bio Fuels?

Fossil Fuels

Is petroleum diesel still a fuel that is going to be around to power our cars in the future?  On the surface, it might look like the era of the diesel engine might be drawing to a close, especially when we hear that some manufacturers are pulling the pin on building new diesel engines.  The truth is that non-renewable resources, which include fossil fuels such as oil, coal, petroleum and natural gas, are all finite in their quantity available in nature for the future.  Diesel fuel is a petroleum product, and so is considered to be a finite non-renewable resource.  Certainly it would seem that petroleum-based diesel has a limited window of opportunity for powering motor vehicles around the globe.  But is this actually the case?

Added to the seemingly limited supply of our fossil fuels, we also hear that some car manufacturers are deciding to avoid building new diesel engines all together.  Volvo was one of the first to announce boldly that by 2019 there would be no more diesel powered Volvo cars and SUVs in their line-up.  Volkswagen Group’s diesel emissions cheating scandal has meant that they have decided to stop selling diesel models, as well.  Volkswagen Group is pretty big when you consider that VW, Audi and Porsche are all under the same banner.

Because our global economy relies on so many diesel engines for performing many mechanical tasks we can’t drive the world’s diesel fleet over the cliff and forget about them just yet.  The reality is that even America’s economy would grind to a halt immediately if they decided to go without diesel power overnight.  Diesel engines are used in so many commercial applications – trucking, construction, shipping, farming, buses and much, much more.  Diesel motors are still far more energy frugal (assuming proper and legal emissions treatment is followed) compared with gasoline equivalents.  For any sort of heavy-duty transportation work or for towing purposes, the low-end torque of a diesel engine simply cannot be matched by gasoline motors which have to be worked much harder for the same amount of work – and therefore pump out more emissions.

EVs

EVs are getting plenty of press at the moment, but in reality they have a very long way to go before they can truly be considered as a true logistical alternative to the diesel motor.  There just simply isn’t the network in place to produce so many EVs nor power so many EVs for our global economy to continue growing at the pace it is.

Biofuels

What I haven’t heard so much of lately is the advancements made in biofuels.  Biofuels seem to me to be the much more sensible replacement option for petroleum diesel, as biodiesel fuels are a renewable resource.  Biofuels are derived from biological materials such as food crops, crop residues, forest residues, animal wastes, and landfills.  Major biofuels are biodiesel, ethanol, and methane; and biofuels, by their very nature, are renewable over a period of less than one year for those based on crop rotation, crop residues, and animal wastes or about 35 years for those based on forest residues.

Emissions from burning biodiesel in a conventional diesel engine have significantly lower levels of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, sulphur oxides, odour, and noxious “smoke” compared to emissions from the conventional petroleum diesel motor that we are more familiar with.  Also, carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of biodiesel are reduced by about 10% when compared to petroleum diesel, but there is a more significant carbon dioxide benefit with biodiesel made from plant oils.  During the photosynthesis process, as the plants are growing and developing, carbon dioxide is drawn from the environment into the plant, while the plants release beneficial oxygen into the environment.

How are EV batteries made?  Are they as clean as renewable biofuels?  If EVs are running on electricity produced by burning dirty fossil fuels, the climate benefits are limited.  Because of the complex batteries that EVs use, it currently takes more energy to produce an electric car than a conventional one.  While fewer emissions are produced by the cars themselves while driving on the streets, CO2 is still being emitted by power plants needed to charge the EVs.  And, disposing of those complex EV batteries creates an environmental hazard in itself.  EV batteries also need to be made from non-renewable minerals such as copper and cobalt, and rare earths like neodymium.

Some other negatives for EVs are that the mining activities for the minerals in countries like China or the Democratic Republic of Congo often cause human rights violations and vast ecological devastation which include: deforestation, polluted rivers and contaminated soil.  Not so great!  And, in addition, many automakers use aluminium to build the bodies of EVs, and a tremendous amount of energy is required to process bauxite ore into the lightweight metal.

Trucks, ships and tractors still think diesel power rules!  Even though some car manufacturers have abandoned petroleum diesel fuelled cars, there are other automotive manufacturers that have actually ramped up their diesel vehicle production.  General Motors, Jaguar, Land Rover, BMW, Mazda, Kia, Jeep, Ford, Nissan and Chevrolet are all manufacturing plenty of new diesel motors.

