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The future of green cars
What does the future hold for the car? It's a question to which millions of people, from ordinary motorists to government bodies and global car manufacturers, would love to know the answer.
Most people are convinced that cars need to get more environmentally friendly but a firm consensus on exactly how this drive to go green will affect the motoring landscape isn't easy to come by.
So how can we make some sense of it all? One way is to seek some expert advice.
Dr Eckhard Scholz is head of technical development at Skoda, a company that makes some of the most fuel-efficient cars currently on sale in the UK. He has provided MSN Cars' Green Car Guide with a series of interesting insights into the green car future from the perspective of a major car manufacturer.
Internal combustion engines - more room for improvement
To date, Skoda's successful push towards a lower emissions model range has focused on the refinement and development of existing technology, namely the internal combustion engine. Dr Scholz is convinced that there are further improvements to be made in the future.
"At Skoda, we've presented so many new engines, including the common-rail diesel technology that allows the Fabia Greenline II to produce 89g/km and the 1.6-litre common-rail engine that can produce 114g/km in the Superb and 99g/km in the Octavia.
"In my opinion, that's the direction for the future but it's not enough. We have to bring much more improvement and we're working hard to do it.
"We're reducing engine sizes, we have a lot of new technology relating to fuel injection systems and combustion and I think we will be able to improve fuel economy by between 20 and 30% in the next few years."
That's a major improvement in the efficiency of cars with conventional engines in addition to the strides that have already been made. If we travel back to 2000, Skoda's cleanest Octavia hatchback produced 140g/km of CO2 and today the Octavia Greenline dips under the 100g/km barrier.
The prospect of a further 30% shaved off the emissions of Octavia-sized family cars in the coming years is certainly impressive. It also underlines the difficult challenges that need to be overcome if alternative fuel vehicles are to compete with and ultimately replace those powered by conventional engines.
Alternative fuels - cost still a barrier
Not that Skoda is putting all of its eggs in the internal combustion engine basket. Like most volume manufacturers it's developing alternative fuel technologies too, although Dr Scholz sees them as a longer-term answer partly because of Skoda's positioning in the market.
"Improving engine technology is very important for Skoda because most of our customers are not customers who want to spend a lot of money.
"We're working hard on hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles and so on but at the moment they are expensive. We're refining the technology and learning from the technology but today most of our customers still want to buy ordinary engines."
Is the game up for diesel engines in small cars?
According to Dr Scholz, before we see a switch to hybrid and electric cars in Skoda's heartland at the affordable end of the market there might be a swing away from diesel engines towards petrol. This would be driven by tough new Euro 6 European emissions standards due in 2014.
"For me we've got one more problem. We've got a problem with diesel engine technology in the future. The Euro 6 emissions regulations require us to put a lot of technology in the cars and these technologies cost a lot.
"So for me, the future is not diesel. It's petrol engines. We're working very hard to reduce the CO2 from petrol engines because of this."
Skoda is by no means alone in this and the use of small petrol engines, often with turbochargers to boost performance, is an emerging trend. It's particularly conspicuous in compact cars whose customers are more sensitive to the price increases that Euro 6 compliant diesel engines may necessitate.
Hybrid and electric - the longer-term answers
It doesn't look like Skoda will be making the transition to an all-electric model range any time soon but Dr Scholz hints that the brand's first hybrid isn't far off. Not least because of the technology that's already on sale elsewhere within the Volkswagen Group.
"We will definitely turn to hybrids and electric vehicles in the longer term when they become more affordable. We have the technology in our group. There is just one question: will our customers buy such cars?
"A Superb hybrid, for example, will our customers buy such a car? That is the question. It's not a question of technology, we have the technology. Our future is to build affordable cars and not only high-tech cars. Good cars with quality and better design.
"In the future, I'm sure that in the next generation of the Superb we will have a hybrid. And electric versions of our smaller cars too, with something in between hybrid and full electric for the Octavia."
All eyes on China?
For electric cars to truly challenge the dominance of the internal combustion engine, it's clear that massive investment in infrastructure will be needed. So who's going to take the plunge and prove that battery-driven vehicles can really work on the grand scale needed? Dr Scholz has his suspicions.
"I think that it will be China that drives the technology. They have so many problems with pollution and about 100 cities with populations of more than 1 million people. They've got really big problems and electric could be the answer.
"In Europe, we are not quick enough but I'm sure China could lead the way. Not so much with the technology but from the governmental side. They are much quicker than us, they decide to go that way and they go for it with big investment."
Major change seems inevitable for the car industry over the coming years with the emergence of new engine technologies and an increasing focus on lowering the environmental impact of our cars. For Dr Scholz, it's competition between manufacturers that will be the main driver of this.
"In the future we'll have a much wider model range with more different types of car. You can expect more small cars and more specialist international cars because the cost of a car in India must be much lower than in Europe. There will also be more Skoda SUVs and MPVs built on platforms shared with current model lines.
"Our competitors will drive the technology more than government legislation. You always have to be the first on the market with technologies, with lower CO2 and with the most efficient cars. But we are very quick and now we're seeing good results in the market because of this.
Most of the CO2 targets are very tough. In 2019 the Euro standard will be very, very low and we can't achieve it with just petrol or diesel engines. It's very, very aggressive but we have to find some way of doing it to continue selling our cars. So we will."
Green Car Guide
Petrol or diesel?
Fuel cell cars
Top 10 most economical cars
Car fuel economy - the truth about MPG
CO2 and other car emissions explained
Range anxiety - the curse of the electric car?
Top green car technologies
Electric cars you can buy now
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