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Auto show spans fuel cells to infotainment

The Automotive Testing Expo held in Novi, MI, last fall provided an opportunity to investigate the design and test of an array of components and assemblies, including fuel tanks, batteries, fuel injectors, electric motors, and CAN FD buses.1 The New England International Auto Show, held Jan. 15-19 in Boston, offered an opportunity to see how all the parts come together.

Although test drives were not available, the show provided an opportunity for Toyota to bring its hydrogen-fuel-cell powered Mirai to New England. It looks like California will remain the key proving ground for novel automotive technologies in the United States, as Toyota will begin selling the Mirai there in the fall. Nevertheless, there is hope that those of us in the rest of the country will eventually get to buy one, should we choose to do so. A Toyota spokesperson said you can expect to see the Mirai in dealerships in other regions in 2016, when the hydrogen infrastructure expands from 20 stations to 48 nationwide (still a tiny amount for a vehicle that gets about 300 miles on one tank). She added that the company has been working on fuel-cell technology since 1992 and that the fuel cells have proved to be reliable in all combinations of extreme temperatures and altitudes.

Meanwhile at the show, Charles A. Myers, president of the Massachusetts Hydrogen Coalition, seemed more upbeat about hydrogen infrastructure in the state than the Toyota spokesperson. He told Megan Turchi of Boston.com2 that people could expect to see fuel-cell cars on Massachusetts roads by yearend and that there already is a hydrogen station in Billerica, MA. (That’s not too convenient for me, but of course everything in Massachusetts is within the car’s 300-mile range, so that at least offers a workaround.)

The Mirai and forthcoming fuel-cell cars from Honda and Hyundai certainly aren’t for everyone. Turchi2 quotes Don Delias, a Toyota expert on the Mirai, as saying the cars are for “trailblazers” and “people who want to lead change. It is more about the way people think and if they want to be a part of something new.” He added that the cars are already on the road in Japan and that Toyota is looking to increase production.

Mirai also put in an appearance at the DC Auto Show in January, where Nihar Patel, Toyota’s vice president of North American business strategy, said, as reported in a press release, “Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles launched between 2015 and 2020 will require a concerted effort and collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers.” He called on Congress to reinstate the tax incentives for hydrogen companies that build refueling stations. Patel also noted that with the expiration of the federal fuel cell credit last year purchasers of zero emission plug-in electric vehicles receive a $7,500 tax credit, but buyers of zero-emission fuel-cell electric vehicles receive no credit. “Consumers and the investment community need a clear signal that government is not choosing winners or losers in the zero emission vehicle race.  These vehicles should be treated equally to allow the market to decide,” he said.

Toyota had previously announced—at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January—that it will make about 5,680 hydrogen-fuel-cell patents available royalty-free, including ones developed for the Mirai. At the DC Auto show, Patel cited that decision to release global patents to competitors as part of Toyota’s efforts to help move from a hydrocarbon to a hydrogen-based society.

Meanwhile those of us looking for a low- or zero-emission vehicle on the Boston show floor will have to settle for something like a BMW i3, Chevy Volt, Ford Fusion, Mercedes-Benz B-Class, or Volkswagen e-Golf.

Also at the show, Ford was touting improvements to traditional internal combustion engines to boost efficiency. The company cited its EcoBoost engine technology, which a spokesperson described as employing direct injection with turbocharging. The company will soon debut an F-150 pickup with a 2.7-l EcoBoost engine with a compacted graphite iron block. In addition to EcoBoost, the new F-150 will feature a 360-degree camera-and-light system that would let you, from the driver’s seat, see the shoes of someone standing next to your vehicle. You might not want to examine shoes, the spokesperson said, but the feature could be useful at a worksite or in your driveway where you want to avoid toys and pets.

Another company emphasizing improvements in ICE fuel efficiency was Mazda, which highlighted its SKYACTIV technology.

For the most part, manufacturers seemed to count on their vehicles’ style to attract attention on the show floor. There were few banners touting horsepower or infotainment features. Exceptions included Nissan; the company highlighted its NissanConnect technology, which supports voice commands or touchscreen inputs to handle navigation, entertainment, and communications tasks—you can update your Facebook page from your vehicle.

Nissan also highlighted its Safety Shield technology and a Rogue with object-avoidance technology. And Buick exhibited a vehicle with side radar sensors and forward and rear cameras for collision avoidance. Buick also highlighted its IntelliLink infotainment system, which enables voice input for playing music or making hands-free calls.

In addition, Subaru featured its EyeSight crash-prevention technology, which the company describes as an extra eye on the road and, if necessary, foot on the brake. Specific features include adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and precollision braking and throttle management.

And finally, Volkswagen highlighted its Car-Net, a suite of security features, maintenance assistance capabilities, and navigation tools. A feature called Family Guardian lets you know when your family members have exceeded speed limits or driven beyond permissible boundaries. It also can help locate your vehicle should it become stolen or should you forget where you’ve parked it.

The event was held in the Boston Exhibition and Convention Center in the transportation-challenged Seaport District. Ironically, show organizers advised attendees to take public transportation to get there.

References

  1. Nelson, R., “Hardware, software support automotive test,”
    EE-Evaluation Engineering Online, Jan. 13, 2015.
  2. Turchi, M., “Hydrogen-Powered Cars Will Be in Mass. in the Not So Distant Future,” Boston.com, Jan. 15, 2015.  

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