Hmmm?!  Biofuels then?

Cloth Versus Leather

There are two main choices these days when it comes to what the interior designers of new cars put on the seats: cloth and leather. Leather is definitely the material of choice for luxury cars, but if you ever find yourself in a situation where one of the key differences between two variants is what’s on the seats, is it really worth it going for the leather just because it’s posher?  If you’re into keeping up with the Joneses, then this one’s a no-brainer – you go for the more expensive one with the leather – but what if you’re a bit cannier with your cash?

Thankfully, the days of vinyl have gone, so that’s not an option. Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl seats or who have ridden in classics with this type of upholstery know perfectly well why vinyl seats aren’t found in modern vehicles.  About the only good thing you could say about vinyl was that it was easy to clean. It was slippery when cold or if you had long trousers on. In hot weather and for those wearing shorts, vinyl became sticky but not like spilt jam – more like clingfilm on steroids grabbing bare skin.  It also got really hot on a summer day – add in the hot seat belt buckle on old-style seatbelts and you got your very own personal torture chamber.  I’m shuddering with the memory.

However, back to today.  There you are evaluating two models that are more or less the same apart from the upholstery.  What do you need to say before you say “I’ll go for the one with the leather seats”?

Leather is, of course, a natural material.  It’s the skin of some animal, probably a cow, sheep or possibly a goat.  Given the popularity of beefsteaks around the world and the size of a cattlebeast, what you see on the seats of a luxury car probably came from a cow.  If you’re a vegan or a PETA supporter, then this fact might be the deciding factor for you and you’ll go for the cloth.  However, if you’re omnivorous, then you may see the use of leather as car upholstery as a wise way of using meat byproducts and a sustainable choice (yes, cloth seats are usually acrylic or nylon sourced from plastics).

Here, you might have questions about the difference between Nappa leather and ordinary leather.  Nappa leather is a natural animal skin leather that has been tanned and dyed in a particular way to make it smooth and even.  Nappa leather tends to have a more durable finish and is softer and more pliable.  It’s the softness that adds the extra level of luxury and why the really top-end models are trimmed in Nappa leather rather than common or garden leather.  It also tends to come from something more delicate than cowhide, such as goat or sheep.

Alcantara, however, is an artificial leather – OK, it’s cloth!  It’s stain-resistant and flame-retardant, and it has a scrummy finish that feels like suede.  The flame-retardant properties of Alcantara mean that it’s widely used in racing cars, and this is why it’s popular in sports and supercar models, similar to other racing-inspired accessories and styling.  Alcantara is a brand-name, unlike Nappa leather and all the other seat materials, and it’s produced by one single factory in Italy, which means that it’s a bit more exclusive and more expensive than other cloth.

There are other synthetic leathers around the place.  They’re called things like “PU leather”, “pleather”, “leatherette”, “vegan leather” and “faux leather”.  One company produces a leather substitute made from pineapple fibres but this isn’t used for car seat upholstery – or at least not yet.

The sort of cloth used for upholstering vehicle seats is usually some sort of synthetic material because this tends to be more durable than natural fibres such as wool, linen, tencel or cotton.  Car manufacturers haven’t tried upholstering seats with natural plant-sourced fibres in an attempt to be more sustainable… at least not yet.  Cloth is cheaper than leather because it doesn’t need quite as much cutting, stitching and shaping as leather.  Synthetic cloth comes out of the factory in nice regular shapes of an even and predictable width.  Cows and goats aren’t quite such a nice, regular shape, so leather seats require more work; hence the extra cost.

So what are the pros and cons of each upholstery material type?

Leather:

Pros: Natural material from a renewable source, soft (especially in the case of Nappa), durable, looks amazing, smells nice, doesn’t give off nasty chemical gases

Cons: Stains easily, gets scuffed and scratched by doggy paws and small children’s shoes, absorbs bad smells, comes from a dead animal that may have been killed for the skin, doesn’t like getting wet and especially hates salty seawater

Cloth:

Pros: Cheap, comes in a range of colours and patterns, more forgiving of children, dogs and seawater

Cons: Synthetic material from a non-renewable source, can give off weird gases when new, doesn’t look quite as upmarket as leather.

