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CARACAS, Monday May 16, 2011 | Update
 
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102nd Anniversary
Horsepower in times of change

In the past decades engine development technology in the automobile industry has traveled in two main paths: performance improvement of traditional combustion systems fed by gasoline, and study and launching of vehicles that use alternative energy sources. Thus, the make value of the sector s multimillion companies gradually begins to include environmental protection as a variable to be considered. Venezuela, an oil country, watches from the front row

ESTEBAN ROJAS |  EL UNIVERSAL
Monday May 16, 2011  04:36 PM


The power of a huge 3-ton 300-horsepower Hummer is the dream of many people. Imagining themselves behind the steering wheel of such a metallic monster, making their way through the streets, is a pleasure for such people. It is not then a surprise that the sale of huge SUVs like the one we just mentioned and sports vehicles capable of reaching 155 miles per hour increases year after year throughout the world.

Opposite to that, other people think that the future belongs to hybrid and electric automobiles. We are living in times of a heated debate on global warming, one of the evils arising from environmental contamination, and regulation laws are gathering momentum. Under this scheme, gasoline-devouring machines dot not fit in well. Venezuela, as an oil producing country, follows step by step the current battle in the automobile industry: "traditional" engines against "green" engines.

Beware. They are different models, but the ecologic factor does not exclusively belong to one or the other. Maybe that battle will end in a tie, at least in the medium term, despite hybrid and electric automobiles currently gaining ground.

General Motors, for example, developed a green Hummer that reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, compared to the traditional model.

Waking up to reality, far away from luxury vehicles, the cost of hybrids and electric vehicles is high for the average consumer. In the USA and Europe, promoters of that type of vehicle assert that the investment can pay for itself as the times goes by, as gasoline consumption and cost will decrease, but we are talking about average differences running between USD 5,000 and 10,000. Combustion continues to control the market.

Tradition
Nowadays, traditional engine development focuses on obtaining greater performance with less fuel consumption.

How? The basic mechanism is to cut down fuel injection, and with that energy generation depending on the need of the vehicle in specific situations. It is not the same to speed up, which causes more consumption, than to maintain a fixed speed. An 8-cylinder engine can run with 4 cylinders when less power is required.

If consumption is reduced, CO2 emission is also reduced.

New automobile design aims at the same goal, complementing changes in engine feeding with lighter bodywork, which reduces the energy necessary to move the automobile.

Also, fuels like gas, diesel or ethanol are alternatives to gasoline, not ignoring the thermal model.

It does not seem right away that thermal engines will lose their lead because their environmental impact begins to be seen within context. According to studies from the Technological University of Vienna, private vehicles are responsible for 5 percent of CO2 emissions on planet Earth. Industry produces 25 percent and domestic energy generation produces 23 percent.

A market variation also requires changes in people's mentality, and such changes happen slowly. High oil prices and the recent financial crisis pointed to changes in global consumer preferences. This was not the case.

Alternatives
Hybrid automobile development heads the list of alternative models.

They have systems that combine gasoline engines with electric engines. Leaf from Nissan and Volt from General Motors are the pioneer vehicles with certain weight on the market. Thermal engines continue to be the primary source of energy in those cases, but electric energy moves to control in most demanding times. An acceptable performance is already on its way, but performance is still sacrificed to obtain lower energy consumption.

One hundred-percent electric automobiles, another type being developed, put an end to the CO2 problem, and some are even fed with hydrogen to through out oxygen.

Additionally, their performance has improved, like the hybrids, but does not yet match the performance of traditional automobiles.

The unsolved problem of these automobiles is lack of autonomy. Their batteries have to be charged from outside sources, that is, they are charged as if they were a giant cell phone. If you have ever forgotten to plug your phone, you can imagine this would happen with your vehicle too.

Regarding the environment, the issue against alternative energy models is the batteries. Traditional lead batteries are recyclable. Electric batteries are non-recyclable, and are highly toxic.

Solar energy is the newest possibility, but a model capable of competing in the market has yet to be created.
esrojas@eluniversal.com

Translated by Mercedes Liscano

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