Alcantara:

Pros: Flame-resistant, stain-resistant, comes in a range of colours, racing heritage, nice suede-like feel, exclusive and upmarket

Cons: A beast to clean, synthetic material from non-renewable sources

To sum up the bottom line about what sort of fabric you want under your bottom, it really depends on your lifestyle and your values.  If you’ve got messy small children or dogs that jump on the seat, then leather isn’t for you.  If you love to spend heaps of time at the beach and you are likely to get salt water on your clothes and other bits that you are likely to chuck onto the back seat, leather probably isn’t for you either.  Cloth is also going to appeal to those who want to save a few bucks, as it’s cheaper.  Leather looks gorgeous and is a natural material from a renewable resource, but if you’re more of a vegan-and-PETA type, then you’ll steer clear of it.

And if you have a classic car with a vinyl seat, do yourself a favour and buy a set of seat covers if you haven’t already!

Yes, Virginia (Fanpetals), There Is A New Biofuel Feedstock On The Block

Sida hermaphrodita or Virginia Fanpetals: a new player in the biofuel game.

When it comes to biofuels, especially the sort of biofuel that gets used for ethanol, there’s always a bit of an issue.  You see, it kind of defeats the purpose of having a sustainable fuel source if you have to pour on truckloads of fertiliser (a lot of which can come from petrochemicals as well) and tons of water.  It’s also rather frowned on if the crop in question takes away land from something that could be used for growing crops that people are going to eat directly (as vegetables, flour, cooking oil, sugar, etc.) or indirectly (after a fodder crop has been fed to animals that produce milk, meat or eggs).

Now, we’re not doing too badly over here in Australia on the biofuel ethanol front, as we’ve got the sugarcane industry. Using residues from other crops is a tried and true means of sourcing ethanol feedstocks, with sugarcane residues being particularly good at it.  In fact, Brazil, which has a bigger sugarcane industry than we do, is a tad further ahead when it comes to using ethanol for everyday driving.  Other sources include residues from wood processing and residues from the alcohol industry (they’re doing this in the UK).  Apparently, the trick is to find the right methods and the right bacteria, etc. that will break your feedstocks down so it can be turned into ethanol.

However, the search is on around the world for novel feedstock crops for biofuels of all types (this includes the crops that can produce oils for turning into biodiesel as well as the ones that have suitable stems or whatever for turning into ethanol).  The ideal crop is something that grows easily with minimal input needed in the form of fertiliser and pesticides, doesn’t need people poking around with tractors much except during harvest, doesn’t demand water like a camel that’s been for a week in the desert and produces the three Fs: Food (for humans), Fodder (for animals) and Fuel.

One of the new players on the biofuel crop front is a plant that looks a bit like a common weed known as Virginia fanpetals, Virginia Mallow or Sida (its Latin name is Sida hermaphrodita). This is a native of the US but for some reason, it’s getting a fair amount of interest from a team in Eastern Europe because it doesn’t demand the same amount of water as elephant grass (Miscanthus), which is another easy-growing biofuel feedstock.  What’s more, they’ve found that it’s a triple-F plant if you want to get technical.  The plant has lots of flowers that are very attractive to honeybees, so the Food part of the equation comes in the form of the honey produced that way.  The leaves, when they’re green, are pretty nutritious for animals.  And when the plant is dry, the whole lot, stems and leaves, are great for biofuel (and they also burn cleanly in incinerators, making them an alternative to coal for generating electricity).

Sida is also tough as old boots, as it grows very happily on sandy soils and can handle drought and frost perfectly well.  It also has a feature that would make it a right pain if it established itself in your garden: if you cut it back to ground level, it comes back again next spring and will do so for 15–20 years.  This is what’s getting those researchers rubbing their hands with glee: no ploughing, harrowing or sowing.  Just a bit of fertiliser a couple of times a year and you get a crop year after year.  And it grows on the sort of ground and in the sort of conditions that are useless for, say, potatoes, wheat and carrots.  In other words, it looks like it could be a bit of a winner.  Can we grow it over here and make even more of our own biofuel?

However, finding out about this got me thinking.  Now, we all know that we’ve got unique plant life knocking around in the Outback that’s used to really harsh conditions.  Are they any good for biofuels?  Is there something sitting out there that could be the next big thing?  I really, really hope that there’s a nice CSIRO research team poking around to see if there are any native plants that could do the trick.

Closer to home, however, I also can’t help but notice all the weeds in the garden and the way that the lawn is starting to grow like crazy in the springtime.  And let’s take a look in our rubbish bins at all the banana skins and apple cores.  Couldn’t this be used as a bioethanol feedstock as well?  Once you start looking around and getting this sort of mindset, all sorts of possibilities open up (especially when you’re on a long drive).  Maybe we’d clear up some of the rubbish problem while we’re at it…

Bioethanol isn’t the only way forward, of course.  It’s one of three possible lanes on the sustainable motoring highway, with the other two being electricity and biodiesel.  And we shouldn’t forget the biofuels while we get all excited – rightly – about the new electric vehicles.  After all, classic car drivers, tradies, tractor drivers, truckies and the owners of hybrids all need something to put in the fuel tank!

Electric Vehicles: What Will Happen With The Fuel Taxes?

I think we all know by now that electric cars and hybrids are much more common on the roads than they used to be.  It’s 20 years since the original Toyota Prius  – the groundbreaking first hybrid vehicle – hit the roads, which means that if you’ve got your eyes open, you can score a second-hand hybrid.  They’re getting better and better with extended range and more body types coming with hybrid and even all-electric versions.

One of the reasons put forward for why you should switch to an electric or hybrid vehicle – and you hear this one more often with pure electrics – is that electricity is cheaper than petrol or diesel, so it’s cheaper to fill up.  You’re not paying all that tax.

Ah yes – the tax.  Can anyone else spot the potential problem here?  What will happen if a large proportion of us switched to purely electric vehicles?  This means that one particular source of government income is going to drop dramatically.  Can we see the government smiling happily about this and how we’re polluting so much less, etc. and just carrying on without the tax coming from fuel?  Maybe they could take a cut in their salaries or spend less on frivolous projects and fancy-pants conferences.  Ooh look – a flying pig.  Better get out your manure-proof umbrella.

OK, if we take a less cynical view and make the charitable assumption that the fuel taxes get used to keep the roads in good order.  If we don’t want our roads to deteriorate if loads of people switch to electric vehicles, that money has got to come from somewhere.  But where?  What are the options?

The first option would be to hike up the fuel tax to cover the shortfall.  There are two problems with this one.  The first is that even though there are some second-hand hybrids knocking about and even though we do our best here at Private Fleet to get you the best deals on a new car, pure electric vehicles still tend to be at the newer end of the spectrum and are beyond the budget of a low-income family (especially if said family needs a larger vehicle than the little hatchbacks that early examples of hybrids tended to be).  This leads to a vicious cycle: they can’t afford to upgrade to an electric with the higher petrol prices, which means they have to keep on using the expensive fuel, etc. or switch to using public transport if they live in towns.

The other people who will get hit hard by this hypothetical hike in fuel taxes are those in rural communities.  Although range of electrics is getting better, it’s not quite where it needs to be for those out the back of beyond: the park rangers, the tour guides in the Outback and the district nurses and midwives.  Going electric isn’t really an option for them – and the sort of vehicles needed by your park rangers and tour guides (i.e. big 4 x4s) don’t usually come in electric (although that’s starting to change).  What’s more, the big rigs and farm tractors don’t come in electric versions either (electric tractors exist but they’re puny), so they’ll keep on needing diesel.  This means that their costs will go up with a hypothetical fuel tax hike, which probably means that farmers and trucking companies will go out of business or else they’ll pass the costs along and we’ll all have higher food prices.  It’s like the old army wisdom about not pissing off the person who cooks: you don’t ever brush off the farming community as unimportant, because they are the ones who produce your food and most of us like to eat.

OK, so the knock-on consequences to rural communities and a lot of Australia’s industries would throw our economy into chaos (just think of all the diesel-powered machines involved in the mining industry, for example – although there are some rugged electric utes that have been specifically designed for the mining industry).  The Powers That Be hopefully aren’t that stupid and they are more likely to find a fairer way of getting the tax money than simply increasing the existing tax.  What’s much more likely is that they’ll create a new tax.  Any guesses as to what that new tax is likely to be?  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if people are using electricity instead of using petrol and diesel and thus avoiding the fuel tax, the obvious thing to slap a tax on is the electricity…

You read it here first, folks.  Although at the moment, using electric vehicles will save you at the plug (rather than the pump), it’s only going to be a matter of time until a tax appears, especially as electric vehicles become more common.  Yes, there are other advantages to using electric vehicles such as the reduced pollution and how they don’t depend on a finite resource (biofuels aside), but the advantage of not paying a fuel tax won’t last forever.

Enjoy it while you can!

2019 Toyota Corolla ZR & SX Hybrid.

Toyota has given its evergreen Corolla a substantial makeover. Inside and out it’s a new car and there’s also been a slight change to the way the range is structured. There’s three hatches: Ascent Sport, SX, and ZR, with hybrid technology featuring strongly. Private Fleet drives the 2019 Toyota Corolla ZR Hybrid and 2019 Toyota Corolla SX Hybrid with the Ascent Sport to come.The cars come with either a 2.0L petrol engine, or in the hybrid’s case, a 1.8L petrol engine. Sole transmission choice is a 10-step CVT in the SX and ZR, the Ascent Sport does offer a six speed manual alongside the CVT. Pricing is competitive, with the range starting at $22,870 + ORC for the Ascent Sport manual and finishing at $31,870 + ORC for the ZR Hybrid. Premium paint is a $450 option and the Ascent Sport offers privacy glass and satnav at $1000. Service intervals are 12 months or 15,000 kilometres with a new capped price service program at just $175 per service.Toyota says the economy of the cars is improved; the ZR Hybrid is quoted as 4.2L/100km for the combined cycle, a figure not reached by AWT but nor far off it at 5.0L/100km overall. A 1400kg dry weight is a good starting point. The engine itself is an Atkinson Cycle design and produces 72Kw & 142Nm by itself. Alongside the battery system that has a 6.5Ah output, the combined power is 90kW and 163Nm. The transmission features a three mode choice: Eco, Sport, and Normal. The CVT itself when fitted to the 2.0L has an innovative feature and one that Toyota claims is a world first. A “launch gear mechanism” Direct Shift is engineered in, allowing the engine and gearbox to work together and provide a fixed first gear ratio. Once the car has reached a preprogrammed speed it reverts back to the steel belt CVT mechanism. It does sound noisy but isn’t a thrashy note, rather a sound of refinement and “I’m working here!” Underway it works seamlessly and silently in the background, with the only time it reappears being when the accelerator is given the hoof.

However I continue to have a slight beef with the EV, Electric Vehicle, mode that the Hybrid tech has in Toyota cars. Select EV, hit the accelerator, and it almost immediately switches into both EV and petrol assisted mode. Move away gently and it stays in EV mode until the lowly speed of 20km/h is reached and again the petrol engine kicks in. Having driven purely electric cars, plug-in hybrids, and normal (non plug-in) hybrids, I would prefer the battery system to be more gainfully employed and have the petrol engine’s assistance lessened. It does assist in charging the battery as the levels drop but in a free-flowing drive environment is should be doing this, not driving the front wheels along with the battery system. As a result the mooted fuel economy should be further improved. However the centre console located gear selector is PRNDB, with the B being a stronger regenerative braking assistance. This means that the kinetic energy from braking is also harnessed and returned to the battery.The three drive modes work well enough in the real world, with Sport providing a crisper throttle response, faster acceleration and better high speed response. The ten speeds can be accessed via steering column mounted paddle shifts in the non-hybrid cars. The hybrid system itself in the ZR and SX is displayed in regards to its interaction via LCD screens in the driver’s binnacle. The SX has a small full colour screen mounted to the right hand side with the ZR’s seven inch screen a full colour display that shows a bigger version of that available in the SX. This includes a drive mode display showing the battery driving the front wheels, the petrol engine driving and charging as well. These are access via a simple four way toggle switch on the left hand spoke of the tiller which itself has been redesigned and is a new three spoke look. The look of the bigger screen though is busy and perhaps somewhat overloaded with info. It then points the ZR towards a younger, more tech-savvy, audience, and moves it away from the traditional mature aged buying base of the Corolla. Even the SX, perhaps?Toyota have followed the Euro route with a high centre mounted touchscreen for audio, apps (including ToyotaLink), and navigation. It’s smart and logical with a higher eyeline not distracting the driver from what’s ahead. The ZR amps this up by offering a HUD or Head Up Display with plenty of info such as speed zones, and soothes the ears with DAB via a well balanced JBL sound system. A voice activation system has been added, as has Siri Eyes Free. There’s leather accented seats in the ZR, cloth in the SX and Ascent Sport, but no electrical adjustment across the range, an odd omission in the ZR. However the ZR does have heated front pews and a wireless smartphone charging pad (as does SX), albeit hidden away under a dash section that perhaps protrudes too far into the cabin, counterpointed by a 24mm lower line. The dash itself is less busy and angular than before, with a more integrated and smoother look. Although not powered the front seats are comfortable and have plenty of under-knee support. Keyless start and dual zone climate control are standard in the SX and ZR. There’s also a higher grade feel and look to the textiles inside the ZR.There’s ample rear leg room and shoulder/head room is more than adequate. Boot space is just about right for a weekly family shop, As usual Toyota’s ergonomics are well thought out in where a natural hand movement would go, except in the case of the door grips. They’re forward of where a natural reach would go and in AWT’s opinion too close to the door’s pivot point. Safety is high in the ZR, indeed across the range, with seven airbags as standard as is a rear view camera. Adaptive Cruise Control is on board for all three, with a minimum speed of 30km/h and operates across a range of three preset distances to the car ahead. PCS or Pre-Collision Safety is here and works in a day & night environment range. AEB or Autonomous Emergency Braking is part of this and the ZR also has Blind Sport Alert and Lane Keep Assist or, in Toyota speak, Lane Tracing. Cameras around the car measure the car’s position in relation to roadside markings and gently tug the car into position, along with uttering audible chirps to alert the driver. There’s also an active voice guidance safety system that’s integrated with the satnav, providing warnings such as school crossings and speed cameras.Underneath there’s been plenty of changes. It’s part of the Toyota New Generation Architecture, TNGA, with a 40mm lower, 30mm wider, and 40mm longer body that looks more assertive and confident. A 40mm longer wheelbase gives the 225/40/18 rubber on the ZR (205/55/16 for Ascent sport and SX) a more planted feel however there’s a lot of road noise from the Dunlop tyres on the ZR. The SX’s rear is far quieter. Ride quality has been improved by ditching the torsion beam rear and building in a multi-link system. McPherson struts have been a staple of the automotive industry for decades and Toyota have stayed with a tried and true setup here. Springs, dampers, mounting points, die-cast aluminuim frames and more have transformed the handling of the Corolla. Although the rear is a touch soft in AWT’s opinion the overall ride and handling is near nigh spot on. In low speed turns there is no understeer at all, the steering response at speed on the freeway and urban road system is intuitive, and the whole chassis is worthy of applause. There’s negligible float at any speed, turn in is assisted by an electronic “active cornering assist” system, and even the dreaded bump-thump from the shopping centre speed reducing devices is minimalised.The exterior has been well massaged, with the metal between the hatch and rear passenger doors changed to a more, for the want of a better word, natural look, for a hatch back, moving away from the previous triangular motif. The tail lights are freshened and sit underneath a fourteen degree sharper window. The window-line itself draws the eye to either end, and especially to the redesigned front end. There’s a lower cowl and a cropped front by fifteen millimetres that lend a more assertive look. Being a Hybrid the Toyota logo is limned in a cobalt blue, bracketed by even more slimline looking headlights and LED driving lights in a sharp, linear, look. There’s no spare tyre in the Hybrid, but there is in the standard petrol engined version. A tyre repair kit is added for the ZR Hybrid. The Ascent Sport gets either a full sized or space saver (Hybrid) and the SX is a space saver only. The rear also has an X subtly embedded into the design, with a line from each lower corner curving upwards and inwards, as are lines from the top edge of the rear lights.Eight colours are on offer to highlight the fresh, new, look to the world’s biggest selling car. There are solid, pearl, metallic and mica colours headlined by four new hues of metallic Volcanic Red and Peacock Black. In mica there are Eclectic Blue and Oxide Bronze. As well as the three new colours, Corolla hatch is also available in a premium Crystal Pearl along with Glacier White, Silver Pearl and Eclipse Black.At The End Of The Drive.
Spanning fifty years and more, the Corolla is a mainstay of markets around the world and continues to be a top ten and top five seller here in Australia. With the Hybrid tech making its way into the mainstream model range for Toyota, in this case Corolla, it opens it up to a new market but begs the question of what will happen to Prius…As a driving package the 2019 Toyota Corolla ZR Hybrid is trim, taut, and terrific. It’s responsive to minor steering inputs without going overboard, it’s composed and unflustered across a broad range of environments, and is “let down” by excessive road noise, a couple of design quibbles, and a slightly softer than expected rear end. However it’s a very competitive price range and price point for the ZR Hybrid, and if the bells and whistles of the ZR don’t appeal, the 2019 Toyota Corolla SX Hybrid, at $28,370 + ORCs may be a better and lighter wallet biter. All information can be found here for the 2019 Toyota Corolla range

EVs, Power Bills and Emissions

How do we change a system employed by government?  If we went cold turkey on many of our traditional national policies the flow on effects throughout the public and business sectors would be ruinous.  If you believe the headlines which state that traditional motor vehicles are heading for a cliff edge where there will be no more fossil fuels available to power them, and that the environment will be so much the better without vehicles that are powered by conventional fossil fuels, then things look pretty dismal.  But is this actually so?

There are numerous countries around the world that have their special governmental team of policymakers pushing for electric vehicles (EVs) to be subsidised and made easier for those who can afford an expensive EV to buy one.  Across the ditch the New Zealand Labour/Green government are creating a fast track for EV purchase in the hopes to lessen greenhouse emissions and keep NZ green.  And in America they have recently brought in policy that reduces the initial purchase price of an EV by up to $7500 USD.  Of course, the subsidizing is paid for by the tax payer.  Those who cannot afford to buy a new electric vehicle pay for the privileges that the wealthier EV owners enjoy – like free use of public charging stations and preferential access to carpool lanes.  What about the grand schemes and plans of making some American States totally EV and thus pronouncing the ban of all internal combustion vehicles by 2040 (California).  Is this really fair?

Could this thinking and ideology be the motivation behind EVs in Australia?  How could the typical Australian on an average wage manage a law that states that you must drive a new and expensive EV by 2040?  By the way, we’ll also use your current taxes to help the wealthy buy an EV quickly (and enjoy its benefits) while you struggle to put the food on the table, let alone by an EV!

Let’s also remember that most of Australia’s electricity is made by coal and other natural resource plants.  A large fleet of EVs across Australia will draw down on the current available power supplies very heavily.  But wait, I know, we could use people’s current taxes to build more expensive cleaner power plants and provide bigger, better power networks!  That will make Australia a better place.  Power companies will enjoy the profits and will be sure to put the price of power up once electricity comes in short supply.

Hang on!  Are electric vehicles really as great as they claim to be?  Supporters of the EV suggest that EVs will reduce air pollution and tackle climate change.  But will they?  (Climate change is another issue – and one that many can make plenty of money, too)  It’s evident that a new vehicle powered by the modern conventional internal combustion engine is, in fact, way more pollutant-free than one might tend to think.  Extracting Lithium and other materials for batteries has an environmental impact of its own.

The appropriate comparison at governmental levels for evaluating the benefits of all those new electric vehicle subsidies, mandates and ideologies should be the difference between an electric car and a new petrol-or-diesel-car.  New internal combustion engines are very clean and emit only about 1 percent of the pollution that older vehicles did back in the 1960s.  New innovations on internal combustion engines continue to improve these engines and their efficiency and cleanliness.

When we consider EVs, and their large appetite for electricity, the energy to power them has to come from somewhere.  Cars are charged from the nation’s electrical grid, which will mean that they’re only as “clean” as Australia’s mix of power sources.  An environmental impact in the mining of the lithium, cobalt, and nickel that go into car batteries is evident.  Extracting Lithium is actually not so bad; most of it is extracted from brines that are evaporated by the sun, but it has a sizeable carbon and physical footprint.  We have a long, long way to go before the production of electricity for the main grid looks as green and as clean as an EV appears.

What’s the inexpensive answer?